20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Previous Years: 2019
Preached at Assumption Parish in Bellingham, WA
There are various places in the New Testament where Jesus is referred to or refers to himself as the light of the world or the light that comes into the world. That’s mostly in the gospel of John. But today, Jesus uses the image of fire and fire is a far more threatening image. Light can touch us and illuminate us without changing us. We can live in the light, but without being any different. Fire, however, is a consuming image. There is no instance in which fire does not consume the thing that it touches. Even controlled fires like these candles, for example, they will burn down. It is not possible to have fire on these candles without it consuming something. And so as I was praying about this homily, I asked myself, what are some other examples where we might see a life being consumed? And unfortunately, the only two that I can come up with are rather negative examples, but I am going to give them to you anyway because it helps make it real what we’re talking about.
So when I was doing my turn as a hospital chaplain – most seminarians have to do that – I was fascinated by a woman that I met who came to the hospital because of a drug overdose. And she was young and she was engaging. She had a kind of a personality that I enjoyed speaking with, so I always looked forward to my visits with her in the hospital. Good sense of humor, you know, everything going for somebody that you’d like to hang out with at a party. And yet what I learned over the course of a few visits is that you could never let your guard down around her. Everybody who brought their bag into her room had to have that bag checked because she was constantly calling her friends and asking them to sneak drugs in for her. She was literally in the hospital because the drugs had nearly killed her, and yet it was the only thing she could think about. And even in good conversations, I learned over time that if you weren’t careful, she would manipulate you and begin to lie to you as a way to try to get out of a hospital and get back to the drugs that she was addicted to. They had completely consumed her life so that every faculty she had, including her humor, including her personality, they were all turned toward and oriented toward the drugs that had begun to consume her.
Unfortunately, we’re also starting to see consumed lives in politics. So two examples there. I was reading a story last week about an 18 year old woman pro-lifer who was going around in Kansas knocking on doors. And that that happens. You have political canvassers doing all sorts of things. So she knocks on the door and the woman who opens the door tells her they’re just not interested. You know, please go somewhere else. They’re going to vote the other way. Okay, that’s fine. She moves on.
But another resident of that house, the daughter of the woman who opened the door, she was so consumed by her advocacy for abortion that she chased this pro-lifer down and began to beat her on the street. That’s not a policy difference. That’s not “I have these politics and you have these politics.” That’s “my entire life is consumed by something. My entire life has been given over to someone.” You see that as well on the right. We all have these policy preferences. And of course, there are people who support President Trump for policy reasons, and that’s not what I’m talking about. But there are people who’ve warped their entire reality around trying to support him, where they ignore personal sins or personal failings, where they have to rewrite ballots and a narrative around a free and fair election. That’s consuming, right? It changes your reality. Not just, “okay, this is a part of my life.” This is my entire life.
Well, that’s the demand that Jesus is making on us this morning when he talks about wanting to bring fire to the earth and how he wishes it were already blazing. He’s not talking about something that just kind of touches us and doesn’t change us. He’s talking about something that completely consumes us. He wants to be everything in our life. He wants to set us on fire. It’s a radical demand that he makes on us. It is an absolute totalizing domain. But if anybody can make that demand, it’s Jesus.
So the two examples I gave us, they occur because there’s this switch in our mind that flips when something becomes a matter of life and death. So somebody who’s deep in the throes of addiction – for them their entire life depends on getting the next hit. It’s just what it is. Their entire life is demanded by the thing. Similarly, when we see these sort of radical giving over to politics and political ideas, it’s because there’s this idea that it’s life and death. If I don’t completely give myself over to this political thing or that political thing, my entire life and the life of everybody I know and love depend on it. When something makes an absolute demand on us, it’s always because it demands our life. If they demand your time, if they demand your money, it’s not an absolute demand. The only thing that’s absolute is your life. It’s the one thing that you have one of. And it’s the one thing you can never get back.
And so Jesus is demanding our entire life. He wants to consume our entire life. It’s an absolute demand. But again, if anybody can make that demand, it’s Jesus. In fact, he’s the only one. He’s the only thing in this entire world that can demand your life. And the reason is because he is the Lord of life, the foundation of everything we believe about Jesus. The entire foundation of the Christian faith is that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. He died in a very effective manner. The Romans knew how to kill people. He was absolutely dead in that tomb, and he rose from the dead. The only person in the history of the world to conquer death. And so if anybody can make a demand on life, it is the Lord of life. It is the one who has power over life and death. It is the one who gave you your life. And because he gave you your life, he can demand it back from you. He is the only one. Anything else that demands your life? Anything else that demands to consume you? It’s unjust and unreal. They can’t demand that from you. But Jesus can and he does.
