The Fire That Divides

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 8/14/22, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was: Luke 12:49-56. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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Jesus said, “I have come to cast fire upon the earth, and how I wish it were already ablaze!” He said he came to bring not peace, but division.

Hearing these words in our current historical and political moment, I think a lot of us might be tempted to reply, “Well I hope you’re happy now, Jesus. This last decade has been enough fire and division to last a lifetime!”

Isn’t that what we’re seeing? A nation divided between teams Red and Blue? Back when I was a kid, red versus blue was a Coke/Pepsi thing – but these days things are getting serious. Riots in the streets and insurrections in government buildings. Hatred boiling over social media. Fist-fights on commercial jetliners. 

Is this enough fire yet, Jesus? Have we seen enough division?

We’re seeing a level of societal breakdown that is unprecedented in our lifetimes. And it’s unclear whether things are going to get better soon, or whether they might still get much worse.

Yet, it seems to me that all this social fracturing we’re seeing – all this explosive anger, partisanship, and blind hatred – it’s not what Jesus meant when he talked about division. This is not the fire that Jesus was so eager to kindle.

So what was Jesus talking about in our reading this morning, when he identifies himself as a catalyst of fire and division? We need to know, because quite honestly, these words can sound frightening. Is Jesus’ goal a total societal breakdown, a country of Red versus Blue that blazes with hatred against itself until nothing is left but gun violence and snarky Facebook posts?

If you’re thinking, “that can’t possibly be what Jesus meant here”… you’re right. Let’s go back to the beginning of Luke, to chapter three: John the Baptist is out in the wilderness beyond the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance. John says he’s not the messiah, because John merely baptizes with water. What will the messiah baptize with, says John? “With the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Jesus will baptize us with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

This is literally what happens in the Book of Acts (which has the same author as Luke, by the way): On the day of Pentecost, when all the disciples were gathered together in Jerusalem, it says that “divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them and a tongue rested on each of them.” It says that “all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”

Jesus will baptize us with the Holy Spirit and with fire. But here in this passage in Luke, Jesus is saying: The fire is coming, but it’s not quite time yet.

He says, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what constraint I am under until it is completed!”

What baptism is he talking about? Jesus was baptized by John, in the waters of the Jordan river. What further baptism does he need?

For Jesus’ disciples at that time, it was probably a pretty confusing thing to hear. But for those of us who know how the story ends, Jesus’ meaning here is fairly clear: Jesus’ baptism is his death on the cross. Jesus must die and be raised up by God before the fire can come. Jesus has to ascend into heaven, to sit down at the right hand of the Father. Then, finally, the Father will send the Holy Spirit and fire.

And what will this spiritual fire do? What will the presence of the Holy Spirit mean for those who receive it?

Two things for sure: The first is unity. 

To receive the Holy Spirit is to be drawn into a deep mystery: We at once become more fully ourselves – the person we were created to be starts to come into focus. We are drawn into the life of God. We become part of something much bigger than ourselves. 

We become members of one another, fingers and toes of the body, members of the body of Christ and citizens of the kingdom of God. We are united into a new life, a new vision, a new breath breathing inside all of us, revealing who we are and where we are to go together.

The first thing that is certain when we receive the Holy Spirit is unity in the Body of Christ. The second thing that is certain is division.

When we become part of this new living, breathing body of Christ, we are not only called into something, we are called out of something as well. To become citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven means becoming resident aliens in the kingdoms of this world. Our families, our jobs, our friends – everything gets put into a new perspective. Everything is measured and judged by this new life in the Spirit.

And it’s the gap between this new life that we are being drawn into and our old ways of living in the world – our old relationships and loyalties – that leads to the division Jesus talks about. 

When someone is a drug addict and wants to get sober, they often have to stay away from the friends that they used to have in their old life, because those people are very likely to pull them back into that old life of drug use. In the same way, when we are brought into this new life in Jesus, a lot of old patterns and relationships may need to be broken, and broken quickly.

We may be called to cut ties with many elements of our old, earthly citizenship. This may even lead to conflict in our most precious relationships, as Jesus says so starkly in Luke: Father against son, mother against daughter, family against family, friends against friends.

It’s important to count the cost of the journey that we have been called into. It’s crucial that we be realistic with ourselves about what it means to be citizens of the kingdom of heaven. We cannot take our relationships and loyalties lightly. We are called to subordinate all of our decisions and relationships and jobs – everything – to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the discernment of the Body.

That may mean division, conflict, and distress.

But this is good news. The gospel is good news. Jesus is not delivering bad news in this passage, even if it sounds stark. The fire is cleansing. The Spirit is unifying. The division of our old lives is in the service of forming an even more amazing unity, together with our brothers and sisters in the Spirit.

The message of Jesus is good news to our culture today, that finds itself so divided about all sorts of things that – while certainly important – are not the ultimate allegiance that God calls us to. Our society is a house divided, but we, the church, are one people in Jesus.

We can see this good news of the Holy Spirit and fire right here, at Berkeley Friends Church. We’ve been divided from the world so that we could be drawn together in strange and surprising ways. We are not a monoculture; we are diverse in ways that are unexpected in a time so divided as ours. 

We’ve got progressives at this church. We’ve also got conservatives. We are united in our love for Jesus and one another, but in many other ways, we think quite differently. We hang together – we cohere – because Christ is our head and our citizenship is in the kingdom of heaven. 

Does that surprise you? It shouldn’t. It should be par for the course. Because we are the church. Jesus has drawn us together. He has divided us from our partisan loyalties and has called us to our ultimate loyalty in him. He has divided us from the world around us and drawn us together to be his friends.

This is Jesus’ gift to us. This is the good news that we are called to share with the world. That in this time of great division, rancor, and hatred, God has divided us differently. God has separated us – together, in all our diversity – to be a blessing to the world.

As we continue our journey together, in this land that seems to be spinning apart, let’s remember this gift that God has given us. Let’s remember how we have been divided and brought out. Let’s remember that we are resident aliens, citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, and that our loyalty is not to political camps but to the love and power and justice of Jesus. 

Let’s embrace the freedom he has given us to love, to build, to bless, and to speak truth. We have been delivered, divided, and brought out from the raging of the Reds and Blues. Let’s use this freedom to build up and to heal.