Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Jesuit priest and brilliant scientist, once said:
“The day will come when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides, and gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, we shall have discovered fire.”
I begin with Fr. Teilhard’s words this morning because they remind me of Jesus’ words in today’s gospel: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”
At first glance, these words of Jesus seem very apocalyptic and destructive. It’s understandable that some people might interpret them in this way. After all, fire can be very destructive. However, it can also be creative.
Fire, in a contained explosion, ignites the engines of automobiles and rockets. Electricity is a kind of fire that powers most of the technology we take for granted. For our ancient human ancestors, fire was used to cook food and refine metal.
On a much larger scale, the fire of the sun gives light and heat to the earth, making life possible.
Finally, the very atoms of our bodies were formed by nuclear fusion in the fiery furnaces of distant stars. These stars later exploded in brilliant supernovae, spreading their elements across the galaxy until they coalesced again in the substance of this planet.
So yes, fire carries within itself the power to destroy, but it also has the power to create. This is the kind of fire that Fr. Teilhard is talking about when he says that humankind “shall have discovered fire” for a second time when we “harness for God the energies of love.” It is also the kind of fire that Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel.
Ever since the earliest days of the Church in the book of Acts, fire has been a prominent, recurring symbol of the Holy Spirit. God dwells within human hearts like a kind of fire, a divine energy that animates faith, hope, and love in the same way that the fire of an explosion propels a rocket into space. The fire of the Spirit has survived multiple, almost constant, attempts to snuff it out over the centuries. But persecution, manipulation, arguments, and sin have all failed to contain this explosion. The Jewish prophet Jeremiah described his inner experience of the Holy Spirit like this: “within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” (Jer. 20:9)
The divine fire is unquenchable, it seems. It’s burning goes back 13.7 billion years, all the way to the moment of the Big Bang, when God ignited a spark that grew into the universe we know today. Like an Olympic torch, this same fire has been passed from star to star, galaxy to galaxy, sun to planet, and hearth to heart.
That same fire burns in you today. To be sure, human selfishness, ignorance, and sin have tried repeatedly to smother it in ash. At times, its light had grown so dim to our eyes, we thought it had died out completely. But all such attempts to quench this fire have been in vain. The fire that Christ kindled in his work of redemption is identical with the fire that exploded forth at creation. This fire burns in you today, God’s free gift to all that exists, and it unites your spirit with the creative energy of the cosmos in the Holy Spirit.
This is a powerful truth that takes root in our Christian hearts as we make regular use of the means of grace, especially Scripture and Sacrament. We need to stay connected to these things because they act like firewood in our souls. This is the fuel that Christ uses to bring the divine flame back to life in us when we have almost succeeded in stomping it out with our selfishness and cynicism.
All of this sounds rather nice. It would be all too easy to say that there is a bit of God’s fire in each of us and Jesus comes along to help us keep it going. But here’s the catch: in order to rekindle the divine fire in us, Jesus has to stir up our smoldering ashes. He digs deep down beneath the surface and turns everything upside-down so that the fire can find its way back to the surface again.
In today’s gospel, Jesus is intentionally stirring up the ashes in his listeners when he says, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
This is a far cry from “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.” At Christmastime, we hail the baby Jesus as the “Prince of Peace” who proclaims “Goodwill to all.” At first glance, it seems like Jesus is contradicting himself in this passage, but he isn’t.
In order to rekindle the fire of divine love within us, Christ first has to clear away the ash. In many cases, the “ash” is a faulty way of thinking about and relating to one another.
We human beings have a tendency to divide ourselves into camps of various sorts, for various reasons. We are divided along lines such as race, class, gender, language, politics, nationality, and religion. We are trained from birth to identify with one or more of these categories and understand how those in the opposing categories are enemies. One group is “us” and the other is “them.” Our groups fight with one another to gain supremacy, especially in terms of power and money.
Jesus, as the Prince of Peace, wants all God’s children to live in harmony with one another; he wants us to recognize the common spiritual fire that has bound us together from the beginning of time.
But before this recognition can happen, Christ has to shine the light of truth on our idolatries and ideologies that lead us to ground our sense of identity in one or more of these categories and set ourselves up against those who are different from us.
This is the kind of “division” that Jesus brings to the world: he divides our True Self from our small ego. He teaches us how to detach from ultimate identification with some aspect of our circumstance or personality.
This division process is painful. It looks like treason from the perspective of those who continue to identify with these categories. This is why Jesus says, “From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three.”
Jesus caused quite a scandal in his day because his band of apostles included Levi, a tax collector who collaborated with the occupying Roman government against his own Jewish people, and Simon, a zealot who had dedicated his life to fighting the Roman occupation of Judea with acts of terror and violence (in many ways, he was like an Al Qaida or ISIS fighter). By all rights, these two men should have hated each other. But somehow, in the company of Jesus, these two men found the strength to transcend the categories that divide them.
This pattern repeated itself time and again among Jesus’ disciples. Not only did he reconcile members of opposing in-groups within Judaism, he also welcomed entire villages of Samaritans as those who believed in him. Not only that, but the early Church went so far as to include Gentiles as well as Jews in its membership. This was unheard of at the time.
It was so scandalous, the early Christians were forcefully exiled from the synagogues where they had previously worshiped. Christ’s all-inclusive message of peace, which transcends lines of race and nationality by the power of the Holy Spirit, sounded like treason and heresy to the powers that be. The peace of Christ became divisive, not because Jesus willed it, but because people were too wedded to their narrow ideological categories. Given the choice, the enemies of Christ would rather possess one small corner of a world divided than live together in a universe united.
It seems to me that little has changed in the two millennia between Jesus’ earthly ministry and ours. We continue to live in a world/country/state/city/church/family that is bitterly divided against itself along petty and selfish lines. We are taught to fear those who are different from us and hate those who are our enemies.
As Christians, we cannot afford to play these silly, destructive games. Through Christ, we have come to experience the great fire from the foundation of the universe, the Holy Spirit that pervades all creation.
Christ calls us today to live with this awareness of the great sacred fire, even though the majority of people around us doesn’t see or understand it. Our actions of grace and mercy may look like treason or heresy to those around us. We may find ourselves at odds with the members of our own family, but Christ calls us to a higher allegiance. It may be my patriotic duty as an American to cheer as bombs fall on the strongholds of ISIS, but it is my spiritual duty as a Christian to mourn the death of my enemies, brothers and sisters who were created in the image of God, just like me.
It seems ironic that our unity in Christ should put us at odds with our other allegiances in the world, but this is how it has been from the beginning. It is yet another paradox of the Christian faith that we are called to let stand. We cannot hope to understand or resolve the problem by human effort alone, but only as all of us come to recognize and honor the sacred fire that was kindled by Christ: the Holy Spirit that dwells in each of us.