The Man Who Brings Fire

Isaiah 5:1-7; Luke 12:49-56

Sermon by Burton Cooper

Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth,
And how I wish it were already kindled…
Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?
No, I tell you, but rather division!”

These are shocking words.  Almost incomprehensible coming from Jesus.  We are so used to thinking of Jesus as the merciful one, the reconciler, the peacemaker, the forgiver of sins, the one who turns the other cheek.  And yet the church also remembers Jesus talking this contrary way: talking of division, talking of violence, talking of bringing fire.   The gospel of Matthew lays it on just as thick as Luke, reporting Jesus as saying, “I have come not to bring peace but a sword.”   I don’t know about you, but I have a great urge to deny Christ ever saying such things, particularly in our world, in our time, when we can so easily imagine these very same words in the mouth and heart of religiously inspired Isis and Al Qaeda militants, many of whom no doubt believe that God sends them not to bring peace but division, not to bring peace but a sword, not to bring peace but fire to the earth, and how these terrorists must wish that the earth were already kindled.

So it’s tempting to excise these passages from scripture, yet, tempting though it be, it’s always problematic to excise biblical passages that shock us, that rub us the wrong way, especially this one, for it hardly stands alone in scripture.  The notion that God brings violence upon us lies throughout scripture, in both Testaments.  Think of Mark’s talk of the violence to come at the end of days; think of those gospel texts where many are thrown into darkness; think of the murderous battles in the book of Revelation; think of the many passages in the historical books of the Old Testament where God afflicts violence on Israel’s enemies and even on Israelites themselves; think of today’s reading from the book of Isaiah, where Israel is likened to a vineyard planted by God, where God expected grapes, but wild grapes were yielded; where God “expected justice, but saw bloodshed.”  And so Isaiah says, God will devour that vineyard, God will trample it down, God will make it a waste.  

We liberal minded Christians are hardly the first ones to be troubled by this biblical association of God with violence.  One of the earliest Christian heresies, Marcionism, as early as the middle of the second century, declared the creator God of the Jews, the God revealed in the Old Testament, an unworthy God, a wrathful, violent God, an eye for an eye God; that Jesus reveals another God, the true God, a God of mercy, compassion, and love, the only God worthy of worship.  As if this solves the problem; as if there are not statements of God’s violence in the New Testament; as if the God of Christ is not the creator God; as if the Old Testament does not contain an overwhelming number of assertions affirming God’s compassion, mercy, forgiveness, patience; as if, in the book of Hosea, God does not specifically disavow violence, saying “I am God, not Man.”

So if we are not to excise these biblical passages of violence, or deny authority to the Old Testament, as that heretic, Marcion, would like us to do, how are we to understand how Christ the peacemaker, let alone a God of love, can be reconciled with statements affirming their violence.  Well, there is a way, a way that, of course, involves interpretation, the struggle for meaning; a way that presupposes limits to our understanding, particularly when it comes to talk about God, by whom we mean the transcendent ground of reality, the  ground of our being, the one who is the answer, I think the only answer, to that impossible, mind-reeling question, why is there something, not nothing; a way that involves what the poet John Keats calls negative capability, a willingness to live with uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, conflicts, complexities; and the key to that way with regard to biblical associations of God and Christ with violence is to never forget that God is love itself, that Christ is the spirit of that love in our midst, so that we must always interpret those statements of violence in light of God’s being, of Being Itself, as love.  So let’s see if we can gain some fresh and fruitful insights by doing  that (you can tell me at coffee time).

Consider, first, the words, Christ’s sword, Christ coming with a sword.  It’s a great contradiction, an oxymoron, if ever there was one.  We all remember Christ saying that those who live by the sword, die by the sword; we all remember that at Christ’s arrest, Peter sought to defend Christ with his sword, and Christ told Peter to put the sword down.  So how do we interpret the contradiction of Christ coming with a sword in the light of God, the ground of our being, as love itself.  Well, let’s think a little bit about existential contradictions, let’s call to mind what a contradiction human history is, what a contradiction we human beings are --- with our great mix of contradictory impulses and actions: we are wondrously creative and murderously destructive, we are full of kindness and capable of horrific cruelty, we are sacrificial and selfish, a fountain of goodness and a mountain of callous indifference, searchers of truth and bald-faced liars.  And for all that, we say we are created in the image of God, that we image God who is love, that our being’s ground is love, so that the essence of our being is love, meaning that we are most fully ourselves when we go out in love to others, and others go out in love to us.  Surely this is our deepest and truest intuition into the ground of reality and the essential nature of our being, the source of our sense of human dignity, of human equality, of our belonging, ultimately, to God and to each other.  And we affirm this truth of faith in the teeth of all the darkness, all the negativity, all the violence we humans bring into this world, feeling the full force of the contradictory character of our faith affirmation.  And now we can come back to this morning’s shocking gospel words, those contradictory words, Christ’s sword.  Can we not say that their very jarring nature reminds us, forcibly, that our faith is not a simple matter, not something obvious, that a living faith involves us living with contradictions, complexities, mysteries, uncertainties, some of which may be unresolvable … and, further, that it is a form of loyalty  to Christ to recognize the ambiguity, the difficulty, the contradictions, in living in faith under God. 

There is another level of meaning in the words Christ’s sword; it is brought out in Isaiah’s words about God expecting justice, but seeing bloodshed, there will be a divine reckoning.   Christ’s sword is the New Testament symbol of that reckoning, a reckoning because, in God’s creation, morality matters; because the universe is grounded in a just God, a moral demand is laid upon us; God demands justice from us.  But the reckoning in Christ’s revelation is not to devour us, not to trample us down, not to lay waste to us, but the gospel reckoning, the good news reckoning, is Christ dying on the cross, for us, out of love for us, symbolizing, revealing to us, God’s love for us, God’s compassion towards us, God’s mercy.  Of course, more must be said about the redemptive power of the cross, but enough for now.  

And so, finally, we come to the last puzzle in this morning’s gospel.  What are we to make of Christ’s words about bringing division; that he, who is the reconciler, the peacemaker, the spirit of goodness, (that he) divides fathers and sons from each other, mothers and daughters from each other.  We want to say, “How can this be true?” … when suddenly we realize how true it has been.  The history of the church, Christ’s body in the world, has been filled with divisiveness from its very beginnings up to our own time.  Think of Paul’s struggles against his opponents trying to wrest leadership from him; think of the early councils of the church exiling those who would not sign on to the newly written creeds; think of the divisiveness between the Roman church and the Eastern Orthodox churches, between the Roman church and the Protestant churches, between the church and the other world religions, think of today’s divisions over the ordination of women and gays and lesbians.  Out of the goodness of Christ has come division in the body of Christ, sometimes cruelly so, sometimes murderously so, and all done in the name of Christ.  Talk about contradiction.  A divided, divisive church is a contradiction in terms just as Christ’s sword is a contradiction in terms, and brothers and sisters in Christ do we not all live in that contradiction?  And yet, we stay loyal to the church, we even love the church, for we do not define her by her history, we do not define her by her failings, those inevitable failings, our inevitable failings; we define her by the healing spirit of Christ in her midst, in our midst, a spirit of goodness, justice, love, mercy, compassion, reconciliation.  For as God is love, as Christ is love, so the church, by which we mean Christ in the world, Christ’s spirit in the world, so the church is love, in her essence is love, for Christ’s love is her standard, Christ’s love is her aspiration, Christ’s love is her hope, Christ’s love is the very source of the life of the church, of our life.

Praise God for this great mercy.  Praise Christ.  Amen.