Pentecost +3: Into the fire

Siena - fire walk with me
"Siena - fire walk with me" by marco, on Flickr


Matthew 10:24-39
[Jesus said to the twelve:] “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!

So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”


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The news has been jammed full of horrible headlines once again these last few weeks. London, England is limping along after two terrorist attacks and a massive apartment fire. A US fighter jet shot down a Syrian warplane. A gunman opened fire on, of all things, a congressional softball practice. A Muslim teenager in Virginia was beaten and killed on her way to worship. Nearly 150 people are feared buried in a landslide in China.

The catalogue of terrors goes on and on. There is much to fear. Our hearts long for an end to violence. Our hearts want an end to fear. Our hearts seek a respite from all of the tragedy.

Today’s passage from Matthew 10 begins with words of hope and reassurance. “Do not be afraid,” Jesus says. “Do not fear. God knows you. God will protect you. God cares about even the sparrows; you have infinite value in God’s eyes.”

But then, in a jarring twist, Jesus continues by saying, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

How can he mean this? How can he say these words to us - we, who crave peace in such a time? Friends, let me put your hearts at rest before we get too much farther into things. Jesus is not an enemy to peace.

But Jesus brings a different sort of peace than we might be expecting.

There are two other places in the Bible that help us to understand what Jesus means in today’s gospel. The first is earlier in Matthew’s gospel, when John the Baptist is proclaiming the coming of Christ. John says, “[The Messiah] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Jesus is the one who brings fire.

And then in John’s gospel, Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Jesus is the one who brings peace beyond what the world can give.

Jesus as fire and Jesus as prince-of-peace wants to redefine for us what we understand peace to be. Peace is not simply a world at rest between wars. Peace is not a world holding its breath in the midst of a cease-fire. Peace is not just for those who can afford to move into safer countries and communities, and it is not just for those who can afford to shield themselves from the suffering of others. And too often, we find ourselves merely “making peace” with the way the world is, which is a way to feel nice in the moment, and an excuse to give up on seeking lasting peace in the world.

Kelly Fryer, in June’s Gather Magazine Bible Study, “Say Goodbye to Nice,” lays out a distinction between nice and good, between making nice and stepping into the fire to speak the truth: “Making nice is what you do to avoid upsetting people. Nice avoids conflict, runs from controversy, Nice tries to summon a half-hearted smile saying, ‘That’s OK,’ even when everything clearly is not. Nice doesn’t dare risk upsetting the status quo, worries about ‘what the neighbors might say’ and fears losing face. Nice lets you walk all over her. But Good knows there are more important things than your reputation, your balance sheet and whatever else it is you count on to make you comfortable. Good will walk with you into the center of a storm, face scrunched up with fear, stomach in a knot, praying that you’ll get out alive - for the sake of what is right and what is true. Good does what matters.”

Jesus does not come to earth to be nice. He comes to do what matters.

When Jesus says that he does not come to bring peace, he means that he does not come to make nice with the powers and principalities of this world. He means that he does not come to smooth things over and help us hide from uncomfortable things. He means that he does not come to help us settle for the world as it is. He comes to bring peace that matters.

See, violence in the world might be normal these days, but it is not fine. Conflict may be common, but Jesus says that it is not okay. “I come not to bring peace,” Jesus says. “I come not to bless the normalcy of violence, suffering and terror, no matter how common it is, no matter how much we are conditioned to shrug our shoulders and say, ‘that’s just how life goes.’”

The business of “I come not to bring peace but a sword” comes not as a threat, but a making good on the promise, “do not fear.” Jesus doesn’t come to “make nice” with trial and tribulation and pain. He doesn’t come to make us feel good about ourselves or to help us cheat suffering. He came to earth to do what matters: to vanquish evil and death and brokenness (and not to just shake hands with them). To bring lasting, eternal, true peace that can only come on the far side of justice, on the far side of cosmic reconciliation, on the far side of resurrection!

