Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 18th, 2019

Luke 12:49-56 Revised Standard Version (RSV)

Jesus the Cause of Division

49 “I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished! 51 Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division; 52 for henceforth in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against her mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”

Interpreting the Time

54 He also said to the multitudes, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, ‘A shower is coming’; and so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky; but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.

I don’t know why, but when I read this passage, something my Dad said to me long ago when I was young came back to me: “Billy,” he said, “you’ve always had a sunny disposition.” Why he said that, I don’t know. I don’t remember the context or the rest of the conversation. I just remember those words. And, as I reflected on what he said, I also recall plenty of times when my disposition was anything but “sunny.” I’ve always had a pretty bad, sometimes downright volcanic, temper, and I have spent my entire life fighting it, successfully once in a while, but more often than not, unsuccessfully. Even so, I’ll take Dad at his word; I guess he saw something in me that I didn’t.

So what does this have to do with the Gospel lesson? It tells me that sometimes there’s more than one way to interpret the words we hear, or read, or speak. In any conversation, there are many possible points of view. Keeping that in mind, as well as the truth that the very word “gospel” means “good news,” we can try without flinching to answer the question: “What in heaven’s name are we to make of this passage?”

In a commentary written back in 2016, Pastor Erik J. Thompson wrote: “With all of the divisiveness present in society these days, it seems like the last thing we need is a gospel text that seemingly encourages more division.

On the face of it, Jesus calls for or predicts that very thing. Yet, as we dive into this text, there are certainly other interpretations available. Situated inside the entire section, there is ample evidence to suggest that Jesus is setting the stage for the eventual outcome of his ministry and what that means for those who follow him.”[1]

That is to say – there’s more here than meets the eye.

First, let’s talk about the fire. Thompson writes: “In the first part, Luke 12:49-50, we hear this language of fire and think judgement [sic], and that may be what Christ wants us to think … for now. But, in reality, the fire of judgement [sic] is perhaps about our own (in)ability to save ourselves. The cleansing fire reveals that we need God.

“Fire was meant to destroy the reigning religion and religiosity that people used was a way of “guaranteeing” their salvation, yet, which ironically actually distanced people from God. Could the same be said for our own religion today? For Jesus, fire will burn down our human need for security and by extension those institutions that provide human security instead of security in God.”[2]

And, as our old friend William Barclay tells us, “In Jewish thought fire is almost always the symbol of judgment. So, then, Jesus regarded the coming of his kingdom as a time of judgment. The Jews firmly believed that God would judge other nations by one standard and themselves by another; that the very fact that they were Jewish would absolve them.”[3] But Jesus flat-out tells them that this just ain’t so. By implication, he also makes it clear that God’s judgment applies to us, too; and we ignore that fact to our peril. We can’t afford the luxury of believing, for example, that those things we dislike about others don’t also lurk somewhere inside of us, too. Otherwise the righteousness to which we are called turns into self-righteousness, the ugliest of all conceits. And that conceit not only kills our souls, but it poisons pretty much everything else. The quote from James Truslow Adams really applies here: “There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it behooves none of us to talk about the rest of us.”[4] In my own personal context, when I see someone else erupting in anger, I have no right to judge; I can only say to myself, “There but by the grace of God go I.”

Secondly, Thompson goes on to talk about the baptism mentioned in verse 50: “The fire is followed by the talk of baptism, which has promise inherent within it.

“Baptism is not meant to be simply an easy, joyous occasion. On the one hand, baptism is promise for us, on the other hand, for Jesus, baptism leads to death on the cross so that we might have life. This death turns our baptism into joy and celebration. For many, baptism is the entry into the life of the church. Part of life as God’s chosen is vocation, God’s calling to us. This means that Christ’s baptism, and his ministry and death on the cross, prefigures our own baptism.”[5]

But baptism is just the start, not the end, of our callings as Christians. “What ends in baptism is the consequence for our failure to live out those vocations. So, while joy is a fundamental emotion for baptism, it is joy because of the grace that we have been given, not because we will never experience pain again.”[6]  Being baptized members of the Body of Christ, moreover, does not exempt us from taking up our own crosses and following Jesus. The following true story drives this point home:

Clarence Jordan was famous for his Cotton Patch Version of the Bible. In the 1960s he developed Koinonia Farm, an interracial project in Georgia. One day Clarence asked his brother Robert, who would later become a justice on the Georgia Supreme Court, to help his farm with a legal matter. Robert refused, saying it might hurt his political future. Clarence was shocked. He reminded Robert that as boys they had both accepted Jesus together. Robert replied that he still accepted Jesus: “I follow him to the cross,” he said, “but not onto it. I’m not getting myself crucified like he did.” Clarence replied, “Robert, then you’re not a follower of Jesus; you’re only a fan of his.”[7]

Jesus doesn’t need fans. Jesus needs followers.

Our UCC Statement of Faith tells us that God “calls us into his church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship”; and I think it’s the cost of discipleship that Jesus is getting at, too, with his talk about division.

Along with their belief that God would judge them with a different set of criteria than others, the Jews also believed that the Messiah, when he came, was going to be a conqueror and king, like David, only greater. It would be downright glorious! But, just as he did with their notions of judgment, Jesus crushes their notions of a warrior Messiah. Instead of some war leader, he tells them that, because they are his followers, they will be regularly thrust into conflict and division.

For these First-Century people, following Jesus demanded a complete change of mind, of heart, of living. Those who embraced Jesus’ teaching faced not just occasional inconvenience, or even just getting kicked out of their families – they faced having the full might of the authorities, both the Jewish and Roman, crash down on them. They faced persecution, and death.

None of us is likely to face arrest, much less death, by being here today or by professing to be Christians. There are places in the world where Christians are persecuted for their faith; but we don’t have to worry about that.

Having said that, though, Jesus demands the same change of mind, heart, and living of us today as he did of those who heard him on that far-distant day. In fact, I sometimes think it’s maybe even harder for us than it was for those Believers back then. Then, it was a very black-and-white contrast. The choices they faced were pretty clear. Simply meeting for their agape meal – the precursor to our Communion service – was a life-and-death decision.

Nowadays, nothing is clear. Even using the word “Christian” requires definition. We can’t just say “I’m a Christian,” and let it go at that, because many of the people who hear us say that will ask us follow-up questions like, “What kind of Christian are you?” And they really want to hear what we have to say. More than that, they’re going to pay close attention to what we do.

I think that today, one of the most difficult things for us to master is intentionality. For lack of a better definition, we might say that intentionality is “walking the walk.”

A good way to be intentional is to take the words of I John 4:11 to heart: “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” We can follow that up with the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Luke 6:31)

We can all do this, in our own way. Our years of living the Christian faith have equipped us for this. And whatever we lack God will provide!

In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.

[1] Thompson, Erik J., “Commentary on Luke 12:49-56,”, August 14, 2016

[2] Ibid.

[3] Barclay, William, The Gospel of Luke, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Ky., 2001, p. 201


[5] Thompson, Erik J., “Commentary on Luke 12:49-56,”, August 14, 2016

[6] Ibid.

[7] Adapted from Link, Mark, SJ, Jesus: A Contemporary Walk with Jesus, Resources for Christian Living, Allen, TX, 1997, p. 369