[Jesus said:] “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”Luke 12:49
Fire, Jesus said. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it was already kindled!” When I think about fire, my thoughts go back to my childhood. I am the son of a candle-maker. My grandfather started Laurence Candle Company back in the 1930s; my father continued the tradition; and my brother is now the third generation candle-maker. Growing up, I remember up seeing candles burning around our house almost continually. My father would constantly be experimenting with different wax and wick combinations, so we would have dozens of candles burning at any given time. It is now a fond memory. And to this day, a burning candle warms my heart, and reminds me both of my family, and of the promised presence of my Lord. Our sanctuary candle burns constantly to remind us of this, too.
But there is another kind of fire that is not heartwarming. When I think about fire, I also remember back to when I was nine years old, and watched the building where my family made those candles burn to the ground. I still have a memory of seeing my Dad and my uncles frantically trying to retrieve what they could from the company’s office, before the fire destroyed it all. And then, about fifteen years after that, back in 1989, our family home burned to the ground. I will never forget standing in our driveway, staring at the pile of ashes that used to be our home.
Fire In Scripture
In Scripture, fire also has this dual meaning. There is fire that is good. For example, the burning bush that appeared to Moses in the wilderness, from which the Lord called him to free His people from Egypt. The pillar of fire that led God’s people safely through the wilderness at night. The chariot of fire that led the great prophet Elijah to heaven at the end of his ministry. And at Pentecost, divided tongues as of fire appeared among the apostles, filling them with the promised Holy Spirit, and giving birth to the church.
But fire in Scripture is not always positive. John the Baptist also warns people that every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. Jesus himself says that on the day of judgment some will be told to depart from him into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. The Letter of Jude encourages us as Christians to snatch out of the fire those who are wavering in their faith.
The Fire that Jesus Came to Bring
So all of this begs the question, doesn’t it? What kind of fire did Jesus come to bring to the earth? When you think about it, there is something that all fire has in common, and that is that it changes things. Whether it is lighting up a room, or burning down a building, fire is changing things around it. And I think it safe to say that Jesus came to earth to change things.
When Jesus began his ministry, the first thing he did was invite Peter, James, John and the other apostles to completely change their lives by following him. When he began preaching, the first thing he said was, “Repent and believe in the good news.” And “repent” quite literally means to change. Jesus came not just to die for the world, but to change the world.
And that is still his mission, and the mission of the church. We are here to be changed, and to change the world. We are here to be shaped by the Word, and to be sent into the world, to help bring in God’s kingdom. And that means changing things. And that is not going to be easy.
Jesus himself, in today’s gospel reading, says: “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” He knows that the change he has come to bring will be resisted, and that ultimately it will cost him his life. He is human enough to experience the stress of this. So we should expect to experience some of that as well.
The False Peace that Puts Out Jesus’ Fire
And I think that is why Jesus goes on in this passage to make what I think is one of the most surprising statements he ever makes: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
If I were listening to Jesus say this, and he asked if I thought he came to bring peace to earth, I would have said, yes, of course! He is, after all, the Prince of Peace. At his birth, the angels sing of this glorious peace that Jesus came to bring. When he began to preach, he blessed the peacemakers, promising that they would be called children of God. Before going to the cross, he promises his disciples that he will give them peace: “Peace I leave with you,” he said, “my peace I give to you.” After he is raised from the dead, when he appeared to the apostles in the upper room, the first thing he said to them was, “peace be with you.”
Jesus clearly came to bring peace to the earth. So what does he mean when he says that he has come not to bring peace, but rather division? And that even families will be divided by him? I think that what he means is that the peace that he has come to bring is not peace at all costs. There is a false peace, after all, that can put out the fire of the gospel. The kind of peace that demands that we all agree with each other; the kind of peace that can be used to intimidate people and push them into silence; the kind of peace that makes any kind of change impossible. This is the kind of peace, I think, that Jesus warns us about.
Jesus didn’t come to earth to bring us this shallow peace. He wants more for us and for our world. And he knows that taking up his mission, and working for his peace, will not always be a peaceful vocation. Following him will sometimes get us into trouble. We will say things and do things that are resisted.
We might begin questioning ourselves when this happens. We might wonder if we are being peacemakers, after all. And that is when this strange passage can be comforting to us. Jesus did not come to bring that kind of peace. And the fire that he came to bring, the change that he came to begin, can be divisive. It can even divide families.
We tend to think that politics divides us, and that our faith should unite us. And often, both of these things are true. But not always. Followers of Jesus are supposed to be like Jesus, and this means that sometimes we will be called to live in such a way that people around us resist what we are trying to do. Sometimes, our faith can cause divisions.
Isn’t this what happened when Martin Luther sought to reform the church 500 years ago? His efforts divided the church. And there were many Christians at the time who accused Luther of dividing the church and even dividing the world. And they had a point, didn’t they? But Luther, in a passage where he looks back at his ministry that began the reformation, said that:
Ours is a doctrine of grace and peace. It does not stir up trouble. Trouble starts when the people, the nations and their rulers of the earth rage and take counsel together against the Lord, and against His anointed …
As long as we preach Christ and confess Him to be our Savior, we must be content to be called vicious trouble makers.
If the mission of Jesus was simply peace, without any possibility of division, he would never have been crucified. And if the mission of the church were simply peace, without any possibility of division, Martin Luther would never have had the courage to stand up to a confused church to proclaim the truth of the gospel. And if you and I are going to set the world on fire with the love of God, then we too will have people resist us. We too will sometimes be called trouble makers. That too is what it means to strive for justice and peace throughout the earth, and to participate in bringing God’s kingdom here. And that is exactly what we are called to do.
Fire, Jesus said. He came to set fire to the earth. He came to set our hearts on fire for the love of God. He came to start a fire within each of us. A fire that we must not let the world put out. For it is a fire that leads to a deeper love, a stronger faith, and, yes, a more magnificent peace than we can find anywhere else. It is a fire that starts in baptism. It is a fire that is rekindled whenever we gather with other Christians. And it is a fire that we want to spread. We want this fire to blaze beyond these walls. We want it to break through the firewalls in our lives and in this world. We want it to burn out of control. Until every heart feels its flame. And until the very face of the earth is renewed. May the fire that Jesus came to bring always burn within the hearts of us all. To the glory of God. Amen.