In the last two weeks Amanda has asked us to consider a faith audit, looking at our personal or family faith budget we might say, as we move through this section of Luke’s Gospel hearing teachings about what it means to be a disciple and what that discipleship might cost.
I discovered when I looked back at old sermons on this reading that I’d either been on holiday on Trinity 9 when this one came round – or I’d had a baptism.
Now at first look this might seem like a pretty grim reading for a baptism – but actually it chimes in pretty well with one of the things I always say to baptism families when they come to reflect with me on what baptism is all about.
Jesus is not a celestial insurance policy. Baptism is not a magic spell of protection.
Our baptism is not just a right of passage, a cause for celebration or the delivering of a decision made to be nominally Christian. It is the start of a journey or a way of journeying through life which contains some huge promises to us from God – in return for those we make to God.
But God doesn’t promise we can live in a bubble, away from the real world. It is a journey through the real world, because baptism is a transforming sacrament of God not a consuming subscription to Disney.
Last week we heard “do not be afraid little flock” – and we were told to be ready.
And now this week it seems that one of the things we need to be ready for is for things to be pretty appalling. This is all sounding very real world indeed. This isn’t comforting, or even words exhorting us to positive action. This is not casual – consumer – put on your Sunday hat but never mind the tough stuff from Monday to Saturday discipleship. This is fire, division and conflict. This is our journey through a very real world. If you look at the words from Hebrews too – we get a list of people who achieved amazing things because of their faith, and a list of terrible things that happened to people of faith too.
This realism is the place where Jesus is coming from here. We’re very used to reading bits of the bible that talk about how things should be, how we can do better and make things nicer – what the Kingdom of God is like or could be. This dialogue isn’t that. Jesus isn’t saying that division and conflict is how the world should be – he’s looking squarely at what is and what will be – the unvarnished truth.
People will be divided in their deepest beliefs about what the world is – about who Jesus is. In the context Jesus speaks in, for families to be divided like this isn’t like they were falling out about Brexit so decided not to get together for Christmas dinner. All those people he speaks of – mothers and daughters and fathers and the in-laws – would most likely all have been living under the same roof – with deep dividing conflict that could not be pushed away but which was every present in their day to day lives.
Is the fire that Jesus speaks of bringing to the earth the fire John the Baptist spoke of – purifying and cleansing the earth?
Or the fire of the Holy Spirit inspiring and enthusing as it did the first disciples at Pentecost – giving strength to endure? Or is it the fire that we simply understand as the sign of God’s indwelling presence, the Shekinah glory – the pillar of fire in the night-time to guide slaves set free as they wandered in the dessert – the fire that burned in the bush but did not consume it.
These words that could sound like a scorched earth policy for destruction connect to the elemental language of both old and New Testament in describing God and God’s action. And frankly when I think about facing the very real divisions in our world, in our communities, perhaps in our households, I think when I have the courage of my convictions I want that fire to be kindled too.
Jesus can see how tough, really tough, things are going to be. As he speaks here he is frustrated by those who seem unable to see much further than their own small, local concerns. Tom Wright when he talks about this passage talks about this section of the Gospel like a piece of music with a haunting beautiful melody, suddenly and shockingly interrupted by a crashing, jarring sound. This is the crescendo of the warnings that Jesus has been giving.
It is loyalty and commitment to God that must be our priority. Just as Jesus made us squirm when he said loyalty to God is more important than loyalty to our earthly family, he continues to tell us that God must come first in our lives – even more so when that’s hard, challenging, divisive. Living God’s way must come first – trusting in God’s divine intention as our creator, and ultimate loving intention as the saviour who died for us.
We are not called to discipleship because it is nice (even if it is nice sometimes).
We are not called to follow Christ because it is comfortable (and we could probably argue all day about the relative comfort levels of Christianity in modern western nations.)
Our call to be baptised into the Body of Christ is a call to turn in all things to Christ’s Way – a call to loyalty, to commitment, to engagement, to trust and to hope. It’s a call to journey with that hope through the very real world, to share that hope with others – to lay aside the sin that clings so closely to us and to remain steadfast in our faith.
To be disciples of the Way – even if Constantine had never decided the whole Roman empire should be Christian.
To be disciples of the Way even if the Church of England were disestablished and the affirmations of an institution melted away.
To be disciples of the Way when there is division and conflict in our homes and in our society – when we are challenged and not affirmed in our faith by the world around us.
Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us – and may we sense in our daily lives that fiery presence of God as we do. Amen.