He wishes to set you on fire, to consume what He has given you, not in a way that extinguishes you. This is where the analogy breaks down with fire. Not in a way that causes you to poof out of existence and just become a pile of ash. He wishes to consume you so that he can purify you. To demand back your life, so that he can give you the life that he intended for you. He is the Lord of life and the giver of life. He gave you a life that was perfect, that was created to be in perfect union with God, in perfect harmony, with creation. But we’ve been marked by sin. He wants to burn that out of us. But in order to do that, we have to give him our entire life first. We have to let him consume us so that we can receive back that purified metal of a Christian.
But this is a radical demand. It is an existential demand, a demand that defines your very existence, which makes it a very scary demand. If anything, anything demands your life – even the Lord who loves you, even the Lord who created you – we human beings resist it. We don’t want that. We want full individual autonomy. We want to be absolutely free and absolutely in control. And so when something demands our life, we push back and we say no. And we find all sorts of reasons to deny that demand, even if it’s from the Lord.
When people are confronted with Christ, there are few things that they do to say, “Oh, he’s not making that demand of me” because they don’t want to face that demand. We don’t want to face that demand. What are the things that we do? What are the things that we say so that we can say, “Oh, Jesus, Jesus isn’t asking for my life. He wouldn’t do that. That’s not him. That’s not what’s being asked of me.”
Well, the first is that we make the Lord into a nice guy, a prophet of whatever. We want him to be a prophet. We don’t necessarily read the words of the gospel. We don’t take them seriously. We just pick and choose the things that make us feel good. That’s one of the reasons why I love this gospel, because it’s the antidote to that way of seeing Jesus, to say “Jesus had some nice things to say. And, you know, I listen to him and I’m nice to people.” I have come to set the earth on fire and how I wish it were already blazing. Do you think that I have come to establish peace on Earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. Now there are places where the Lord is obviously creating a community, a community that He wishes to be in unity and in peace. He has an entire dialogue in the Gospel of John, where he prays that his disciples will be united to each other. And yet we have to balance that with this gospel where he talks about an all consuming fire. The Lord didn’t come just to make us feel good, and if we ever consider him as somebody just who wants to make us feel good, it’s not the Lord. We’re worshipping somebody who is not Jesus. Jesus demands more of us. He demands our life. He demands our existence.
Sometimes we overinterpret the mercy of Jesus. We say, “Well, the Lord is so merciful and so loving. He doesn’t care what I do. I can do whatever I want with whomever I want, whenever I want. And he doesn’t care. He automatically forgives every sin, even if I intended to commit it, and even if I’m not contrite for it.” This is another excuse we make to put off the absolute demand he makes on us. Again, that’s not Jesus. Jesus became human and went all the way to the cross for you individually. He knows you individually and cares about you individually. So to say that he doesn’t take notice of the choices that we make, the actions that we take, that’s to say that Jesus is like an absent father. Maybe he pays his alimony, gives us some grace from time to time. But he’s just not invested in our lives. Doesn’t know or care about what we do. No parent is like that. A true parent, God, our father knows and cares what their kids are up to. It’s the only way that he can love them truly. Jesus loves us, so he’s not absent from us. It’s not that he doesn’t care about us.
Sometimes we will say that Jesus is totally inclusive to the point of syncretism, which is to say that He doesn’t care whether you follow him or you follow Muhammad, or you follow Buddha or whatever else, that Jesus would never demand that sort of exclusivity. Jesus wants to be worshipped as God. He wants us to bring our entire lives and our entire selves to him. To worship anybody else as God is to look at Jesus’s sacrifice and say that it doesn’t matter. To say that it’s not unique or it’s not exclusive. Jesus is God. If he’s not God, you’re not saved. If he’s not God, he can’t forgive your sins. But if he is God, he can make an absolute demand on your life. A demand that does require obedience to him. Him specifically.
It’s easy for us to try to tell ourselves these things because we don’t want to make an absolute gift of our life to the Lord, even though he demands it. We want to retain part of ourselves and to say, No, no, I get this part of me. I get to keep this control. It doesn’t work for us to be purified and saved by Jesus. We have to give him everything because that’s what He asks of us.
