"Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?
No, I tell you, but rather division."
I have to admit I've always had some difficulty with these words. The Lord asks and answers his own question, without even giving us a chance to answer. And the answer he gives is certainly not one that any of us would have given.
In Scripture, Jesus asked this question of his disciples immediately after telling them that he has come to set the earth on fire. This passage - read at the Liturgy this week - is a continuation of Luke's Gospel, which outlines the Lord's idea of discipleship. It closes the 12th Chapter, which begins with the mission of the disciples, and takes us through his description of the Transfiguration, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the story of Martha and Mary, the Lord's teaching on Prayer (the Lord's Prayer)… right up to last week's reading where Jesus tells us to be prepared, for we "do not know the hour when the Son of Man will come."
Our brothers and sisters who made up the earliest Christian communities lived in an age of persecution and fear, and with a very vivid sense of expecting the second coming of Jesus at any moment. So being prepared, being ready for His appearance was a very powerful motivation for them to be faithful in living out the Gospel every day and in every circumstance. It made their lives heroic; it made their witnessing in faith very courageous and consistent.
As time passed, and Jesus did not in fact return, the sense of urgency passed. It was easier to become complacent, to grow comfortable with compromise, and to put off real conversion. All of the Gospel messages about being prepared had to be retranslated... and, very often, the motivation for authentic Christian living became the inevitability and the unpredictability of death: Christians must live good and holy lives every single day in order to be ready to meet the Lord at the moment of death.
Generally, it is not normal for people to live with the thought of imminent death unless they happen to be terminally ill, or very old, or caught in some life?threatening circumstance. So for most of us, being prepared has to mean something else. It has to imply a profound sense of commitment and fidelity to the Gospel and to Christian values. It means that this attitude of mind and heart becomes second nature to us… is always present... and directs and affects all of our choices.
Hopefully, we have given our lives over to the Lord through our membership in the community of His holy people. So we don't act out of fear of death, or fear of the second coming of Jesus, or fear of God. We act out of faith and love. We nourish ourselves on His Word, on the sacramental life of the Church, in our prayerfulness, and in our daily acts of love and service to our neighbors, in whom we see the image of God. At least, we try to do this.
We know that we don't always succeed. There are the difficult moments, the times of weakness and compromise, the times of selfishness and forgetfulness. So we do need reconciliation, we do need reminders. We need to have moments when we interrupt the flow of habit and routine to take an unexpected look at what we are about.... to check our Christianity in action.
One doesn't need to be a theologian or "professional religious" person in order to be a disciple. Jesus never once formulated a doctrinal or theological proposition. He spent his life and his ministry among people - living with them, touching them, talking with them, embracing and healing them, breathing His Spirit into their hearts. The first disciples became aware - begrudgingly, at first - that the Spirit they had seen in Jesus was present and active in their lives as well. Eventually, they came to believe that this Spirit could be as courageously expressed in their lives as Jesus had allowed it to be in his. And so should we.
We need to be prepared, always. We do have to live each day trying to imitate the life of Jesus as perfectly as we can. His ministry flowed from his belief that living in love was living in God. He believed that His intimate understanding of God would be "good news" to all people - that it would bring freedom to those held captive, bring sight to the blind and set the downtrodden free.
I believe this is the "fire" that He was speaking about. He told us that there is no easy way to bring about the Kingdom of God. It demands purity of heart, a commitment to peace, readiness to forgive, generosity, the endurance of persecution… being ready to take the hard road. True discipleship calls for large, loving and generous hearts - filled with a burning desire to live as He lived, to serve as He served and to recognize, name and affirm the presence of God's Spirit in people's lives - and to call them to act in concert with this presence. This is true freedom.
Jesus has indeed set us free. But this is a freedom that is far different from what we might expect. By his life we are set free from images, ideas and practices that bind us into the enslavement of thinking and acting as if we had all of the answers; we are set free from the fear and abandonment of a distant, impersonal God; we are set free from divisions that divide us and set us against one another. This is a freedom that challenges us to break down barriers and to take personal responsibility for the emergence of the God's reign in this world.
And maybe that is why Jesus said that He has not come to "bring peace." His message is one that rattles our cage; that shakes us out of our complacency - one that makes us uncomfortable. He lights his fire within us and tells us that it is not enough that we just listen and keep these words to ourselves.
If we Christians, like Jesus, truly lived and preached as He did, then we can be certain that the reign of God would be seen among us, and that Christianity would have something of great value to share and explore with people searching for meaning in an age of disbelief and cynicism.
As believers in Jesus, we do need to be prepared. And being prepared means being ready for a spot check on our Christianity at any time. We have to think and speak and act consistently in a way that will identify us always as belonging to God's people, living out Jesus' vision. He preached and lived in the Spirit, and his preaching and his living challenge us all to do the same.
Only by accepting this challenge will we be able to "set the earth on fire" with the "good news."