Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 15) // 14 August 2016
“A Hard Saying” // A Sermon by Fr. Sammy Wood
Hebrews 12.1-7 (8-10) 11-14
☩ In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Where I grew up, everybody knew Jesus said tough things — we called them “hard sayings.”
- The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to [eternal] life, and those who find it are few. (Matt. 7.14)
- Unless you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. (John 6.53)
- If your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. (Matt. 5.30)
My grandfather would say: “Them’s hard sayins.” And so is what we read today from Luke’s gospel. If we did a drone flyover of Luke’s gospel, something happens at the end of chapter 9 — it’s like Jesus tacks and goes a different direction, like he’s gotten new orders for a different mission. In the first third of the book, Jesus teaches and heals in Galilee, he feeds the 5000, he mentors his disciples. But after the Transfiguration one little verse, Luke 9.51, says “He set his face to go to Jerusalem.” After 9.51, our flyover sees him move deliberately, methodically, directly toward Jerusalem, almost like the shadow of the cross reaches out and pulls Jesus inexorably in to his Passion and death. From then on, his words become harder and more ominous; he drops “dark hints” about suffering and betrayal. From now on following Jesus means “leaving home and family” (9.57-62); it’s like a lamb walking straight into a pack of wolves (10.3). Hard sayings, like today’s gospel about fire and division.
It’s hard to know what to do with that. Cognitively we try to write these sayings off — they’re too esoteric. Maybe Jesus never said them at all — they’re just scribal insertions from centuries later. But Anglicans treasure the bible too much to do that. We try to plumb these texts, all texts, to see how the church has read them and what they have to do with us today. So let’s unpack three metaphors Jesus uses in this hard saying — images of fire, baptism, and a house divided — and see how they tell us something about the human condition, God’s provision, and our response.
Number one: Fire
I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled. (12.49) Ask people on Charles Street today what Jesus was about, and you’ll get a lot of answers about peace, about love and forgiveness. Almost nobody will tell you Jesus was about conflict and division, and precisely 0% will talk about fire.
So what is Jesus talking about? In the NT, this word for fire (pur) shows up 70 times, and it’s almost always a metaphor for one thing: Judgment. Axes are laid at the root of trees that don’t bear fruit, and they’re cast into fire. (Matt. 3.10) John the Baptist says one coming after him will separate wheat from chaff and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. (Luke 3.16-17) Jesus is using this metaphor to say something about the human condition — That all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3.23), that every one of us deserves God’s judgment. That’s why it’s a hard saying — Jesus is yearning for the fire of judgment to fall.
But . . . Second metaphor: Baptism
But I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how I am constrained until it is accomplished. (12.50) This is the plot twist, the surprising shift in the story — Yes, sinful humanity merits the judgment of God, but Jesus’ baptism turns that bad news into good news, and here’s how. What is the baptism Jesus is talking about? It can’t be water baptism — John already baptized Jesus in the Jordan nine chapters ago. Baptism is another metaphor. One source says “the baptism (being “plunged” into something) is not now about what Jesus will bring to others, but . . . is an image for the personal suffering that will be an essential part of his own mission.” Jesus’ baptism is his suffering and the death he will die for the life of the world.
A while back a preacher told a story he’d read in National Geographic:
After a forest fire in Yellowstone National Park, forest rangers began their trek up a mountain to assess the inferno’s damage. One ranger found a bird literally petrified in ashes, perches statuesquely on the ground at the base of a tree. Somewhat disturbed by the eerie sight, he touched the bird with a stick and it fell over. Three tiny chicks scurried from under the dead mother bird’s wings. The loving mother, keenly aware of impending disaster, carried her offspring to the base of the tree and gathered them under her wings, instinctively knowing that the toxic smoke would rise. She could have flown to safety, but she refused to abandon her babies. When the blaze arrived and the heat scorched her small body, the mother remained steadfast, because she had been willing to die, that those under the cover of her wings would live.
What a great story — preachers salivate over stories like that. The only problem is I Googled it and found out it never actually happened! What do birds know about “toxic smoke” rising? Not a thing, but the story is still a parable of something that’s true: Jesus didn’t come to bring the fire of judgment; he came to take the fire of judgment, to take the heat for us. Jesus gave up his life to save ours, on the cross he walked into the fire of God’s judgment on our sin so we won’t be singed. That’s how God’s provision turns the the bad news of human sinfulness into the good news of the gospel.
Last point — The third image: A divided house
Do you think I have come to bring peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. Henceforth in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided . . . . (12.52-53) Remember your history: When Jesus said these words, Israel was under Roman occupation, Jews yearned for a messiah to liberate them and unite the nation. But Jesus didn’t do that. Instead he became a fissure that split Israel right down the middle. Suddenly what mattered wasn’t Jewish blood or all the Jewish boundary markers; the only thing that mattered was Jesus.
It’s no different now. The world is still divided about what to do with Jesus even today, and everything hinges on that one choice. Think of two raindrops falling on opposite sides of the gable of a house straddling the continental divide — Where they fall in that moment results in their one day being “oceans apart.” What we think of Jesus matters. It matters whether we acknowledge that we deserve the fire of God’s judgment and let ourselves be found under God’s sheltering wings.
But what happens far too often is this: We think we’re the ones following Jesus, but those people over there — the people on the other side of the Anglican Communion, the conservatives or the liberals, on the other side of this or that debate in the church — they have it wrong. But Solzhenitsyn was right: The line between good and evil cuts through the center of every human heart. Do we get that? Do we repent and cry out for grace, or arrogantly presume we’re on the right side of history and the right side of God? We need to be what Brennan Manning calls “ragamuffins.” In The Ragamuffin Gospel, Manning says:
At Sunday worship, as in every dimension of our existence, many of us pretend to believe we are sinners. Consequently, all we can do is pretend to believe we have been forgiven. As a result, our whole spiritual life is pseudo-repentance and pseudo-bliss.
Ragamuffins know we’re not ok, that we’re sin-sick and need a savior, so we really repent and so really experience the lunatic joy of forgiveness. Nobody said following Jesus would be easy. Sometimes — lots of times — his sayings are hard ones. But at the end of the day, nothing else matters except whether we’ll acknowledge we need him, and let ourselves be found under his sheltering wings.
Consider that an invitation.
☩ In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
- I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1971).
- Mark L. Strauss and John H. Walton, Luke, TTTCS (Grand Rapids, Mich.: BakerBooks, 2013).
- For the debunking of the bird story, see http://www.snopes.com/glurge/birdwing.asp (last visited 12 August 2016).
- Fred B. Craddock, Luke (in Interpretation: A Bible CMT for Teaching and Preaching) (Louisville, Ky.: John Knox, 1990).
- Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel (Sisters, Or.: Multnomah, 2000).