The final thing that will happen – and I can’t say that people choose this, but we see it in people and this is where the rest of the gospel comes from – is the problems of Christianity. And there are many. We are a church of sinners. That’s why we’re here. So we should expect to see hypocrisy and problems and everything else that we rail against in the Church itself. But they’ll take those problems of Christianity and they’ll multiply them to the point that people who might have even been raised Christian, they are angry at the church. They are angry at Christian faith in general. They’ll say that Christianity is a negative force in the world, that Christianity is not a good thing for people, that it brainwashes people or it causes people to be sheep, or they’ll call religion, specifically Christianity, the opiate of the masses. But they do all of these things to say that religion should not be adhered to or listened to. And again, there are reasons to critique the people of the church. We are all sinners. There are reasons to say, I struggle with this teaching or that teaching. But when we see a wholesale rejection of religion or a wholesale rejection of Christ, I have to believe that a lot of that is somebody who feels and knows the absolute demand that Jesus makes on their lives and says, I can’t, I won’t. And because of that, I reject I have to push religion out altogether because to engage with the absolute demand that Christ makes on me is too much. And because I won’t engage with that, or I can’t, or I can’t emotionally get there, I have to emotionally react against Christianity and say it’s horrible or evil or I can’t have any part of it. It’s again, one thing to say I have doubts or struggles, and it’s another thing to have your life consumed with anger and push back against Christian faith in Jesus himself.
That’s why Jesus tells us, Do you think I have come to establish peace on Earth? No, I tell you a rather division. I can’t believe that the Lord desires division. He prays over and over again that His disciples would be united by his presence into one body. But he knows that he will bring division if he makes an absolute demand on people’s lives and people take that seriously. If his followers live their lives such that it’s obvious they have given their entire life to the Lord, then those who are unwilling to make that gift of their entire self, those who are afraid of being consumed, they’re going to react against that.
I don’t care how nice you are. I don’t care how kind you are, how gentle and loving you are. If you’ve given your life to the Lord, you are a threat to this world because the powers of this world – the evil one, first and foremost, and then those powers who say that the only reality is here in the temporal reality – the powers of this world do not want to be consumed. They do not want to have their power threatened. And so to see someone in their midst who has given their entire life away to something greater, to something transcendent, who has said, my life belongs to the Lord and I don’t live for myself anymore. You’re a threat to that power because you said this world doesn’t have power over me, only the Lord. You’re a threat to the power of this world, and you will be interpreted as a threat, and you will bring division wherever you go again, even if you try otherwise, even if you try to be loving and kind, you will bring division if you live your life completely for the Lord. Because those who feel threatened by that choice, that demand that Jesus makes, they will react against him. They will reject him. They may turn on him, even in the family, two against three and three against two, father against son, mother against daughter, mother in law against daughter in law. Nothing that we would ever desire. Nothing that we would ever want or pray for as best as we can. We try to bring people into the loving community of the church, but we will meet with division and the Lord is naming that for us.
And yet, what else can we do? In our first reading, Jeremiah refuses to stop prophesying the truth. He’s been telling the people that they are so far from the covenant, that the Lord is going to destroy their city. He’s going to destroy the temple. And it’s such an unpopular message that he’s lowered into a well to die. But he doesn’t stop preaching because what’s he going to do? He’s already given his life to the Lord. He’s going to take his life back? He’s going to say, Lord, no, I gave my soul over to you; But now that I’m threatened, now that I’m left to die in as well, I’m going to stop? It’s uncomfortable for me now? He’s already given his life to the Lord. He’s already been consumed by the love of God. There’s nothing else that He can do. Same is true for us. When we give our life to the Lord, there’s no looking back. There’s nothing else that we would do. There’s no other way that we would act, even if we meet with resistance or division despite our best efforts. We’ve given our life to the Lord. It’s a total gift. We’re not going to do otherwise.
En el Evangelio de hoy, Jesús dice que ha venido a traer fuego a la tierra. A diferencia de la luz, que puede tocarnos sin cambiarnos realmente, el fuego consume. Eso es lo que lo hace tan peligroso, consume todo lo que toca hasta que no queda nada más que un montón de cenizas. Cuando Jesús dice que va a traer fuego a la tierra, no simplemente la va a calentar, sino que la va a destruir.
Sin embargo, el fuego también se puede utilizar para purificar metales. En este caso, el fuego quema todo lo que es imperfecto, dejando atrás un metal perfecto y purificado. Jesús va a prender fuego a la tierra, y ese fuego nos va a destruir, pero sólo va a destruir las partes de nosotros que son imperfectas, pecaminosas y rebeldes contra Dios.
