49“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!
52From now on five in one household will be divided,
three against two and two against three;
53they 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.”
54He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. 55And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
What I am Learning:
Here we have a difficult text - the kind I like the best for some perverse reason.
Some would say that this text tells us that Jesus is coming soon to destroy the earth, "to bring fire to the earth." They would say that this text tells us not to struggle for the long-term survival and thriving of the earth and its people because the "end is near."
Others say that this text is not congruent with Jesus' reconciling and peace making nonviolence and try to pretend these words are not in scripture or were added by some war-loving editor.
Not so fast!
The ideal house in first century Palestine, says Malina and Rorhbaugh, would have an outer wall with an outdoor oven, a mill for grinding flower, and a manure pile for fuel.
The phrase "bring fire to the earth" means to light an outdoor oven - not blow the planet up.
To keep the metaphor going: a "great feast" is often used to describe the coming of the reign of God. How can you have a great feast unless you cook the food? How can you cook the food if you can't light the oven?
I think this is more along the lines of what Jesus means.
We might say something like this: I came to get things started, and how I wish it were started already." What things? Well, God's reign of mutuality of course!
Jesus is sharing the desire of every "start-up" - to get things going and impatience with the progress of things.
The baptism that Jesus is referring too here is not talking about his one-time baptism by John, but rather the confrontation with the Romans and their collaborators in Jerusalem - the baptism of his cross.
Jesus is speaking out of a tradition among the truth-tellers of Israel:
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
saying, ‘Peace, peace’,
when there is no peace.
He is saying that in his time, to simply get-along with injustice and violence is not to be peaceful, but to lend support to that injustice and violence - to say "peace when there is no peace."
To be truly peace-seeking in a time of injustice and violence one must do what on the face of it might seem contradictory to peace - to make the injustice visible by provoking conflict.
Consider the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christians should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong. (Sermon on 2 Corinthians 12:9)
Jesus is inviting us to engagement with the long-term challenges of our own time, working for and participating in God's Reign of mutuality. He is not saying that we can excuse ourselves because the earth is going to be destroyed by lasers shooting out of Jesus' earth-hating eyes. He is not saying that we can be conflict avoiding, "let the chips fall where they may" but complain about it privately pacifists.
He is encouraging his church to a kind of healing conflict. The kind of conflict that seeks to make visible the violence and injustice of the day with the goal of bringing peace and reconciliation to the real world.
This is why I think that leadership through community organizing has such great potential. In community organizing we seek to help the community recognize both its problems and the resources they already have to work on those problems.
The church most of us grew up with neither engaged its community nor made the conflict visible —mostly because the church relied too much on the approval of our community to survive. One of the hopes for TCC is that we will be free enough, when it is our authentic calling, to engage in such healing conflict for the sake of the world that God loves. This calling is not some extraneous job to do, but actually one key part of the meaning of our lives which also includes, fun, joy, family, friends and a good beer now and then.