Feast Day: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Jeremiah 23:23-29; Psalm 82; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”
Have faith, be a saint. Those five words well sum up my sermon this morning. Have faith, be a saint. The calling of every Christian is to be a saint. What does that mean? It means that God is calling you to entrust your life to him and allow the fire of God’s love to set you ablaze. It is hard work, to be a saint. But it is primarily God’s doing and, moreover, you are not alone in that pursuit.
I came to cast fire upon the earth, Jesus said. Just what is that fire? It is the fire of God’s judgement that burns away everything in us and in the world that does not belong in the kingdom. It is the fire of God’s word that is like a hammer breaking open our rock-hard hearts, as the prophet Jeremiah said. It is the fire of divine love that illumines our minds and warms our hearts and sets us ablaze with love for God and for his world. It is a fire for our salvation and not our damnation. It is a fire by which we are made perfect, complete, whole.
This is the fire that Jesus came to bring to the earth. Earlier in Luke’s gospel John the baptizer, anticipating Jesus, proclaimed: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire,” (3:16-17). Baptism and fire, it’s a connection that Jesus makes isn’t it? “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”
He is, of course, speaking about the baptism of the cross for it is there where the fire of God’s judgement and love burn not as two but as one to reconcile us to himself. And when we are baptized we share in Christ’s Passion. By faith we die with him on the cross and we are raised with him to new life. A new life in the Spirit who at Pentecost descended upon the disciples in the form of what? Tongues of fire. The fire that Jesus has come to bring is the fire of divine love that burns from the Cross and ignites all those who come to Jesus in faith.
That’s an important qualifier for this is, somehow, unimaginably even, a fire that we can resist. By no means will all people permit themselves to be set ablaze by the fire of God’s love. And because some will resist the very love that leads us to unity, humanity will be divided. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” From now on families will be divided, father vs son, mother vs daughter, and so on.
A difficult and confusing saying. After all, is Jesus not the prince of peace? What can this mean? The peace the Jesus brings is not the absence of conflict but rather the presence of divine love. Jesus has not come to bring a domestic tranquility by which we can rest undisturbed. He brings the kingdom and that brings with it the moment of crisis, the moment of decision. How will we respond to Jesus when he comes to us?
Do you know what happens when you put an iron in the fire. It remains the same iron only now it is changed by the fire. Now it glows. So it is with those who enter the fire of Christ’s love. He does not leave you the same but transforms you. Begins to make you a saint. And when that happens you just don’t fit the same way you used to. Now the goal is holiness not popularity. Now you’re set free from being a people-pleaser and may live to please God.
Have faith, be a saint. Of course, this both is and isn’t something that happens overnight. It’s the journey of a lifetime of following after Jesus. It is an adventure that takes discipline and fortitude. The author of Hebrews likened it this morning to what? A race. “Lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”
About ten years ago I ran a half-marathon. It was hard work and it took a good deal of training. So too becoming a saint is hard work and you must train. Prayer, fasting, giving your money away, meditating on Scripture, receiving the Eucharist—all this is spiritual exercise required to become a saint. It is difficult and you may be inclined to give up. Then, there is only one thing to do: keep your eyes on Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” Faith begins and ends with Jesus. He will begin to grow faith in you and he will bring it to perfection as well.
And here’s the other thing. You’re not alone. There comes a moment in every long distance race as you begin to approach the finish line. The crowds thicken and grow louder. With their cheers suddenly even weary runners are able to kick it up a notch and find themselves sprinting the last 200m or so with a strength that is not entirely their own.
“We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” says the author of Hebrews. Therefore, let us run. The great cloud of witnesses are all the saints in heaven who together with us have been set ablaze with the fire of God’s love. They have gone before us. They know the way. They have trained. They have been tested sometimes severely even to the point of death. And now they surround us, says the author of Hebrews, cheering us on. We are surrounded by the saints. And they pray. For you. That you might set your sights on Jesus Christ and him alone. That you might allow the fire of his love to illumine your mind, warm your heart, and consume everything in you that does not belong to the kingdom of God.
Even now that fire is burning. This very morning, this very hour, it burns. Today, now, this moment, will you allow the fire of God’s love to set you ablaze and make you a saint?
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