These words certainly dispel the popular image of Jesus in our culture and, if we are honest, in our churches. Somewhere in time the image of Jesus as a meek and mild, soft spoken, non threatening, harmony-producing, tranquility seeking doormat has taken root in the minds and expectations of Christians and non Christians alike. But that is not the biblical portrait of our Lord. Sure, he could be gentle and kind to those in need of gentleness and kindness. But we also find in him an honesty, a passion, a craving for justice and mercy, and a fire burning in his soul that came out in his speech that would knock off the walls of our churches those pictures of a pale Galilean who looks like he never even mussed his hair, much less spoke and acted with passion.
In our passage for today the volcano from deep within our Lord erupts with these words: “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.”
Fire, baptism, division: What does all this mean coming from the mouth of Jesus? Perhaps if we start with baptism, we can make sense of these troubling words. John the Baptizer had prophesied the coming of one who would baptize with the fire of divine judgment. But it never occurred to John that this Coming One would himself undergo that baptism. Numerous Jews expected many trials and woes as a prelude to the establishment of God’s Kingdom, but no one suggested that the Messiah himself must pass through these deep waters. And yet here Jesus says he has a baptism to experience and how conflicted he is until that baptism is over.
So, what is the baptism he must experience which will divide Israel and even families? What is the internal conflict that burdens his heart and soul? Put simply, Jesus must remain faithful to the mission God has given him. Where his world demands holiness from people, he demands compassion. Where his world says “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” he says love your enemies and forgive as God has forgiven you. Where his world says “to each his own,” Jesus says share not only from your abundance share even out of your need. Where his world offers success and recognition for the champions of the status quo, he offers a fellowship of obedient discipleship and a cross for those who would follow him into God’s Upside-Down Kingdom. Like Jeremiah, Jesus has no choice. His mission burns within his bones. He is convinced that God’s redemptive plan requires him to bring upon the earth the fiery baptism of judgment – not by inflicting it on others but by undergoing it himself. Of course, the cross was the ultimate expression of the baptism he must undergo, but more is meant by his words than just his death on Calvary.
He must go into the midst of his world and live and proclaim that message, and he must call upon others to decide whether to join or reject him. In fulfilling that mission, he must risk being misunderstood, slandered, falsely accused, unfairly blamed, persecuted, rejected, physically harmed, and even killed. He must introduce into cities, towns, hamlets, synagogues, clans, and even the intimate privacy of homes God’s Kingdom which must be entered or rejected. He must risk the accusations of those whose families have been torn apart by the response on the one hand of those who choose to follow him and of those on the others hand who choose the security of the status quo.
Even in the intimacy of families, whenever someone takes the Kingdom of God seriously and commits his or her life to God’s will, that person risks misunderstanding, hostility, and rejection from their loved ones. Let family members choose compassion for ALL, even those viewed by others family members as unacceptably different and see what happens. Let family members choose a life of sharing rather than a life of acquiring and possessing, and watch the fireworks. Let family members put unconditional, indiscriminate love for all over loyalty to hearth and home, and observe the consternation. The way of Jesus Christ, if taken seriously and with commitment, will not win us friends and endear us to the keepers of the status quo.
In the final verses of our passage, Jesus says to his contemporaries, “You are very good about predicting the weather, but you cannot interpret the present time.” [“A cloud rising in the west” refers to weather originating over the Mediterranean Sea and thus likely to bring rain. “A wind blowing from the south” originates in the desert (called “sirocco”) and is thus likely to bring scorching heat.] New Testament scholars tell us that what Jesus was referring to was not the end of the world but the conditions of Palestine in his day. The obsession of the Jews with nationalism in violent opposition to Rome; the theology which rejected some of the population as being beyond the redemption of God; the economic system which took from the poor and enriched the wealthy; the “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” mentality which led to a never ending cycle of violence; the corrupt court system which sold justice to the highest bidder; the greedy and mercenary temple hierarchy fattened by the sacrifices and tithes paid by worshipers; the seething masses impatient with their lot in life–all of this spelled disaster for the nation of Israel. Palestine was a tragedy just waiting to happen. And into such a culture reaching critical mass, Jesus came offering the alternative of God’s Kingdom. And because he was faithful, he had to face the baptism of fiery judgment. He would bear the consequences the world had brought upon itself because he could not sit still and watch his world self destruct.
How did it all turn out? In one sense Jesus could not avert the catastrophe. Not long after his death, the choice of violence, greed, and prejudice over peace, sharing, and love bore its bitter fruit. Palestine was immersed in a war which destroyed Judaism as it was known in that day. Rome swept down upon a rebellious people with a vengeance destroying Jerusalem, the temple, and whatever and whomever got in its way. What Jesus wanted to prevent by offering an alternative happened anyway.
But in another sense, Jesus offered an alternative to those who would listen. Those who chose his way over the world’s way found their salvation. And like Jesus, they too had to undergo the baptism of fiery judgment–the judgment of the world as it reacts with misunderstanding and at times even with hostility toward those who would live the Kingdom way. But it is by their faithfulness, just as it was by Jesus’ faithfulness, that the leaven of God’s Kingdom can work in our world.
Whether it be the courageous and love focused determination of a Martin Luther King, Jr.
Or a businessperson who gives someone a chance when others won’t even give that unfortunate soul the time of day
Or a grandmother who, in spite of objections of family and the talk of friends, volunteers to hold in loving arms children with AIDS
Or a faithful couple who choose to live simply so that others can simply live
Or a church that gives sanctuary to unpopular refugees who face certain death if they are returned to their homeland
Or a church member who reminds her brothers and sisters that the purpose of the church is mission and not self aggrandizement and self preservation—
whatever the case, it is such people who, as they pay the price of faithfulness, serve as God’s leaven in a world God is determined to redeem and reconcile.
You see, in our world too, the Kingdom way is not easy. But if Jesus has any validity at all, it is the only way we can choose and be faithful to our calling and to our baptism. Perhaps Jesus is asking us if we can interpret our present time and if we are willing to join him in a fiery baptism into and for the sake of our world. So, does anyone know what time it is? Maybe, at long last, it’s Kingdom time.
One of the most poignant questions Jesus ever asked his followers was this: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” Without any real understanding, the disciples replied, “We are able.” And then with more faith in them than they had in him, Jesus said, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized. ”
When we drink from this cup, we join our lives and hearts to Jesus and to his relentless commitment to the Kingdom of God. At our baptism, we died to our old selves, rising to walk in the newness of life made possible by Christ. At communion as we drink from the cup, we recommit ourselves to the living of that new life a life defined by God’s agenda for the sake of the world.
This cup representing the blood of Jesus not only recalls the cost of our salvation. This wine also reminds us of the cost of our discipleship.
We must drink the same cup Jesus drank. The Christian life is the way of discipleship, the discipline of following. Jesus loved this world too much to sit on the sidelines and watch it self-destruct. The passion of his speech and the fervor of his deeds were offered out of a deep desire for God’s will to be done on earth as it was done in heaven. Jesus’ ministry represents a compassionate invasion of this world by heaven. God will not abandon us to our own folly and sin. Instead God through Christ comes time and time again offering love, life, and light. And that divine grace, even if offered to an ungrateful and misunderstanding world, continues through us as we assume our identity and mission as the Body of Christ. There is a cup that we must drink. That is our calling if we are to follow the Light of the World.
Depart now in the fellowship of the Spirit.
With the courage of truth, seek justice.
With the grace of compassion, offer mercy.
With the strength of conviction, live in faithfulness.
And with the power of love, become God’s joyful troubadours of healing as you follow the Christ into this world God so deeply loves. Amen.