Sin embargo, la demanda de Jesús es absoluta. El fuego no puede quemar la mitad de algo y dejarlo intacto. El fuego se extenderá a todas las partes. Cuando Jesús dice que nos va a prender fuego, está exigiendo que le demos todo lo que tenemos, toda nuestra vida. Sí, las partes perfectas, santas y amorosas de nosotros permanecerán al final, pero no nosotros podemos elegir qué partes dar y qué partes guardar. Tenemos que darlo todo al fuego del Señor, y él puede decidir qué partes quemar y qué partes guardar.
El Señor exige toda nuestra vida, y esto puede ser muy aterrador. No queremos renunciar a nuestra libertad o a nuestro control. Para muchos de nosotros, no queremos renunciar a nuestros pecados, que se han vuelto tan cómodos y agradables. Pero Jesús exige lo contrario. Él exige toda nuestra vida. Y la mayoría de nosotros retrocedemos de esa demanda. La mayoría de nosotros queremos huir de esa demanda.
Así que inventamos mentiras sobre Jesús, mentiras que nos permiten creer que Jesús nunca nos pediría por nuestras vidas. Nos decimos a nosotros mismos que Jesús es solo un buen tipo, un profeta convincente, alguien que vino a decirnos que nos lleváramos bien con otras personas. Pero este Jesús es una mentira, porque el verdadero Jesús dice: “¿Piensan acaso que he venido a traer paz a la tierra? De ningún modo. No he venido a traer la paz, sino la división.” Nos decimos a nosotros mismos que Jesús es tan misericordioso que no se preocupa por nuestras relaciones, nuestros matrimonios, si vamos a la iglesia, si oramos. Pero este Jesús es una mentira, porque el verdadero Jesús requiere contrición del corazón antes de perdonar los pecados. Nos decimos a nosotros mismos que a Jesús no le importa si somos musulmanes o hindúes o budistas o mormones o testigos de Jehová. Pero este Jesús es una mentira, porque el verdadero Jesús es Dios, y Dios no nos permite adorar a dioses e ídolos falsos. Todas las mentiras que nos decimos a nosotros mismos para que podamos fingir que Jesús no está pidiendo para toda nuestra vida.
Finalmente, hay quienes inventan excusas sobre el cristianismo para evitar la demanda de Jesús. Personas que dicen que la iglesia está llena de pecadores (sí, obviamente lo es, por eso estamos aquí), que dicen que la religión es corrupta o una mala influencia o para personas irreflexivas. Pero estas personas son como adolescentes, resentidos por el hecho de que sus padres pusieran límites a sus vidas. A estas personas les molesta el hecho de que Jesús y la religión pongan límites a sus vidas, por lo que inventan mentiras sobre el cristianismo para que no tengan que enfrentar el hecho de que Jesús pidió toda su vida y dijeron “no”.
Una última nota: Jesús dijo que traería división, incluso a las familias. ¿Por qué? Porque cada creyente cristiano es una amenaza. El Diablo y los demonios y todos aquellos que se niegan a adorar a Dios tienen poder en este mundo, un mundo que está pasando. Cuando entregamos toda nuestra vida a Jesús, decimos que ya no reconocemos el poder de este mundo, y en su lugar nos hemos entregado completamente al poder de Dios. Pero esto nos convierte en una amenaza para todos los que tienen y quieren poder en este mundo. Todos los que quieren creer que toda felicidad y placer se encuentra en este mundo y en ningún otro lugar. Cuando entregas tu vida a Jesús, convences los corazones de aquellos que han rechazado a Jesús, y te odian por ello. Ellos saben que le han dado la espalda a Dios, y solo tu existencia les frota la cara en eso. Pero nosotros los cristianos no haremos nada diferente. Jeremías había dado su vida a Dios y Dios le pidió que predicara algunas verdades muy incómodas al pueblo de Israel. Así que lo dejaron en una cisterna para morir. Pero incluso enfrentando la muerte, no iba a cambiar. Ya había entregado su vida a Dios. ¿Qué, iba a quitarle la vida a Dios? Lo mismo es cierto para el cristiano. Una vez que hemos entregado nuestra vida a Jesús, no hay vuelta atrás, incluso si nuestras familias, amigos y sociedad se oponen a nosotros. Jesús nos ha consumido con su fuego, y todo lo que queda es metal puro.