Sermon - 18th August 2013
Fired up for mission
Scripture - Luke 12:49-56
[An audio version of this sermon is available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
I am going to begin today's sermon by giving you a few moments to reflect on today's reading from St Luke's Gospel; looking at the words on the screen, I would like you to consider what feelings or emotions this text evokes within you.
Let us look now more closely at the text. This section of St Luke's Gospel is part of a larger discourse about Salvation, taught through a series of parables, and all of them also have an edge to them, one of urgency and unexpectedness, encouraging us to reconcile ourselves to God before it is too late! And today's reading changes the focus briefly in this section of the Gospel to Jesus' role. We are perhaps far more comfortable with the Jesus who speaks of love and forgiveness, and the words in today's reading do not readily sit easily with us, as we know when we shared our emotions just a few moments ago.
In verse 49, the first verse in today's reading, Jesus said that he came to set the earth on fire. Fire is neither good nor bad in itself, but we humans have learnt how to control and to tame fire. Primarily, fire gives us heat and warmth, so necessary for much of the time in the United Kingdom: we have our gas boilers and gas or wood fires. Many of us will remember coal fires. Even much of our electricity is produced through fire by burning coal, oil and gas. We use fire and heat to cook our food, making many of our foods palatable and safe. We can also use fire to cleanse and purify and to give us light. But fire when uncontrolled can bring destruction, even death. I am sure all of us at some point have experienced the pain of a burn. And literature throughout the centuries has portrayed Hell as a place of fire.
So what sort of fire is Jesus talking about? We cannot be certain. Maybe he was talking literally about fire; however, given the symbolism used by Jesus in most of his stories, I think it more likely he was speaking figuratively. Some Bible commentators think that Jesus was referring to the Coming of the Holy Spirit, as described in Acts Chapter 2, when we are told that "tongues of fire" appeared above the Disciples.
Thinking of the Jesus we know, someone who came to bring good to humankind, let us consider how that 'fire' might be to bring spiritual light to our darkness, to cleanse us from our wrongdoing and to cook us, that is to change us into people who are right before their Creator God.
The next verse in the reading focuses on Jesus. Bible commentators agree completely that the baptism of which Jesus speaks in this verse is His coming arrest, trial, execution, death and resurrection. Jesus puts into words His feelings: He is "distressed until it is finished". The Greek word used here for "finished", telesthe, is the same verb Jesus used on the Cross when He announced "It is finished." For many of us, if we were baptised as infants, we have no memory of our baptism. Those of us who can remember will recall either a sprinkling of water or full-immersion. For Jesus, this baptism through death is no mere sprinkling: He is immersed completely in the agony not only of the actual torture and execution but also in the emotional build up to these events.
Like for many of us, when we are stressed, the world can take on a darker hue: it can be difficult to remain positive. When we are stressed we may express ourselves using far harsher words than normally. Jesus was fully human, and it is not unreasonable to say that in this passage, the stress was clearly getting to Him.
The next three verses deal with 'peace'. I would like to begin here by challenging the notion that the opposite of peace is war. For Jesus, the opposite of peace, as mentioned here, is 'division'. We live in a divided world: divided into over 200 nation states; divided in many religions, even Christianity is divided within itself; in many areas in the world, the people are divided into tribes; politics divides us; wealth divides us; even allegiance to certain football teams divides us.
God did indeed create us in all our diversity; however, when the tensions between these diversities become too strained, actual conflict, even war, can result. The political divisions in Europe brought the whole world to war twice in the 20th Century. The division between two tribes in Rwanda in the mid-1990s led to the genocide of hundreds of thousands. Even this week, the divisions in Egypt between the political factions have led to the deaths of hundreds if not thousands. And in the past few weeks, we have seen the on-going divisions in Northern Ireland between Unionists and Nationalists.
So what sort of division is it that Jesus is talking about here? He specifically lists the tensions that might occur within a family unit, but what is the source of those tensions? Is it the division between those who believe and are Christian and those who are not? I am sure we can all readily identify with the fact that some members of our own families and circle of friends share our beliefs, others who are opposed to our belief, and others for whom the matter is one of indifference. And I am sure that many of us can echo similar experiences regarding our gender or sexual identity and how that is received by those close to us. And given how many churches have treated LGBT people poorly, it is hardly surprising that many LGBT people are very anti-religion, anti-Christian, and while they may identify some part of themselves as 'spiritual', they cannot bring themselves to search for God in the churches. It is good that things are improving and many denominations are openly accepting of LGBT people; however, it will take a long time to remove the fear and to break down the barriers that exist both ways.
The churches are rather empty these days. This church building, built around 60 years ago can accommodate about 200 people, and once upon a time, it was full each and every Sunday. Friends in our host congregation who have been around here for decades tell us that it used to be so.
So in the context of our reading, we are the ones whom Jesus has called: we are divided from those who do not believe, and we are now very much in the minority. To be LGB or T, we are in a minority; to be a Christian, we are in a minority; and to be LGBT and a Christian, we are in an even smaller minority.
You may have thought that there was not much congregational participation at the start of my sermon, like there is usually, well it is over to you again now, and I have a really difficult question for you:
WHY are you a Christian?
For me, the answer to the question goes something like this: I recognise within myself that there is a longing for something more and higher and beyond myself. I look at the world and the Universe around and I see truly wonderful things which point me beyond mere chance happening to look for the Creator. I cannot accept that the complexity and diversity of DNA, the emotions and feelings of being with other people that I experience, and the sheer amazing balance in Nature and the universe – all of these have the hand of a Creator. But how do we get to know our Creator?
At the same time, I recognise that I am a broken person, and the same can be said of everyone, and as broken people, we have broken our world: we live in constant division. I see that we are estranged from our Creator. In our arrogance, we 21st Century people have lost our humility and awe; we have forgotten our place in the Created Order. Our knowledge of medicine has caused us to lose much of our fear of illness and dying.
Yet, through the Bible and 2000 years of Church history, but mainly through the faithful Christians we know personally and it is these people who most probably guided us into coming to Church and to nurture our faith, we are guided into the way back, to reconciliation with our Creator.
In the final three verses of the reading, Jesus talks about the weather and recognising the signs of impending rain or sun. Jesus was speaking metaphorically to challenge us to look for the signs around us, to see the division, and he warns us in no uncertain terms that this will be difficult, but nevertheless to stand up for our faith: we need to be the fire, the Light of Christ, a light which attracts others to faith.
And this I think is the most difficult challenge of all. How do we explain Christ to others? Once, not so many decades ago, most families would have attended church and children will have gone to Sunday school; now, even cursory knowledge of the Christian faith is almost non-existent. How can we expect people to come into our churches when they do not have even the first idea of what we are all about?
People know that they have a spiritual hole inside of them, but how do we bring them to take that first step?
We are not bringing people to a new political doctrine. We cannot ask people to accept that Jesus was just a good, moral teacher. After all, Jesus performed miracles; He spoke of heaven, eternal life, and said that He is God; He died and rose from the dead. We say these things each and every week in our Affirmation of Faith or Creed. This supernatural part is the part of Jesus which takes us to fulfil our humanity and be reconciled to our Creator.
Indeed, Jesus calls us to help the needy, to feed the poor and to be a voice for injustice in the world, but He also calls us to proclaim mysteries: that He is the Resurrection and the Life; that He is the Son of the Living God.
Perhaps the most difficult thing we do as Christians is to speak to others about our faith: may God grant us the courage and the strength to do so, and to be bold in changing the world with Gospel values, but also to proclaim the greatest and most important message of all:
"For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life." (John 3:16)