Fire to earth
The fire that Jesus brings can, if we let it, forge unity and new beginnings in the wake of division, writes Peter Gallagher SJ.
Who would want to be an angry, combative person, always falling out with everyone else? We respect commitment to harmony, to keeping the peace, to being at one with other people. We are disappointed by those, perhaps ourselves, who are always at odds with others. Our religion surely supports this respect for harmony. Our saviour, after all, is the prince of peace. We understand the demanding ‘way’ of Jesus Christ as, in part, at least, a process of harmonisation, above all between God and us, but also between all men and women. God is love and he stirs up love, not hate. God does not pick fights. God does not sow dissension. Rather, he sends a reconciler. He heals our quarrels.
Christians, of course, are as quarrelsome as anyone else. But surely at our best we struggle against our tendency to fight. We are never proud of our hatreds, or of our un-reconciled relationships, or of our anger. Our righteous indignation, which is sometimes the enabler of justice, moves us towards more goodness and more righteousness, not to more indignation.
Jeremiah was thrown into a well by his enemies.[i] The prophet cuts a surprisingly dignified figure at the bottom of the well as he rails against the opponents of God. Jeremiah does not lose his cool. Ranting becomes him. The prophet Jeremiah was the kind of enthusiastic controversialist who was unafraid of solitude. He still had plenty to say. The floor of the well is an image of depth as well as of isolation. God’s prophet has something challenging to say and no matter, for the moment, whether he has an attentive audience or not. There was no water in the well only mud and into the mud Jeremiah sank. [ii] The mud might be expected to disfigure the orator, but Jeremiah survives the messiness of his underground pulpit. The dampness even hints at the usefulness of the well and the refreshment for the land that can be drawn from it. This isn’t someone ranting from frustration in a hole, half of his own digging, into which he has fallen. The persecuted servant of God has an important message, full of depth and refreshing possibilities, which he forcefully delivers to whoever can catch his words and his meaning.
And what of Jesus? He tells us that he has come to bring fire to the earth[iii] and that he wishes that it were blazing already. Is the prince of peace then, after all, another combatant? Is Jesus looking for a fight? This combatant loves company. He needs opponents and he finds them right beside us in our family. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two, and two against three.[iv] If you are the kind of person who plots the downfall of your relations then there is today some mild encouragement in the Gospel for these delicious calculations. The father divided against the son, son against father, mother against daughter, and so on. You got trouble, right here, at home.
We know that Jesus’ teaching can divide families. Those who want to listen to the Gospel can feel pitted against those who don’t. Those who recommend the teaching of Christ are at odds with those who would rather not hear or, having heard it or a version of it, have rejected it. The Lord loves a crowd and is unafraid to issue his loving challenges and to praise his difficult ‘way’ in any company. We think of him at table with his friends or addressing the multitude. Yet we also know that we ourselves sometimes meet Jesus, in our life, in a place which is strangely similar to the muddy floor of Jeremiah’s well. He is speaking about serious and sometimes controversial matters: are we listening? Sometimes we try hard to do so. We move closer to him. Do we find him on his own? Do we slip into a quiet place where he awaits us? Personal prayer, in our private room[v] is not solitary since God is with us. However, close the door against distractions. We want to be alone with God. It is no solitude at all since he is there.
We are not alone. We have so many witnesses in a great cloud on every side of us.[vi] It is Jesus Christ who is on his own. He endured the cross.[vii] Misunderstood by his friends. Opposed by all the main forces in the state and in the religious community. Abandoned on Calvary. Does Jesus pick a fight? Is it in his isolation that he brings fire from heaven? The concerns of the Lord can leave us unmoved. However, Jesus’ usual reaction to our neglect of Him is not anger but an immense patience.
Could it be that the fire from heaven is not precisely a quarrel or dispute? Do you suppose that I am here to bring peace on earth? Well, yes we do. You are the prince of peace. No I tell you, but rather division. Still, the fire from heaven is not itself, I think, exactly the division. Taking the Gospel seriously can certainly cut us off from people and divide us even from our nearest and dearest. In a sense Jesus himself brings such division. But the fire from heaven is surely not only division but also harmony. It is the fire of that love with which Jesus breaks down the barriers between us and unites us to each other. This fire forges a unity between us and our family and all the others with whom we are in schism.
The divisions, like the Lord’s challenges to our life and the difficulty of his commandments directed to us, are very serious. If those family divisions are fires they are not easily extinguished. This fire of Jesus Christ burns not with anger but with enthusiasm and zeal and determination to win the struggle. But it is a fire of love. There is harmony here. This is love for ourselves and the world, and all our brothers and sisters, and, especially love for God. God’s great love for us settles all our quarrels. The presence in our life of Jesus calms all our anger. The Holy Spirit promises an end to every fight. There is a harmony in our life of faith. This is our victory. This is the peace that passes understanding. This is the love of God.
Into the quietest, most peaceful, most uncluttered place in our life, we carry the rest of our existence, including all the conflicts. Our conflicts intrude into the peace of our relationship with God but they are also welcomed there. The fire from heaven takes hold. Then, the fire purifies. Then, very surprisingly, the fire brings about a new beginning. In a secret, quiet, empty place, God fills us with grace. God’s grace is strength for the unavoidable struggles. It is a relish for peace. It is a longing for harmony.
[i] Jeremiah 38.6
[ii] Jeremiah 38.6
[iii] Luke 12.49
[iv] Luke 12.52
[v] Matthew 6.6
[vi] Hebrews 12.1
[vii] Hebrews 12.2