August 20, 2013, 3:07 PM
There are days when this preacher would rather not preach from the gospel. Every time one of these passages comes up, I look at the other readings hoping to find something that will go down easier. I’ll be honest with you. I have a hard time with the apocalyptic portions of the gospels—the parts that anticipate the imminent end of this mess, envisioning God’s coming to shut it all down, or snap the world like a tablecloth and set it all right again, or torch it and rebuild (which is the way the winners dealt with conquered peoples in the centuries around the biblical narratives). And then I watch the news and see what is happening in Egypt today and Jesus’s words make sense. The underlying cause (usually complex causes) may be different in each conflict, whether it is the American Civil War, the Irish troubles, the Arab spring, the list could go on all day, but the desire for justice burns like fire. That’s not to say that justice looks the same to everyone. Those who have power, or land, or wealth, or privilege, or all of the above see justice one way and the have-nots see it another, and that’s what makes situations volatile.
So when Jesus says that, “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!” he is almost certainly talking about expelling Roman rule from his native land. Amid a number of factions who sought a similar outcome through wildly differing means, we really cannot be sure how he thought that might happen. Jesus preached the coming of the Kingdom of God in very practical terms—not after death, but soon, if not now. And Jesus preached against a corrupt Temple system more vigorously than against Rome.
This is the undomesticated Jesus that we are reading today, not the Jesus in our Sunday school pictures with a sheep over his shoulders. This is not Jesus as my friend and savior, but Jesus as radical visionary and table turner, moving to change the status quo. This is Jesus full of righteous anger. Is it safe to say that the status quo is what it is because it benefits someone who would rather not have it change? The question for me is two-fold: what is Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God and how to I follow him in making that a reality?
I preach often about what I think Jesus means when he speaks about the Kingdom of God. It is a just society in which God’s abundance is made available to all of God’s creatures. It is built on an understanding of God’s love for every person. It is an ethical social construct that acknowledges God as the center. And that’s where it breaks down. Our understanding of God determines whether we are Christian soldiers “marching as to war” or peacemakers who will be called the children of God. In Jesus’ day, just like in the streets of Egypt, it could go either way.
So when Jesus wishes that the fire were already kindled, is he talking about the fire with which Rome burned whole Jewish towns in order to build lush Roman trading centers and outposts on top of the ashes? Or was Jesus talking about the constant fire on the altar in the Temple where the offering of countless animals was consumed making the Temple system wealthy and arrogant? Or was Jesus talking about kindling a flame for restorative justice in the Kingdom of God? Western civilization has lived with all of these fires. And we are seeing the fires of violence burn around the world.
I want to think that the way of Jesus is the way of non-violent resistance. Walter Wink argues persuasively that Jesus taught and acted against powers that damaged human beings in his books The Powers that Be, Naming the Powers, Unmasking the Powers, Engaging the Powers, and Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. I want to believe that non-violent resistance takes oppression seriously and works to break open unjust systems so that all may thrive. Passive wishing or hoping will not create the Kingdom of God. But neither does violence. The fire of violence only breeds more violence and unthinkable destruction. Non-violent resistance works slowly and can reveal horrific inhumanity in its opposition, but I believe that it is at the heart of Jesus teaching. Non-violent resistance is a small flame that must be carefully managed and guarded so that it does not burn out of control.
Jesus says that we should be able to read the signs of our times the same way we read the weather. What does the Church and her people have to say to our times? What is the flame that Jesus would have kindled in us today? I encourage you to read your paper or watch the news this week and pray and/or journal about what Jesus would have kindled in each of us and in all of us together.