Some of us Christians have taken Jesus a little too far down the path of peace and docility. Jesus did indeed preach peace and non-violence, but in a very passionate and extreme way! Some of his most intriguing and puzzling sayings are those which seem to fly in the face of our sophisticated and enlightened views of what Jesus was actually here to do:
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
For all our talk of a man who insisted that we turn the other cheek, love our enemies, bless those who curse us, all propositions that as good Christians we of course affirm but rarely believe in and embrace on a deep and convicting level, this was someone who had suffered no illusion about the situation into which he was entering and how explosive and revolutionary the implications of what he said were for this dark and evil world.
It seems to me that many of us who grow up in the homes ranging from the evangelical to the even more extreme versions of American Christianity and then go on to learn more about our faith experience a kind of metamorphosis in our thinking as to who Jesus actually was. For me, essential convictions about the person of Christ have not changed much, but there is so much more than just the belief that Jesus is the Son of God! It’s staggering to consider how much human brainpower, intellect, and talent have gone into the question of what the hell he was actually saying and doing amongst us. And I believe it’s a worthy enterprise for the genuine disciple of Christ, for, as he himself said, “Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me.” (Jn. 12.44,45) Learning more about Jesus is learning more about God.
Learning about Jesus, then, and learning that there area lot of things you have assumed about Jesus or taken for granted that just simply are not true is at once scary and invigorating, stimulating even. You want to know more.
This is true for the person who grows up with a ruthless, almost cutthroat view of the world and of others, who then realizes that Jesus was almost the opposite of the American “religious right” in their views of war and violence and consideration for the other, and then comes across these “difficult” sayings of Jesus. Didn’t he come to bring harmony and reconciliation and peace? Actually, he knows for certain that that is the last result (literally) he is expecting from what he is doing on earth.
I love the version of this saying of Jesus in Thomas (logion 10):
“I have cast fire upon the world, and look, I’m guarding it until it blazes.”
This guy is not just ruefully aware of the unfortunate side effects of his words and actions; he’s looking for a fight! I wonder what “emergent” people like Brian McLaren (love his books, by the way) think of his attitude. It’s so, I don’t know, hardcore!
So what has Jesus come to violently combat? to throw into chaos? to stir up to a blazing inferno? Jesus’ words in John give us a clue, I think. There is one passage in particular that, as a Christian, a disciple in the most naÃ¯ve, implulsive, and gung-ho sense of the word, I get goose bumps when I read and am ready to go! Here it is:
“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
As a disciple, there is so much to get excited about in these few verses. The emotional predicament in which Jesus finds himself, his choice to glorify the Father instead of giving in to his own fears and discomfort, the affirmation and approval of the Father in an audible and thunderous manner, the ignorance of the crowd, Jesus’ dramatic judgment on the dominion of the ruler of this world and on that ruler himself, and of course the image of Jesus’ elevation (like Nehushtan in the wilderness) and the drawing together of all the peoples of the earth to him. That’s what Jesus is doing!
He wasn’t just a hapless victim of the evil machinations of a religious elite intent on retaining their petty positions of power over the poor and unfortunate. He was bringing the fight to the arch-fiend himself, the ruler of this evil dominion of darkness and death. And he knew the costs of bringing that fight to the enemy’s doorstep. And I think it’s a cost that we have yet to begin to fathom.
In doing what he did, Jesus “cast fire upon the earth.” Those who responded to this burst of light in the midst of all this darkness and chose to be in it also chose to stand with Jesus in opposition to the prinicipalities of this world. And taking the stand against the modus operandi of this world, violence, avarice, ambition, self-entitlement, we as Jesus’ followers are asking for violence. More and more I come to believe that if we aren’t experiencing at least a taste of what Jesus did, we are probably not doing our best to follow in his footsteps.
Looking at Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem from this angle makes it relatively easy to see why he suffered the death he did. It is also easy to imagine how we could have easily been the ones to bring that fate to him with our own hands. Jesus didn’t come to Jerusalem just to die; he came to shake the very foundations of this world order. How are we going to follow our master’s lead?