Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (August 18, 2019)

Jesus said, “I have come to set the earth on fire and how I wish it were already blazing!” Jeremiah, the author of the first reading, wrote, “within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones.”

What is it that is burning within? The fire of enthusiasm. Enthusiasm sounds almost too weak a word. Athletes can surely appreciate the “fire in the gut” feeling. Being “fired up” means maximal effort, the absolute best effort within you. There is fire-filled effort in football on the two-yard line – on both sides of the ball – that is never exceeded.

John the Baptizer who said Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire prefigured Jesus. Here it is! The disciples on the road to Emmaus on Easter afternoon returned the seven miles to Jerusalem claiming their hearts were burning within them when Jesus spoke with them. Later, tongues of fire strengthened the apostles at Pentecost to speak out fearlessly of Jesus. Fire!

Today, we do not hear more of his message. Instead, Jesus turned his attention from his message to the people who receive his message and what happens.

He asks, “Do you think I have come to bring peace? No, I tell you, but rather, division!” Jesus tells of the different effects of his message on different households. He tells us that his message will not result in having one, big, happy family. He said elsewhere that his word was like a two-edged sword. It cut those from Jewish culture; it cut those from secular culture. It led him to his death.

Yet, from Jewish culture, Peter led those people who listened: Jesus’ people. From secular culture, Paul and his companions led people who listened to form a community who were called “Christians” for the first time.

Christian faith is trust, acceptance of Jesus; it is entering what philosophers call “a new sphere of existence.” The division of Christian faith is simple: either you accept Jesus, or you do not. Christian religions, on the other hand, have creeds and codes. Religion is the institution supporting faith. A religion is a means, not an end. Christian religions, as we know, differ: Lutheran, Methodism, Baptist, etc. In the last forty years, and a lot of meetings, there are fewer differences among Christian religions.

Finally, there are divisions within the same Christian religion: there are progressives and there are conservatives. Some of our leaders support the decisions of Vatican II; some want the former, top-down leadership to return. These are presently having their way. As people decide, divisions emerge.

The unknown author of Hebrews, our second reading, urges us “to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus who inspires and perfects our faith.” Jesus is the object of our faith. May we not be distracted by human standards of religions’ ritual observances or creedal orthodoxy. In the end we will be judged on how we have lived as loving members of our faith family.

The opposite of division is unity. We remember Jesus’ prayer at the last supper: “I pray…that all may be one as you, father, are in me, and I am in you; I pray that they may be [one] in us.” To have unity we do not need uniformity, but some, especially the hierarchy, maintain that unity requires uniformity. Common sense says we can maintain unity in our diversity. In our multi-culture world, how can leaders expect uniformity? There is an old adage in political science: “You can’t legislate universally for a heterogeneous group.

May the fire spoken of by Jesus be the spark of love for Jesus that has taken hold in our hearts and grows stronger as faith grows within us. At times, it is a fire that illuminates our minds with new insights and transforms us. At times, it brightens a scene of God’s magnificent creation, and lifts our spirit. At times, it becomes a driving energy as we face the hurdles of life as a fire within us to stretch ourselves. At times it is the solitary light burning at the end of the tunnel. Often, it is the wonderfully warm glow that emanates from this loving, faith community and encourages us.