By Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson
Jesus, erstwhile proclaimer of peace and love, hopes for fire and anticipates division within households. Was the Lord having a bad day on the Way to Jerusalem in this Sunday’s Gospel? How can we reconcile his word in this week’s lectionary text (Luke 12.49-56) with what we hear in the rest of Luke’s Gospel?
Our passage is found in Luke 12, after Jesus’ warnings against greed and admonition to keep focused on God’s reign rather than to be anxious about food and clothing. After several images of servants and masters, Jesus suddenly proclaims two precisely parallel events which he yearns to come to pass:
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”
“I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”
Let’s look at each image separately so that we can hear how they fit together.
“Fire” in Luke can be holy or not, as we hear in these passages:
“Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (3.9)
John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (3.16)
“His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (3.17)
When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. (9.54-55)
“…on the day that Lot left Sodom, it rained fire and sulfur from heaven and destroyed all of them—it will be like that on the day that the Human One is revealed.” (17.29-30)
When they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. (22.55)
Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. (Acts 2.3-4)
The natives showed us unusual kindness. Since it had begun to rain and was cold, they kindled a fire and welcomed all of us around it. (Acts 28.2)
Fire in Luke can be a warm gathering place, a source of destruction and judgment, and an expression of the transformative, purifying presence of the Holy Spirit. In our present passage, Jesus is clearly recalling John the Baptist’s prediction of the Coming One who would baptize with Holy Spirit and fire, fulfilled in Acts at the Pentecost event.
But in 12.50, the second of the paired proclamations from Jesus that opens our passage, Jesus speaks not of baptizing others, but of himself being baptized. The root meaning of the Greek verb, baptizō, isn’t to engage in the specific initiation ritual known to Christians, but the generic sense of being dipped or submerged in water. Yet here, “to be baptized” has the derived Christian meaning of being initiated into a new order of being, with or without the presence of actual water.
The two metaphors of fire and baptism combine to point forward to Jesus’ own death and resurrection (cf. Mark 10.38-39), which will begin the process which pours forth the Holy Spirit upon disciples. The fire Jesus’ yearns to see kindled is the power of the Spirit spreading across the Roman Empire, starting with Judea (Acts 1.8). It’s power is made manifest as disciples move into the experience of the transforming reality of the Resurrection.
Jesus immediately pours cold water on the notion that his disciples may be forming in their minds that this fire will lead at once to the messianic shalom for which they have been hoping (cf. Lk 19.11-28): it will lead at first not to peace, but to “division” (Gk, diamerismon, only here in the New Testament; cf. Matt 10.34, where “a sword” will be brought instead of peace) in the “house” (Gk, oikos).
The image of houses divided across generations and across in-laws echoes a word of judgment from Micah:
Put no trust in a friend, have no confidence in a loved one; guard the doors of your mouth from her who lies in your embrace; for the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; your enemies are members of your own household. (Mic 7.5-6; cf. Matt 10.36, which includes the final phrase from Micah, omitted from Luke).
For Micah, the division expresses lack of faith in the God of the covenant, as young people treat parents with contempt in violation of the Decalogue. Luke, however, points in the opposite direction: trust in Jesus and his Way by the elite, young adults who are his likely audience will divide imperial families across generations. In other words, faith in God isn’t the remedy for this division; it is the cause.
We see the truth of this daily in our own lives and ministry, just as we imagine many readers of Radical Discipleship do as well. Young people who eagerly take up the cause of justice and seek to shape lives that resist empire are often ridiculed as “dreamers” or denounced as traitors by an older generation deeply invested in the status quo. For instance, at the Jesuit university where Wes teaches, queer students and students of color who sought a more inclusive curriculum and respect for their own perspectives were met by many older alums with angry denunciations of “coddling” students and threats to withhold further funding. This is now revealed to be a pattern in U.S. universities (see http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/05/us/college-protests-alumni-donations.html).
Similarly, the younger generation embracing “watershed discipleship” as a rubric for a renewed, radical relationship with local bioregions faces backlash from older folks who feel “entitled” to “their” land and “right” to do what they want with it (e.g., the articles gathered in the Spring issue of geez magazine, http://geezmagazine.org/magazine/article/watershed-discipleship-re-imagining-ecological-theology-and-practice/ ).
Thus, as part of the wider theme in this central section of Luke’s Gospel of staying awake, Jesus this week begins a set of warnings that call the crowds to anticipate the cost of discipleship for those who align themselves with the liberating Word of Jesus (cf. 9.57-62 with the upcoming passage, 14.25-35).
The solution, Jesus continues, is not the false peace of conflict avoidance, but discernment of what the “time” (Gk, kairos) calls for (12.56-57). Here as so often elsewhere (14.28-32; 16.8-12), Luke’s Jesus analogizes from the imperial “wisdom” with which his audience would be familiar. The crowds are always alert to the signs of the sky (clouds, wind) upon which their livelihoods depend. Why are they not also alert to what the kairos calls for?
Indeed, for us today, the signs are all too clear. Fear-based hatred of various “others” rips apart the social fabric of USAmerican society. Climate-change induced refugee crises lead for calls to close borders and exclude “strangers” across Europe. Status quo politicians seek to silence dissent that calls for real justice for the poor and people of color. The income gap swells while wages for the working class remain stagnant, a function of decades of deliberate policy choices that shut out the cries of the poor.
The signs of the times, for us now, as for Jesus then, lead to the cross and beyond. We must take the time to discern together how to engage in risky, division-inducing acts of loving witness that challenge the imperial status quo and announce the kindling of God’s holy, purifying fire. This is the root of “protest,” from Latin, protestare, to “witness/testify for” a different way. Black Lives Matter activists have paved the Way, forcing a conversation on racial justice that many older whites would prefer to avoid. Those of us who, like Luke’s audience, have been born into privilege that benefits our own “house” need to be prepared to face division among our families. Only when all come to embrace the “religion of creation” which Jesus proclaims and embodies will we truly be guided “into the way of peace” (1.79).
We know we cannot do this alone. We need one another, and we need the Holy Spirit, to kindle and keep alive the fire that Jesus continues to yearn will burn away the old to make room for what is to be (cf. Rev 18, 21). As summer winds toward fall and the restarting of the church/school year, may we be alert to the sparks among us that will ignite the flame of Love, while being prepared for our own “baptismal” immersion into the predictable divisions that will ensue.