Our Lord in today’s gospel gives us a difficult and puzzling word. Honestly this is one of those passages of Scripture that is tempting to ignore; to just kind of look the other way and pretend it’s not there. But, like the young child playing hide-and-seek who closes their eyes in hopes of hiding from the world, ignoring this passage, and those like it, will not make them, or their truth, disappear. By ignoring them, all we do is voluntarily remove ourselves from the fullness of God’s truth. Better then to face the fire, as it were, with an open — and trusting — heart, and see what mystery’s God has in store for us.
In today’s gospel Jesus teaches his disciples, ”I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division; for henceforth in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided.” He goes on to describe just how intimate, and therefore painful, the nature of these divisions will be, “father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against her mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”
Jesus is describing family brokenness. But he’s not just describing it, he is actually saying that his presence, his teaching, his Word will cause this brokenness; the Word of God will create division. “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? NO, I tell you, but rather division … I came to cast fire upon the earth … and would that it were already kindled!” It almost sounds as if Jesus is looking forward to accomplishing this … division. How is this even possible?
Isn’t this the same Jesus of whom the angels rejoiced, saying “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2.14). Isn’t this the same Jesus who taught that we should love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves? Isn’t this the same Jesus who said to his disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (Joh 14.27). How then can this same Jesus say, “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”
It is, in truth, one and the same Lord. And his message is perfectly clear, in fact it is marked by profound consonance and integrity. The first key to understanding the meaning of this passage, is recognizing that Our Lord refers to different kinds of “peace.” When he says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you,” he not only makes the qualification, “my peace,” but goes on to add, “not as the world gives, do I give to you.” That is, the peace of Christ is emphatically not peace by the world’s definition.
What is “worldly’ peace? It is superficial to say the least. It exists only on the surface, the exterior. It does not have roots, and therefore it does not last. The Church Fathers teach that, “There are two kinds of peace. False peace, to which Christ refers [to in this passage], is a shallow harmony that results from ignoring issues of truth. Genuine peace is reconciliation to God through faith in Christ and surrender to truth.”
Now, if we understand that there are two kinds of peace, we unlock the much deeper and profound meaning of this teaching. The Fathers go on to teach that, “Genuine peace has division as a byproduct because not everyone wants truth. In the fallen world, divisions are necessary for truth to be manifest.” In other words, God’s Word of Truth cannot be manifest in this fallen world, without there being division as a natural consequence. Why? Because we all remain gloriously and dangerously free to either accept or reject that Word of Truth. In Christ the Word of God has become flesh and dwells among us, full of Grace and Truth. And the manifestation of this Truth will cause division, because some will receive it, and others will not.
Finally, for us to fully grasp the power of this teaching, we must remember that the fire that the Lord came “to cast upon the earth,” is none other than the very presence of God Himself! He has come into the world, “not to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3.17). St. Cyril of Alexandria writes, “We affirm that the fire that Christ sent out is for humanity’s salvation and profit. May God grant that all our hearts be full of this. The fire is the saving message of the gospel and the power of its commandments. We were cold and dead because of sin and in ignorance of him who by nature is truly God. The gospel ignites all of us on earth to a life of piety and makes us fervent in spirit … we are also made partakers of the Holy Spirit, who is like fire within us. We have been baptized with fire and the Holy Spirit.
St. John of Damascus writes, “It is said that Christ baptizes in fire because he poured out the grace of the Spirit on the holy apostles in the form of tongues of fire.” St. Cyril of Jerusalem asks, “Why is it ‘fire’? It is because the descent of the Holy Spirit was in fiery tongues. Concerning this the Lord says with joy, ‘I came to cast fire upon the earth, and would that it were already kindled.”
The fire that he sends on the earth is His Holy Spirit. This gift of the divine presence cannot be given until our Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection are complete. Which is why he can add, with great eagerness and anticipation, “I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!” The baptism he refers to is his own death on the cross. Once this work is completed, the fire of the Holy Spirit is poured out upon the world through Christ’s body the Church. This is the fire of God’s love that heals our hearts, and restores our souls, and reconciles us to God the Father through His Son Jesus Christ. This is the peace which the world cannot give.
There are many, many divisions both in the world, and, sadly, within Christ’s church. It has been this way throughout human history. It remains so in our own day. And every indication is that this division will remain. It is as our Lord teaches us. Wherever there is Truth, with a capitol T, there will be division. This is not a happy fact, but it is a fact nonetheless. Brokenness and division are a natural consequence and a sad reality of the manifestation of God’s Truth in the world, and our freedom to choose that Truth. There is actually a sense in which, if division was not present, we might be in much deeper trouble. If there was no division, that would mean there’s either no Truth, or no freedom.
Now there is a temptation in this teaching, to assume that we — whoever we are, and whatever we may believe — that we are most certainly the ones on the side of Truth. Whether the division is political or philosophical or theological, it is very, very easy to hear this teaching and quite naturally presume that it is all those other folks — the ones over there, on the other side — they are clearly the ones who have departed from the Truth. I am on the side of Truth, because I am on this side, and where I am, there is truth.
Not only is this our natural, fallen inclination. But the modern world has further obfuscated our dilemma by attempting to do away with the idea of objective Truth all together. Today we hear language like, “I have my truth and you have your truth.” We are trying desperately to make ourselves individual agents of truth. Which, to the discerning mind, readily reveals itself for the ancient deception that it is: removing God, and putting ourselves in His place.
We are regularly mistaking our preferences, our proclivities, our opinions, and even our passions and appetites for God’s Truth. As such, we are fast becoming a culture of a million little gods clashing violently and in vain in attempts to square our million different truths. We have set ourselves adrift not only from the source and foundation of Truth, but even from the very idea that there exists a source and foundation of truth. And so, to repeat, there is a temptation in this teaching, to assume that we are most certainly on the side of Truth, because we are conditioned to believe that we are the source of all truth.
Rather than judge others against our personal, imagined truths, better to spend out time and energy judging ourselves against God’s eternal and absolute Truth. Better then, to submit ourselves in all things to the One who is the source of Truth, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, even Our Lord Jesus Christ. That the life-giving fire of his saving love would inhabit us, and cleanse us, and be kindled within us, that we might be vessels of His Love and His Truth to the world.
Adapted from the sermon. Audio available here.