Jesus come to do what matters, and he invites us into this holy work.

“Take up your cross,” Jesus says, and take note that he says “take up your cross” and not, “go find a cross.” Too often we read these instructions to take up our cross and think Jesus means that we are supposed to go off and find some bit of suffering to take upon our shoulders. But that’s not what he’s saying at all. Faith isn’t about finding suffering. It is about recognizing the suffering already present in our world. Let’s be honest here. The crosses, the sufferings, the pains in this life: they are already there in front of us. Answering the call to take up our cross means that we don’t turn a blind eye to these sufferings, or despair of them, thinking that God is only present in the good times. Taking up our crosses is Christ’s call to persevere through the tough stuff that is already laying at our feet, with the promise that if we trust in him, we will be able to shoulder our trials with hope and with strength. Faith doesn’t seek suffering. It empowers us to walk through it. Faith doesn’t help us avoid fire. It helps us as we walk into it.

This image of walking into the fire is at the heart of the poem "The Question," by thirteenth century mystic poet Rumi:

The Question
Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks)

God’s presence is there in front of me, a fire on the left, a lovely stream on the right.
One group walks toward the fire, into the fire, another toward the sweet flowing water.
No one knows which are blessed and which not.
Whoever walks into the fire appears suddenly in the stream.
A head goes under on the water surface, that head pokes out of the fire.
Most people guard against going into the fire, and so end up in it.
Those who love the water of pleasure and make it their devotion are cheated with this reversal.
The trickery goes further.
The voice of the fire tells the truth saying, I am not fire. I am fountainhead.
Come into me and don’t mind the sparks.

If you are a friend of God, fire is your water.
You should wish to have a hundred thousand sets of mothwings, so you could burn them away, one set a night.
The moth sees light and goes into the fire. You should see fire and go toward the light.
Fire is what of God - is world-consuming. Water, world-protecting.
Somehow each gives the appearance of the other.
To these eyes you have now, what looks like water, burns.
What looks like fire is a great relief to be inside.


“Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

We are disciples of Jesus. We are the ones who walk into the fire and end up in the water. We are the ones who enter into the fiery, unpredictable work of the Holy Spirit and burst forth from the water and promise of our baptism. We are the ones who die to self and rise again with Christ. In baptism, we bury our fear and our shame. Our self-centeredness and our self-righteousness. Our arrogance. Our hardened hearts. In baptism, we bury “nice.” And we rise to goodness. To truth. To the things that matter. We rise to walk with Christ into the fire.

We walk into the fire with Christ to call out injustice. We walk into the fire to take to heart the idea that when any of us suffer, we all suffer. We walk into the fire to tell the world that we are each fully known and loved by God, that the value of our lives is not determined by social status or family lineage, or by how easy or hard our lives are, but that in God’s eyes, we each have infinite value. We walk into the fire to call out the abomination of balancing our budgets and our successes on the backs of the poor. We walk into the fire to call out the tragedy of denying one another basic human needs. We walk into the fire to condemn violence of body, mind, or spirit.

We walk into the fire, even when it makes us unpopular with mother or father, sister or brother, neighbor or friend or enemy.

Because Christ has empowered us to believe in the triumph of justice. Christ has empowered us to persevere through suffering instead of hiding from it. Christ has empowered us to bind up the sufferings of all the brokenhearted. Christ has empowered us to live as resurrected people in this world, knowing that this resurrected life does not promise us a quick fix or an easy out, but rather an abundance of holy life with God and with all of God’s good creation.

If you are a friend of God, fire is your water. You should wish to have a hundred thousand sets of mothwings, so you could burn them away, one set a night.The moth sees light and goes into the fire. You should see fire and go toward the light.

Christ is our light. Go toward him. Even into the fire. For he says to us, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. I bring peace that the world cannot bring. God has counted even the hairs on your head. Do not be afraid.”

Amen.

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