“Do you suppose that I am here to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.” So says the ‘Prince of Peace’ (Isaiah 9:6), him who promised to give ‘a peace that the world cannot give’ (John 14:27; 20:19, 21, 26; Luke 24:36), him who prayed that we might all be one. (John 17:21) Jesus’ word to us this morning is a troubling one. This, though, should come as no surprise to us, for he who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” says to us in the next breath, “Blessed are those who are persecuted in the cause of right.” (Matthew 5:9, 10) This Jesus says to us at the end of his farewell meal: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) The peace Jesus is talking about, is not like what the earth ordinarily calls ‘peace.’
To understand what Jesus is getting at, it is helpful to look at the prophet Jeremiah in our first reading. There he came preaching the impending destruction of Jerusalem, which was under siege. It would be better to surrender before this happened, he urged. This divided the city and provoked much opposition. Those in power, those with most to lose, sought to silence him, and had in thrown down an almost dried-out well where he ended up as the original stick-in-the-mud.
Jeremiah didn’t like what he was called to do, for his proclamation of the Word of YHWH brought him only rejection and suffering, and he complained to God: “You bore me to be a man of strife for the whole world.” (Jeremiah 15:10) In his passion, however, Jeremiah foreshadows the passion of Jesus, who likewise preached a word that divides and which led ultimately to his death. Through his experience we can come to appreciate Jesus’ words: “There is a baptism I must still receive, and how great is my distress till it is over.” (Luke 12:50) For, in coming to terms with the fact that what he was called to proclaim caused division and rejection, Jeremiah could go onto pray: “You have seduced me, Lord, and I have let myself be seduced; you have overpowered me: you were the stronger. And now I am a daily laughing-stock, they all make fun of me. For whenever I speak, I have to howl and proclaim, ‘Violence and ruin!’ For me, God’s word has meant only insult and derision all day long. I used say to myself, ‘I will not think about him, I will not speak in his name any more,’ but then there seemed to be a fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones. The effort to restrain it wearied me, I could not do it.” (Jeremiah 20:7-9) Here is the ‘fire’ that Jesus wants ‘to bring to the earth.’ “How I long for every heart to be already ablaze with this fiery passion for God!” says Jesus. (Luke 12:49)
As I thought about what I might say about this fire, the image that came to mind was of St Anthony of Egypt, the father of monks. As the story goes, Anthony, the son of well-to-do parents, always wanted to live like the apostles and the early Christians. When he was eighteen his parents died unexpectedly and he came into his inheritance. Not long after, when he was in church one day, he heard the words of the Gospel as addressed particularly to him: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; and then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21) So Anthony gave away his family estate and sold the rest of his property, donated the proceeds to the poor, put his sister in the care of some nuns, and went off to become the disciple of a local Christian hermit, who lived in an out of the way place on the edge of town. After fifteen years he thought better of it, and decided he had to withdraw further — far from the habitations of men, as they used to like to put it — and retire into absolute solitude. This is the kind of fire that Jesus speaks of here, a fire that pushes people to decide for or against him: there can be no half-measures; it’s all or nothing. Jesus’ words are designed to light a fire, to enthuse. Though their fire had been thoroughly extinguished when they saw what had happened to Jesus, the disciples on the road to Emmaus were able to say after their encounter with him: “Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?” and they returned immediately to Jerusalem, to the very place where he had been so recently crucified. (Luke 24:32-33)
Jesus tells us he has come to bring division: ‘Father against son, son against father; mother against daughter, daughter against mother.’ (Luke 12:53) Had Anthony’s parents been alive, I’m sure they would have counselled him in all charity, “Now, then, don’t be getting too carried away. No going off and jumping in the deep end. Don’t cause trouble.” Such remarks are designed to pour cold water on and dampen a person’s ardour should they become fired up over religion — today we would call it being radicalised, and there are even government sponsored programmes designed to help hose such people down. But, nevertheless, it is this kind of division that Jesus wishes ferment — not that he wants to divide families, as such; rather he wants people on fire to do the will of God, as he himself was, regardless of what it might cost. He would rather the whole family were on fire with God’s love, instead of having one trying to hose the other down. Later, in the Book of Revelation, this Jesus will say to us: “I know all about you, you who are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! But, because you are neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth.” (Revelation 3:15-16)
This is where we will end up, if we always listen to the voice of the prudent. The Gospels are meant to start fires, and they can and will cause trouble: “In the world you will have trouble,” says Jesus. (John 16:33) Those who let Jesus’ words seduce them can expect to be treated no differently to Jeremiah: “I am a daily laughing stock, everybody’s butt! And no differently to Jesus himself — there have been more martyrs for the faith in the Twentieth Century than in all the preceding centuries, and that pace hasn’t stopped. These martyrs are among that ‘cloud of witnesses’ the Letter to the Hebrews speaks of in our second reading and whom it likens to a group of spectators standing by a racetrack, cheering on those who are now running the same race as they did in their day. It urges us ‘to throw off every thing that hinders us,’ that we might run life’s marathon race with passion and determination — such is a life worth living! It urges us to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus who leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection, on him who, ‘for the joy that was still in the future, endured the cross, disregarding its shamefulness’ (Hebrews 12:1-2) — he is ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life,’ (John 14:6) the Way to that true peace the world cannot give. (John 20:19-22. C.f. Rule of St Benedict 7:67-70; Acts 2:1ff) “How I long for every heart to be already ablaze with this fiery passion for God!” says Jesus. (Luke 12:49)