Today we hear Jesus say, “I have come to set the earth on fire!” and “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” This is not subtle language. This is not the “I’m fine, You’re fine, We’re all OK, let’s just be nice to each other” language that so many attribute to Jesus. The fact that we find these lines in St. Luke’s Gospel makes them even more jarring: Luke is often considered the most merciful and joyful of the Gospel writers. So how can we understand these jarring lines of the Gospel? What is Jesus demanding of us when he wants the world set afire? Does he really want divided families?
After Jesus speaks of fire, he immediately refers to a baptism. This is most certainly a reference to the Pentecost, where thousands were added to the Church and tongues of fire appeared above their heads. This is the fire Jesus wishes were here: the fire of the Spirit, living within each of us. We were baptized with much more than just water. No, we were baptized with the divine fire of love and life proceeding forth from the Holy Spirit into our hearts. This divine fire comes forth from God; it lives within us; and, it transforms us. Until we are baptized with this fire of the Spirit, Jesus is in anguish. Other translations say that he is constrained. Jesus needs us to burn with his fire to complete his mission of salvation from sin and death.
In the book of Revelation, the Holy Spirit says to the church in Laodicea (wherever that is…), “because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” Brothers and sister, we cannot be lukewarm in our faith and in our lives. We must be fire. Not only must we be fire, but we must set the world on fire with God’s love. To become that fire, we must, as the letter to the Hebrews tells us, “rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us.” Simply put: We cannot deny the teachings of the church to those around us. We cannot live our lives contrary to those same teachings. We have to be honest with ourselves about this. So many of us, myself included, tell ourselves little lies, like “this is just a tiny sin, it’s OK,” or, “I don’t like this Church teaching, so I’m going to pretend not to know it,” or, “I think the Church is wrong, so I don’t have to follow this.” These thoughts are the work of Satan, the father of lies. He wants to turn us against God, against our own well being, against everything it means to be a child of God, and against that fire inside of us that we were entrusted with at our baptisms. He wants us to fail at “running the race that lies before us” we are called to run.
This race is not an easy one. In it, we must be exemplars of the faith to those around us. We must be willing to suffer, as the prophet Jeremiah did in today’s first reading. God had instructed Jeremiah to tell the king of Jerusalem to surrender the city, which was under seige by the Babylonians. The prophecy did not go over well, so he was thrown into a cistern. A cistern, if you’ve never seen one, is deep and pretty much impossible to climb out of. This was, basically, a death sentence for Jeremiah. He knew that going in, and was willing to risk his life to proclaim God’s message. In the United States of America, we may not have to risk our lives for God, but we may be asked to risk other things. If God asks us to stand up for him, it could cost us a career, money, friends, or sometimes even family. The devil is the one who sows this pain and division. The evil one is the reason families turn against one another, father against son, daughter against mother. He is behind the sin that lives in the world today, and sadly, too many people have helped him establish structure where sin can continue to grow and flourish.
When Christ says he came to establish division, it is not because he wants to break up families. It is not because he has only invited some of us to join him in Heaven. The divisions exist because Christ has called us to join his fight against the forces of evil and darkness. We can’t stay on the sidelines in this fight: we must pick a side. Do we fight for everything that is good and right and virtuous, for God himself? Or do we fight for the evil one, the father of lies, who desires our downfall?
One outstanding example of a Christian who stared evil in the face and said, “no,” was St. Maximilian Kolbe. During World War II, he was arrested by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz. After a prisoner escaped that horrible place, the Nazis chose ten people at random to execute. One man began to weep, and begged to be spared. St. Maximilian Kolbe saw this, and walked up to the commander—which should have gotten him shot on sight—and said, “I will take his place.” The commander replied, “who are you?” St. Maximilian Kolbe replied, “a Catholic priest.” The ten men were locked in a room to starve to death. St. Maximilian Kolbe led them in prayer and song. St. Maximilian Kolbe was the last to die. In fact, it took him so long, the Nazis ended up giving him a lethal injection. This man stared evil in the face and won. Before all this happened, St. Maximilian Kolbe wrote that, “the value of any [community] depends only and absolutely on our life of prayer, on our interior life, on our personal closeness to the Immaculate [i.e., Mary] and, through her, to the Heart of Jesus.”
Our prayer life must bring us always closer to Jesus, and the surest route is through Mary. It is what allowed St. Maximilian Kolbe and all the saints to stand up to evil. Read the story of any saint—of Fr. Emil Kapaun, of St. Augustine, of St. Francis of Assisi, of St. Thomas Aquinas, of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, of St. Catherine of Siena, or any of those Saints we hear in the first Eucharistic Prayer—and you will find that they all begin with prayer.
“I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing.”
20th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C
August 18, 2019
Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10; Psalm 40; Hebrews 12:1-4; Luke 12:49-53