August 18, 2019
A Meditation on a Misreading
Luke 12:22-30 – “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
Let us pray. . .O God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts give wings to the faith in you lies so deep within each of us here this morning, O God, my Strength and my Redeemer, Amen.
A philosopher teacher of mine wrote somewhere, “In love, there is no peace.”
But, love brings people together. Love brings individuals together into a couple. Love brings groups of people together into a community. Jesus is all about love. Jesus reached out to the stranger. Out of Christ and from him grew the beloved community, the church.
But Jesus who preached love above all things, here this morning declares that he, whom we call the Prince of Peace, did not come to bring peace, but fire to the earth. Jesus in fact wishes the fire had already been started!
He adds, in an unexpected turn of phrase, that he is undergoing a baptism, one that is not yet completed, which he makes sound like some ordeal, and could he have meant there a baptism by fire?
Here is some impatience, here is some kind of fierce urgency.
Jesus also warns people to be prepared for conflict—that he is sowing division in families. In Jewish tradition the family is sacrosanct, where orderliness and harmony are required. Yet Jesus upsets the apple cart of his culture’s expectations when he says he brings division to the most fundamental unit of society. He reverses his listeners’ expectations of family harmony and peace.
What is the cause of the division and dissension that he is predicting—is it over him, over who he is, his identity, whether he is the Jewish Messiah or not?
Some Christians see it that way—loyalty to Christ is an absolute matter, and whichever side you come down on will, as they interpret this passage, drive a wedge between you and your family, you and your spouse, you and the culture.
But I don’t believe at all that Jesus was asking us to take sides in a simple matter of zero-sum loyalty. what I am about goes deeper than family structure and loyalty—this is not just a reversal, it is a corrective. Remember when Jesus said, peace I give you, not as the world gives, but as I give peace—? It is the peace of God which passes all human understanding. When people hear this, they often conclude that God’s peace is the ultimate peace of all peace—the answer to Mr. Costanza’s plea for “SERENITY NOW”—!
It is not just that God’s peace is beyond human understanding, it is OTHER than normal human desires. In fact, God’s peace is the OPPOSITE of human expectations and desires.
Howso? The love Jesus preached was UNCONDITIONAL LOVE—everywhere you encounter the word “love” in the New Testament, you should read “unconditional love.” Jesus sets a different bar.
Jesus was not just asking for us to like each other and to cooperate with each other, which of course are important to do. Jesus wanted more for us, he wanted us to achieve a depth to our lives that comes with ultimate love: love relations that are learning relations, self-clarifying relations, truthful relations.
Among parents, we call it “tough love”—holding children to household norms or personal ethics.
Among lovers and spouses, we might call it “naked love,” if you will, souls (not just bodies) made naked to each other.
One of the different reasons for divorce is that people wake up one day, after who knows how many years, to the fact that they are strangers to each other. How did this happen? Why should it happen when Jesus has signaled us and provided the clue to a different kind of relationship?
Jesus wants us to wake up to our lives, to awaken from the dream of our lives to life itself. He is afraid, I think he is afraid in this passage, that we won’t wake up. He doesn’t want us to miss life, the door to which is unconditional love. He fears that when we hear words Jesus repeats over and over, we continue to understand something other than what he means, yes, that we have “mis-underestimated” him. Hence comes the urgency we hear in this passage.
Yes, one day someone says to Jesus, I’ll follow you but first let me bury my dead father, it drives Jesus over the edge and he says in effect, “Well, forget it then, and go bury him.” Jesus doesn’t want co-operation, he wants self-clarification for us, which comes only with the kind of love that makes you stay together when conflict is driving you apart (except in cases of abuse, when immediate exit is required).
In fact, it is only unconditional kind of love that makes you come clear, and clean, when the person you desire threatens to leave. When you find yourself in the most satisfying proximity given in nature, you will find that there is more to learn and enjoy—sex is nature’s way to lead us to God.
The enemy of life is illusion, and the only remedy is a fire which burnishes the soul like the sun. For Jesus, that fire is the Word of God, as it was for the prophet Jeremiah. Jesus was a modern-day Jeremiah, who gave his listeners in postexilic Israel, a non-stop, no-recess tongue-lashing. “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?”
Two images are at work at the same time here, and very like Jesus’ message: God confronts Moses through the fire of the burning bush from which Yahweh declared to Moses, “I Am that I Am,” a fire, at that, burning but never consumed.
And a hammer striking, striking our rock-hard hearts.
It must be so, and what a freedom erupts at the moment unconditional love has its way.
So it is, that my philosopher teacher could have meant, “In unconditional love, there is no peace.”