By Pastor Jerry Donovan
In Luke 12:49-56 Jesus speaks bluntly to his disciples and then to the crowd that always now seems to be following him on his final journey to Jerusalem: ““49 I came to set fire to the earth, and I wish it were already on fire! 50 I am going to be put to a hard test. And I will have to suffer a lot of pain until it is over. 51 Do you think that I came to bring peace to earth? No indeed! I came to make people choose sides. 52 A family of five will be divided, with two of them against the other three. 53 Fathers and sons will turn against one another, and mothers and daughters will do the same. Mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law will also turn against each other.
“54 Jesus said to all the people: As soon as you see a cloud coming up in the west, you say, “It’s going to rain,” and it does. 55 When the south wind blows, you say, “It’s going to get hot,” and it does. 56 Are you trying to fool someone? You can predict the weather by looking at the earth and sky, but you don’t really know what’s going on right now” (Luke 12:49-56 CEV).
These words from Jesus are not easy reading. Most of us are probably more comfortable with the Jesus that builds us up with encouragement, seeks to bring unity to his people, and freely offers his love to all through his grace. But, when it comes to Jesus we must take the whole package.
The kingdom of God is so completely at odds with the ways of the kingdoms of this world that the world’s response to the coming of the kingdom is likely to be hostile, and possibly even violent. And just in case Jesus’ disciples thought he was talking about sometime in the future, he makes the point clear—no, this is the time. This sky. This earth. These people. Now! These are signs that God’s kingdom is coming, the signs are the world’s reaction against its coming.
To get ready for the coming kingdom, it’s important we be ready to face into such signs, just as Jesus faced into his coming crucifixion. The church in America is not comfortable hearing or thinking of Jesus as threatening or scary. In today’s reading, he is all that and more. And he says nothing here to diminish that, but rather, instead, to sharpen it.
There are some people who may hear these words: as a license to be divisive, to start fires, to avoid the disciplines of forgiveness and reconciliation, and to declare their own righteousness or the correctness of their own views as the only standard for everyone. Where the church or church folks want to respond in these ways, they are not responding as disciples of Jesus in the way of the kingdom of God. They are responding as the world responds.
That wasn’t the intention of Jesus as he was teaching his disciples these things. This was about preparing them for what was going to come in their own lifetimes. It’s clear Luke had the same intention for the early Christian communities. As the church has preserved Luke’s Gospel, that same intention still applies today.
The fire Jesus brings burns up all of these things. Division happens around his kingdom precisely because we, as his followers, are committed to forgiveness and reconciliation, and the larger world is not. And following him, we are being formed to be baptized as he was, baptized into suffering and death that we and those around us may know life, and know it abundantly. The fiery, divisive work of God’s reign calls forth love, patience, humility and courage from us, if we let the Spirit do the Spirit’s best in us. It makes us servants, not dominators. It calls us to love, although our hearts may be broken. It calls us to trust, though even our families and closest friends may betray us.
Where a dominant culture is far out of step with the ways of God’s kingdom, the results of God’s kingdom breaking out often are hostile, divisive, and violent. Jesus, Luke, and now we as the church today are in the business of preparing disciples of Jesus to face directly into that, come what may.
So how will we do that where we are?