This isn’t a sermon, it’s some thoughts that might lead to one.
Luke 12.49-56 is a really hard gospel. I like to find good news in the gospel, and I also like to inhabit the grey areas, but today’s reading leaves me very little scope for either; it seems full of judgement and harsh dividing lines, and destruction. And although I like complex, I like my complexity to be, well, happier.
One of the things I encourage my ordinands to do when they’re preparing to preach is to identify the ‘gospel in the gospel’ – a process which involves letting the scripture reading converse with the time of year, the occasion, the church context and local/national events, and the preacher’s own perspective, experience and insights. Sometimes (=often) this process results not in a neat and tidy conclusion, but in more of a ‘way in’ – a starting point for what is likely to be a longer journey of reflecting and mulling-over, and responding.
Today is one of those days. There was a particular phrase that I found myself drawn to, and I’ll treat this, if I may, as the rabbit hole through which to explore this gospel, and see where the journey takes us.
“I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”
This isn’t the first time that Jesus has talked about baptism the context of his coming time of suffering, and his approaching death. Remember Mark 10.38-39? You do not know what you are asking, Jesus replied. “Can you drink the cup I will drink, or be baptized with the baptism I will undergo?” “We can,” they answered. “You will drink the cup that I drink,” Jesus said, “and you will be baptized with the baptism I undergo… In this rebuke to James and John, who are seeking the highest place by Jesus’ side in heaven, Jesus connects both baptism and the drinking of a cup with suffering. It sounds awfully like Baptism and Holy Communion are deeply and inextricably intertwined with suffering, both in the life of Christ and in the life of his followers, since they are key markers of our belonging to him.
In the early church, when many of those new to the faith, who had just begun their journey towards full membership of the church, were martyred before they could be baptised, the church began to teach that their martyrdom was a ‘baptism of blood’ – the blood shed at their death stood in for the water of baptism and united them fully with Christ. It’s possible that Jesus’ references to a baptism of suffering were the early church reading their own experience of martyrdom back into Jesus’ own teaching. It’s a powerful image, and a powerfully hopeful one for a persecuted church.
In today’s gospel there is no cup of suffering, but there is something else: ‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!’ The phrase that sprang immediately to my mind, hearing these two images side by side in the reading, is the ‘baptism of fire’ that John refers to in Matthew 3. It may refer to a purging fire, or perhaps more likely to the fire of the Spirit at Pentecost. But the way we use the phrase now is as a way of talking about a difficult start, a challenge for which we may not be prepared, but which may test us and allow us to rise to it, proving us capable of facing whatever may come next. Oddly, given the reference to baptism, it is near-equivalent in meaning to ‘in at the deep end’ – an first challenge that reveals whether we will sink or swim.
If a baptism by fire is difficult (or at least challenging) start, then it is the start of something new, something that is (hopefully) going to be ongoing, something which we will (hopefully) survive, and through which we will ultimately thrive and grow. Think of the fire that Moses encountered on the mountain – the bush that burned but was not consumed. Think of how his new vocation emerged from this fire, overwhelming him but not destroying him, ‘burning’ him into being the person God was calling him to be. Think of the fire of Pentecost, both the birth and the baptism of the church, terrifying, yet full of joyful power, enabling the few to grow to thousands.
Fire, in the gospel, is at once destructive and regenerative. It demands our absolute attention right here and now, in the present moment, when it may inspire terror, awe, wonder, fear… and yet it’s orientation is towards the future, towards what it will give birth to, what it will enable. The wound that is cauterized is for the sake of life and health; the forest is managed by controlled fire in order that new growth may replace old; the ore is refined in the flames to bring out the gold. The references to fire (and even to the weather at the end of the reading) are about the relationship between what is happening now, or about to happen, and the ultimate, more hopeful, trajectory in the future. Suffering, purpose, vocation, life and death, hope and judgement – all of these are bound together, woven together, in this complex and richly allusive (and elusive) gospel.
But what of us? The two central rites of our membership in Christ – baptism and Eucharist – are both connected by Jesus to his passion. When we are baptised, when we welcome others in baptism, when we share the bread and the cup, we participate in Christ, we are his body on earth, sharing in his death and resurrection, his suffering and his glory. This is our baptismal and eucharistic vocation. And it’s our life’s work to work out what that looks like in real life, and to do it. The hard fact of today’s gospel, much as it pains me to admit it, is that being good does not make for a quiet life free from suffering or from argument. It is in the nature of sin to battle with the good, both between us and within each of us. Dante, in his Divine Comedy, reserved a special place just on the outskirts of hell for those who ‘lived without praise or blame’ and had therefore ‘never really lived’ at all. These, in Dante’s mind, were presumably those who had lived out their lives in denial of the reality that living in the world and truly engaging with it in a meaningful way will involve making decisions, working out what to believe and then standing up for it, and being willing, once standing, to be counted. Even (or especially) if you stand up and are counted for the sake of truth, justice and righteousness, you will make some enemies and piss a lot of people off (sorry about that). The prophets of the Hebrew Bible, and Jesus himself, are testament to that.
When we read the ‘signs of the times’ (ie what’s happening now, in the church, in our own local community, in the nation, in the world), we are confronted with a question: what sort of Christians, what sort of church, is required? Who do we need to be in response? What does it look like when we (individually, communally, ecclesially) fulfill our fiery baptismal vocation to be Christ’s presence in the world?
I don’t have an answer for you, but if it is any consolation, I shall take away the same questions for myself.