I am always fascinated by the different images used to portray God. Some famous paintings show a mighty and majestic God. Others show his creative power or fearsome fury. Still others illustrate a God of great love who suffers and dies for us. Oftentimes, contemporary images show God as our friend. You can find pictures of Jesus playing sports with children. There are figurines of Jesus running around with a basketball, football, and soccer ball. Of course he is very friendly and smiling and pretty much looks like an overgrown member of the team-the ultimate ringer! Some folks even take it a step further. I remember attending a youth conference and seeing a t-shirt that said: “Jesus is my home boy.” We like the idea of being able to call God our friend and for good reason. In the gospel of John Jesus says, “I no longer call you slaves but friends.”
Nevertheless, it can be easy to end up with a narrow image of God. Maybe he is someone so far away that he is not part of our everyday lives. Or, if we are not careful, we can confine him to simply being one of the guys, someone we can decide whether or not we want to hang out with. But Jesus, in addition to being our friend, is also our Lord and Savior. He did not become Incarnate simply to be nice, cool, or another inspiring historical person. He came to save humanity from sin and death. In these roles of Lord and Savior, he sometimes demands things that are difficult. Jesus does not simply want to play baseball or football. As Lord, he will also ask us to do things that are difficult, unpleasant, and hard to understand. As a most wise and caring friend, he challenges us, rebukes us when we break the rules, and teaches us important lessons in life, even when it means a little suffering.
This image of Jesus is a little less popular. So far, I have not seen pictures of Jesus showing a red card or ejecting a child from a baseball game. Nor have I seen a figurine of Christ taking the car keys away from a careless teenager or telling a disobedient child to go to the time-out chair. The fact is, the notion of Jesus as disciplinarian doesn’t sell real well and it doesn’t necessarily sit very well with us either.
The Jesus of today’s gospel is a far cry from the caricature of a smiling, laughing Jesus that many people are comfortable with. He is also a far cry from the nice-guy, “family values” Jesus that dominates the discourse of so much modern Christianity. If “setting the world on fire” means “dividing families,” then do we really want to preach on this gospel? Isn’t there enough tearing our families apart? Today’s readings are not encouraging division and mayhem but are reminding us that the gospel is not simply about “being nice.” In fact, God’s prophetic call disrupts the status quo and can even put us at odds with those closest to us if they are not committed to the truth of the Gospel. In the first reading we hear about the saga of Jeremiah, who had been an advisor to King Zedekiah. Yet after just a little lobbying, the king gives him over to his tormentors, mainly because of Jeremiah’s unpopular predictions of Jerusalem’s impending fall to Babylon. Like Jeremiah, the Psalmist finds himself in the “pit of destruction” and the “mud of the swamp,” crying out to God in classic lament form: “Lord, come to my aid! O my God, hold not back!” In a similar context of collective suffering, the writer of Hebrews exhorts his community to persevere in running the race of faith, even to the point of shedding blood. In Luke, the refining fire of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God is burning a path right through the most intimate of relationships, the human family.
So what is the point here? Are we supposed to leave church and start arguments and divisions within our families and friendships? No, certainly not! But can we ignore these challenging words of Jesus and just write them off as him having a bad day or exaggerating his teaching? Definitely not! Jesus doesn’t utter words that are useless or meaningless. Every phrase is meant to help us get to heaven and if we try to pick and choose, we do so at our own peril!
Jesus says that he has come to set the world on fire for the gospel. This fire won’t necessarily bring peace and harmony. It can produce divisions even within a family if God and holiness are not the number one priority. So how does this truth reconcile with another truth that Christians are supposed to live in peace with everybody? How can Jesus say he came on purpose to set things on fire?
We have to understand what true peace is first. Peace is a kind of order and unity. We have true peace with other people when we share the same fundamental values and priorities and this “oneness” unites us around goodness. That last condition matters. A mother who is one with her toddler because she does everything her baby wants does not have peace. She is actually his prisoner, and her giving in to his every wish could end up being the worst possible thing for the baby and her on so many levels. Peace results only when she and her baby are one with each other in what is good for both of them, for her as mother and for him as the child.
Of course, the same point applies to adults. It’s impossible to have true peace in the world and true peace in the Church by just wanting to get along, be nice to each other, and avoid any arguments. That is a good place to start but there has to be something much more profound and noble that unites us. That thing, that person is Jesus and the gospel way of life he teaches. Nothing, not even beautiful family relationships can come before that. If it does, the resulting peace will be uneasy and temporary. Worst case, our desire to avoid spiritual conflict can result in the loss of heaven for ourselves and others.
Today’ readings should make us a little uncomfortable. They challenge the notion that we are simply called to be nice people and get along with others no matter what. Jesus’ mission and desire is this: be on fire for goodness. Our God is a consuming fire of love, and there is peace for us only if we are one with him in that fire. One last point: the thing about fire is that it is always either growing or going out. It never simply stays the same. So where is our fire right now? Is it growing hotter and stronger or going out little by little?
May Jesus find within our hearts a fire that is raging for goodness, holiness, justice, and peace, not simply for ourselves but for others as well!