A couple weeks ago we read the famous (and famously difficult) passages from Luke 12 wherein Jesus says:
49 “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on five in one household will be 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.”
For most of us, this is hard to understand. We’ve been taught about the Jesus who brings peace, who reconciles, who ends up feeling warm and fuzzy to us. The idea that God’s presence would cause division makes us uneasy.
Yet, how else could it be? If the world is imperfect—and I think all of us would admit it is—we cannot rest with a God who says, “Carry on, just as you are. This is fine!” That would enshrine the world’s imperfections as holy. That’s crueler than any argument could be.
Where there is damage, where there is danger, God must say, “No.” When God’s, “No” meets the world’s power, division arises.
Glossing over the need for division keeps the current power structure and policies in place without anyone questioning them. That’s convenient for the people who benefit from them, less so for people suffering under it.
In this way, division becomes a near-automatic byproduct of compassion. When something is wrong, we need to experience enough tension to be aware of it, and hopefully to change it. People outside of the power structure whose voices bring division aren’t threatening us; they’re reminding us who we were supposed to be.
We’ve lost track of the necessary role division plays in our lives. We stubbornly insist that where division exists, one side is right and the other is wrong. We want to lionize the side we agree with and vilify the side we disagree with. That’s not consistent with scripture or our theology.
We understand from God’s word and our Lutheran confessions that all of us fall short of perfection. Jesus Christ did not come to pat us on the head, nor to be the Holy Bouncer deciding who gets into heaven or not by reputation and works. Christ came as the Savior of those who were lost, mistaken, and could not save themselves.
Nobody is completely right. If we claim perfection, we no longer need a Savior; we have become our own god.
Even so, we do carry important truths. We can speak of dignity, blessedness, knowledge, love, and a thousand other gifts imparted to us. Each of us has A truth, valid and worth sharing. Nobody can claim to have THE truth, save God alone.
When our imperfect, incomplete truths grind against each other, division results. This becomes our safeguard against idolatry, the thorny poke that reminds us that we are not God.
The fire of which Jesus speaks is not a new code that we all can agree upon, it’s his death and resurrection which burns the very soil under our feet and upends everything we thought we knew.
We cannot greet this transforming fire by claiming we are perfect, or even right. We do not know what direction it will take us, or how it will change the world around us. We greet the Lord and our neighbors with this confession: “We do not know. We are not right. We dare not judge with finality.”
We also greet this kindled fire with hope that, though it, we and the world are being transformed into something better than we were. Farmers burn fields because the harvest is complete and the crops there have done what they were supposed to do. The fire clears the way for new growth, renewal of the land and its purpose.
Change is never fun. Tension surrounding change isn’t either. The only way to avoid these things is to spend our lives staring at a field of stubble, idolizing what was instead of growing into what is to be. That’s a poor and hopeless existence, even less fruitful than the conflict. The Gospel calls us to so much more.