This is my homily on Luke 12:49-56 for Grace Anglican Church upon 18 August 2019 [Proper 15].
We’re living in some rough times for the Church. Despite massive growth of Pentecostal Christianity across the globe, a huge retinue of false teachings about God, Jesus, and Christian prosperity is following in its wake. Massive sex scandals and cover-ups have rocked the Roman Catholic Church, a string of cases of marital infidelity have disgraced a number of prominent Protestant pastors, and in this year alone several high-profile Evangelical personalities have walked away from the faith. The author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, an extremely popular book undergirding evangelical ‘purity culture’, recanted the teachings in that book last year, and has just publicly announced his departure from Christianity altogether. Another prominent person – one of the major song-writers for Hillsong (a major source of contemporary Christian music) has also just announced his quitting of Christianity. And, lest we think that some corners of the Church be untouched, Eastern Orthodoxy is also undergoing a major power crisis as the patriarchs of Moscow and Constantinople drift closer and closer to schism from one another over issues of authority and nationalism. In short, the 21st century has not been kind to Christianity.
These are all examples of God’s judgment playing out in the life of the Church. Our varieties of sins and failings, as God’s people, has brought upon us a variety of chastisements and judgments. The judgment of God brings sin and darkness into the light, it often embarrasses and shames the sinner, but it also brings about repentance among the righteous, and opens the door to a closer walk with Christ and a renewed life in the Spirit.
Too often, when we talk about judgment we think of one of two things. One is the common cultural view: “don’t judge me, bro!” This is a judgment of unkind criticism and implies a measure of self-righteousness upon the one who judges. The LGBTQ+ community in particular feel the wrath of Christian judgment upon them, and they are often correct in that our treatment of them has been unkind. The other common view of judgment is the apocalyptic return of Christ to judge the living and the dead: all will stand in the dock, their sins weighed, and their sentence of eternal life or eternal punishment will be doled out. Both of these views of judgment are overwhelmingly negative, and miss the full scope of biblical teachings on the subject.
- “the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” – Hebrews 12:6
- “it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God;” – 1 Peter 4:17
- Or, in our OT lesson this morning: “Is not my word like fire, declares the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” – Jeremiah 23:29
This brings us to our Gospel lesson today. Jesus outright says that he comes to bring fire and division upon the earth – in short, judgment! Failure to understand this reality may be single-handedly responsible for a great many of the cases of moral failure and apostasy that we’re seeing in the Church today. Let’s take a closer look at what Jesus is teaching us here.
MEET JUDGE JESUS
49 I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!
Fire is a common biblical image of judgment. It’s not just the eternal hellfire of torment and destruction, however, but also the refining fire from which a purer product emerges. John the Baptist had preached that Jesus was coming to baptize “with the Holy Spirit and with fire”, noting the fullness of that judgment: Jesus was going to bring grace and life in the midst of fiery trials. St. Peter wrote “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12-13). Jesus was in “great distress” or yearning anticipation for that judgment to begin. He wanted to see his beloved flock cleansed from their wickedness, he wanted to wipe away the sins and banish the lies and break the chains that bound them. So we mustn’t read Jesus as a masochist or a vengeful deity looking to “get back at the sinners” for their transgressions against him, but a surgeon eager to get on with his surgery.
51 Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. 52 For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
This is a hard saying, and is probably not very high on the list of most people’s favorite sayings of Jesus. On one hand it feels like a contradiction; Jesus is known as the Prince of Peace; St. Paul preached a lot about our finding peace in Christ, you may recall elements of that teaching from our recent exploration of the Epistle to the Colossians. Rather, what Jesus is addressing here is the reality that his intrusion into the world of sin will cause trouble for the powers of evil. Some will defect from Satan to Jesus, creating division and strife among the forces of the Enemy. When some family members confess Christ and others reject Christ, that family becomes divided. Sometimes amiable relationships are maintained, and sometimes the believers are utterly cut off from the rest. Jesus does not delight in this division and suffering, but he knows that in many cases it will be inevitable.
This is one of the key points that we need to keep in mind as we look at the many failures in the Church around us today. We want to be able to tell people that becoming a Christian will make their lives better, happier, safer, more peaceful. We sing about joy and peace and blessed assurance in our worship songs, both old and new. But if we take that to an extreme, in the direction of deadly “Health & Wealth Gospel”, then we set people up with false expectations. Not all, but many of the recent cases of evangelicals going apostate have been accompanied by statements revealing the most shallow of theological understandings of God, the Gospel, and Christianity. It doesn’t take a seminary degree to point out all the flaws in their abandoned understanding of the faith. So we must pay attention to the full teachings of Jesus. Turning to Christ will cut people off from many of their non-christian associations. We cannot serve two masters: in this case God and Popularity.
54 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, ‘A shower is coming.’ And so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat,’ and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
Jesus was criticizing the short-sightedness, or spiritual blindness, of the majority of his audience. With the massive collection of prophetic writings pointing to the coming Messiah, and the preaching of John the Baptist directing those expectations squarely at Jesus, the Jews of his day had no excuse not to see the truth. There he was, preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God and training the heavily symbolic group of twelve disciples on whom to build that kingdom, and there he was working miracles and healing the sick and exorcising demons… how could they not see who he was?
A RESPONSE OF REPENTANCE
In one sense, this rebuke echoes down to all Christian leaders today who have promised material wealth and riches to the faithful, or secretly molested children, or harassed women, or committed adultery, or hidden the sins of others, or sought the success of the Church by marriage to the state. All of these are failures to interpret the resources of the present time. We have the Sacred Scriptures, we have the traditions and ministry of the Church, all witnessing to the sovereignty and saving grace of Christ Jesus. To pursue a life of sin or preach a different gospel in the name of Christ and the guise of Christianity is sheer hypocrisy, plain and simple. But in another sense, this brief parable of Jesus invites us all to be observant. When a lot of individuals have major moral or doctrinal failings, these are signs of major underlying problems. The occasional bad apple in the pulpit or at the altar is inevitable, but left alone one bad apple can spoil the whole barrel. And when we overlook the sins and errors of a few, those problems entrench themselves and spread. When you look at a denomination or tradition of Christianity and exclaim “how the mighty have fallen!” you’ve got to look at the foundation. The judgment of Christ is there to show us that we have gone astray, and we must amend our ways.
For as I said at the beginning, judgment is not just about punishment and chastisement, it’s a sign of love from the God who wants the best for us. We undergo these fiery trials not for God’s amusement, but for our awakening to repentance and correction. In short, let us not read the news of fall pastors and leaders with grief, but as wake-up calls to fix our eyes upon Jesus and help teach others to do the same. And so, let us pray.
Keep your Church, O Lord, by your perpetual mercy;
and because without you the frailty of our nature causes us to fall,
keep us from all things hurtful, and lead us to all things profitable for our salvation;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.