Sometimes when one sits at the airport waiting for a plane one begins to notice what is happening around. We become aware of so many people of different nationalities passing by. Their features, the colour of their skin, their national or traditional attire that almost tells us or gives us a clue to their country of origin. At times we want to chat with them while waiting but we meet with the language problem. In so many ways we are divided from one another yet we share the same humanity.
And when we look at these differences in a good, positive way we regard them as an enriching diversity. And also if we are frustrated by them or feel ourselves to be cut off, we call them divisions. Division is a fact of life. It would be foolish if we did not admit its presence in our life and in the people around us.
With all of the divisiveness present in society these days, it seems like the last thing we need is a gospel passage that seemingly encourages more division.
And when we look at it, Jesus calls for or predicts that very thing. Yet, as we reflect into this passage, there are certainly other interpretations available. Situated inside the entire section, there is ample evidence to suggest that Jesus is setting the stage for the eventual outcome of his ministry and what that means for those who follow him.
This particular section can be looked at as having two different parts. The first is a quick summary of his ministry and its eventual end; a fire of cleansing judgment that spreads the good news and the baptism of his death in order to conquer death. Following this is a discussion of the effects the gospel might have on anyone who follows him.
In the first part, first two verses, we hear this language of fire and think judgement, and that may be what Christ wants us to think … for now. But, in reality, the fire of judgement is perhaps about our own (in)ability to save ourselves. The cleansing fire reveals that we need God.
Fire was meant to destroy the reigning religion and religiosity that people used as a way of “guaranteeing” their salvation, yet, which ironically actually distanced people from God. Could the same be said for our own religion today? For Jesus, fire will burn down our human need for security and by extension those institutions that provide human security instead of security in God. The fire is followed by the talk of baptism, which has promise inherent within it.
Baptism is not meant to be simply an easy, joyous occasion. On the one hand, baptism is promise for us, on the other hand, for Jesus, baptism leads to death on the cross so that we might have life. This death turns our baptism into joy and celebration. For many, baptism is the entry into the life of the church. Part of life as God’s chosen is vocation, God’s calling to us. This means that Christ’s baptism, and his ministry and death on the cross, prefigures our own baptism and provides a bridge to the next section about division. Our callings, varied and numerous, do not end the day we are baptized. What ends in baptism is the consequence for our failure to live out those vocations. So, while joy is a fundamental emotion for baptism, it is joy because of the grace that we have been given, not because we will never experience pain again. We live in a broken, divided world
In the second part, the last three verses, Jesus lets those gathered know that following him will not be easy, particularly because the gospel will not always bring peace. Families will be torn apart when the gospel spread, cultures will be challenged, because it changes everything. Given our contexts, this may not always happen, but there certainly could be some disagreement or strife in families as the nature of the call is worked out and understood. Whether it be to attend church, go to seminary, engage in social justice issues, etc. the gospel’s effects can create division. There is no doubt that many churches have experienced division at some time in their histories. The problem may not lie in the division itself, but in how we respond to the divisions that happen in our lives.
One possibility may be to see that God is at work in all realities, and that division is not the problem. Perhaps it is in our own naive expectation that we have more truth than others. Instead, could God be at work on both sides of an issue? There have been calls within the Christian church to become one church so that all might believe. Jesus’ talk about division may point to a broken reality for Christianity no matter how hard we work toward unity. Perhaps this is Jesus’ point: that human togetherness is not what the gospel is about. Rather, the gospel preached into the life of an individual person will do its work, and we are left to trust that it is God at work, and resist our attempts to control the outcome.
Again we must understand that Jesus is not setting out to provoke division. It is simply that the alternatives he offers make division inevitable. Somewhere along the line we must make a choice: are we going to be followers of Christ or not? The decision is a serious one, it cannot be answered with a perhaps or a “maybe”. It’s a YES or a NO.
And if we say YES, mean it. And we must recognize that we have embarked on a new way of life, a way of life that is going to make demands on us, a way of life that is going to bring conflict with it – if not conflict with others certainly conflict with ourselves.
Each of us will at some point have to face inner tensions which are a direct result of being a follower of Christ. For some the conflict will take the form of temptations which must be overcome, others will have to grapple with doubts and uncertainties about their faith; other will have to choose between conflicting duties. Whatever the conflicts we are faced with it is important to realise that they are an inevitable part of being a Christian. They are not to be feared or to be taken as signs that something has gone terribly wrong with usthey are to be accepted and faced, for through them, we can experience something of the meaning of the Cross