Chapel of Justice and Peace, the Emmerson Memorial Window, Ripon Anglican Cathedral, Ripon, UK.
Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?
No, I tell you, but rather division. Luke 12:51
At face value, today’s gospel seems to be an anti-gospel. The Prince of Peace announces he is bringing division, that he has come to set the world on fire and wishes it had already begun! But just glance at the magnificent stained-glass window above; here is that same Prince, with all five wounds clearly visible, carrying a sword of fire and surrounded by flames. In the eyes of faith, something else is seen. It is Jesus surrounded and supported by the fire-image of God’s Holy Spirit, the same fire as appeared in the pivotal event of Pentecost, without which there would be no church at all. There are multiple images and realities for fire. Simply taming it and using it in primitive societies was a major advance. Fire became central and essential to the Industrial Revolution (think blast furnaces, steam power), and powers the internal combustion engine and the jet engine (at least for now). Then also there is the fire inferno of Hiroshima; the destructive power of fire is as immense as its constructive power. So which fire is Jesus talking about? Pretty clear, one would think. But then there is the “division” idea of today’s gospel. That’s the opposite of unity, which is normally considered to be a good thing; division, not. This one is trickier.
Looking through other people’s ideas concerning this gospel’s idea of division, there is quite a broad spectrum of opinion, some of it extremely controversial. God wants us all to be good people so that we can simply be happy with our lives, following God’s rules which are the template for true happiness. At root, as Jesus said, it means service. We are all here to serve each other. Jesus himself called himself a servant, and even washed his friends’ feet to prove the point. That very simple, profound, teaching can cause division. If I am in the world to see what I can get out of it for myself, there is the division between me and God. It condemns me to a life of selfish acquisition, envy of those who have more, greed beyond telling and a life of emptiness and loneliness surrounded by people after my wealth. That sort of life is what the fire of the Holy Spirit should transform. That is, I believe, what lies behind Jesus’ inflammatory teaching today. His own life was the source of jealousy among the leaders of his own people, jealous of his success, jealous of his powers, angry at their own inability to counteract it or parallel it. His wounds are the result of that hatred. How divisive is that? I have seen in my now-long life, that goodness sometimes inspires suspicion, even hate. It is weird. Why would good actions result in such evil? I can only imagine that those who react negatively to others’ good deeds are, perhaps unconsciously, comparing it to the selfishness in their own life, and in some strange way blaming that on the good in others. It doesn’t make sense, but we are not dealing with reason here. As Jesus says, this kind of reaction can even occur in those closest to us. Hence Jesus’ idea of division. It is only by establishing a community of trust and love that the division appears between good and bad, and hence the opportunity for the bad to recognize their state and do something about it. In other words, there is more in this life than me.
Remember that fire is used in the refining of metals, even gold. It makes the metal pure, cleansed of impurities that almost no other technique can achieve. But the first step of such cleansing in us must come from us. We are free agents, one of God’s greatest gifts. So look around, and if we find any of the nonsense I’ve talked about above can apply to any of us, including me, then we can open up to God’s cleansing fire to rid ourselves of that which makes us unhappy, impure. That’s why Jesus says he wishes the fire was burning (in us) already. So today is a clarion call for action, Jesus using some of the strongest language in the gospels. That invites us to the same strength to examine ourselves, and we know how to deal with whatever division we might find that is against God, then to open ourselves up to God’s unifying, purifying and recreating fire of holiness and true happiness.
Holy Spirit Fire in Red, gerardnatal.com.