“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Lk. 12:49).
When you’re in a crisis situation, your adrenaline is flowing. There are decisions to be made, often very quickly. We feel a need to consult and seek counsel, but there’s precious little time to do it. The crisis might be sparked by a medical emergency, or financial shortfall, or some other difficult decision that needs to be made. The crisis can be in our lives or in the lives of those who are close to us. There are crises in our lives, and there are crises in the lives of nations, “wars and insurrections” (Lk. 21:9) as it says in the Gospels. Crisis brings sudden change as we realize afterwards that things will never be the same again.
In our Gospel today, Jesus is using the language of crisis: stress, division, and fire kindled on the earth. He’s on his way to Jerusalem where he will be arrested, judged, and executed: a prediction that he’s made twice already, and which he will repeat once again while on the road. He’s bound on a mission that will bring a crisis of world-shaking importance. The prophets of God had foretold a time of judgment that now was coming to a head, as the sin of the world is judged through the death of Jesus on the cross. The world tried to put Jesus on trial, but the God’s honest truth was that the world’s own injustice was being judged in Jerusalem.
Part of the prophecy was that people would be divided on account of Jesus: as our reading puts it, “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” (Lk. 12:53). Though the prophets give us a vision of the peaceable kingdom, where warring peoples are reconciled to each other and to all creation (Is. 11:1-9, Mic. 4:3), in the meantime the crisis of judgment manifests itself in division. God’s kingdom is coming through the death and resurrection of the Lord, but as the prophet Simeon says at the very start of Jesus’ ministry, when the child is presented by his parents in the Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus will be “a sign that will be opposed” (Lk. 2:34), one whose ministry will lead to the rise and fall of many in Israel.
So, there’s the crisis, the judgment of the world that is being ignited and set on fire by Jesus’ ministry. But our Gospel also suggests that the fire Jesus is kindling is at the same time the fire of the Holy Spirit. This is the fire of a quiet crisis, one that’s different from the adrenaline-filled crisis of the other sort. This fire is an unseen power at work within us and around us that manifests itself in changed lives and a transformed world. What’s purged by this fire is the division that exists in each one of us, and between each one of us. This fire brings healing to our broken and divided hearts, and to our broken and divided world.
When John the Baptist foretells the coming of the Messiah, he tells the crowds that “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Lk. 3:16). As John says, the one who is coming will gather in the wheat but burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is manifested in tongues of fire, bringing together people from many nations with many different languages, united in mission and ministry. As Jesus says in our Gospel today, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” (Lk. 12:50).
This quiet crisis, this fire of the Holy Spirit, is already at work within us. The glow of this fire lives within us through our baptism into Jesus’ death and resurrection, which makes us one with him and one with each other. All the gifts that we need for the ministry we’re called to have already been given through the power of the Holy Spirit. We are part of a communion of saints who are called to common counsel and fellowship with each other. Jesus has come to bring us together, to unite us in him.
Whatever the crisis in our lives, or in the life of the world, the gifts and graces of our fellowship in Christ are prior to them, and far more powerful. The fire that has been kindled in us through our baptism cannot be put out. Here at St. James, we can rely upon God the Holy Spirit who is present in our midst. Through God’s power, things will never be the same again, as God brings us together in a new life together in Christ.