The pace of God? Baptismal Fire!

A Sermon on Luke 12:49-56

Last week, with the heat index, it was 120 degrees in Memphis, Tennessee. While I was there, visiting my wife and our families, I learned once again how hot it can get there. I remember waking up one morning, thinking, What time is it? I was, after all, on vacation. And then I thought, How hot is it going to get, today? Those two questions came to mind again this week while I pondered, prayed, wrestled with and stewed over today's Gospel. When you heard these eight verses from Luke, what did you think? How did you feel? What words describe this teaching of Jesus for you? Shocking? Shrill? Stark? Strident?

This passage comes up every three years in our Lectionary, and when it does, some preachers cringe when they see that these are the words of Jesus which they've been given to preach on today. "Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!" (12:51) What preacher in their right mind wants to go there? Talk about "scorching heat" (12:55). Well, then, what about the other Lectionary lessons? We could focus instead, the preacher might think, on today's passage from the prophecy of Jeremiah, which includes, "Is not my word like fire?" (23:29). Maybe, then, the desperate preacher could turn instead to the Epistle to the Hebrews, where we hear about what kinds of things happen to the saints and the prophets: "torture . . . mocking and flogging . . . chains and imprisonment . . . stoned to death . . . killed by the sword. . . ." (11:36-37). And then, there's that little phrase, "they were sawn in two," which gives new meaning to Jesus' notion of bringing division, not peace. (For more fun, you can go to

Since last Sunday's lesson from Luke, which began with those comforting words, "Do not be afraid, little flock . . . " (12:32), the tone of Jesus' voice has gone way past shocking, to shrill. If we read the eight verses that follow last Sunday's and precede today's passage (verses our Lectionary readings omit), we see Jesus shift from talking about servants who are fed supper by an approving master to speaking of servants who, for misconduct, are badly beaten, even "cut in pieces" (v.46). Oh, my! It seems it's everywhere we look - that division, that fire! Jesus, who rebuked his disciples James and John back in chapter nine (9:54-55) for wanting to bring down fire on people who weren't very welcoming, suddenly says that he can't wait to bring down some good, old fire himself (thanks to David Schlafer, Feasting on the Word, p. 359).

"I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!" (12:49). Now, there's stark and strident! If we dare to look carefully at today's lessons, they're all about fire and division. How hot is it going to get today? What time is it? Maybe you're thinking it's time to stop listening to this sermon. But seriously, where can we find some Good News in all the bad news we seem to be hearing in today's lessons - and in our Gospel passage in particular?

In addition to division and fire, there is another Gospel image today: baptism. "I have a baptism with which to be baptized. . . . " (12:50). This is no sweet, Sunday morning baptism, when someone gets a little water sprinkled on them. This is a full immersion experience. This is the Baptism of Jesus, and it's a baptism by fire. John the Baptist first mentions this kind of baptism earlier in Luke, when people came to the Jordan River to be baptized, because it was the popular thing to do. Here's one translation of John's response to those folks: "I'm baptizing you here in the river, (yes). (But) the main character in this drama, to whom I'm a mere stagehand, will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out" (3:16, The Message).

This is one of the best-kept secrets in the church, this spiritual, transformational, baptismal fire. We don't talk about it very much, because if we knew back at our baptisms what we know now, there would probably be fewer Christians. Actually, that baptismal fire is like the kind of spiritual fire, the refiner's fire of the prophets before John and Jesus. That baptismal fire is the kind of spiritual fire that came down upon the disciples in the upper room at Pentecost (Acts 2:14), in tongues of fire we symbolize in a bishop's mitre, that pointy little hat. That baptismal fire is the kind of fire that descends on us - yes, us, when we least expect or want it. Jesus didn't want it either. "What stress I am under," he said, "until it is completed!" (12:50). But Jesus did expect it. And whenever we decide to follow Jesus we can expect to feel our own baptismal fire.

"Baptism by fire" is a phrase that describes a soldier's first experience of battle. But life is, for all of us, a series of fiery ordeals, trials and tribulations. We are baptized only once, but our baptismal fire lasts through our lifetimes. Some of you here today may not yet have had an experience of baptismal fire. Many of you know just what baptismal fire is all about. Sometimes baptismal fire comes quickly, like a sudden death. But baptismal times of fiery trial can also be long and gradual, like the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem, to the trial of his crucifixion and ultimately, to the triumph of his resurrection. Our own baptismal fire experience might be a separation from a loved one or a divorce; a hard patch at work or at school; a chronic illness or family crisis that never seems to end.

A week ago I attended what could be described as a kind of death or divorce. It was the last Sunday for the rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Memphis. Having come to a sudden agreement with the church's leaders to leave that grand, old parish, he said "goodbye" and "thank you." On Sunday he handed over the keys to the buildings, and he and his wife processed out to the closing hymn. I was there, because my wife, who had served on staff with Andy some time ago, agreed to return there and serve as a temporary, interim associate rector, until other clergy arrive. There is no doubt that this Gospel text has painful and powerful meaning today for the people of the household of God called Calvary, Memphis: "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 her mother in law" (12:52-53). Dare we add: older member against younger member, goddaughter against godmother, vestry member against vestry member?

While this kind of division, this kind of fire, can feel like death or divorce, new, baptismal life will come. I have sure and certain faith that Jesus is with those good people, our sisters and brothers in Christ at Calvary Church. Please pray for them, for Andy and Sybil and for Eyleen. Even though this has been a hot summer everywhere, including here in Frederick, it is scorching hot in Memphis. How hot is it going to get today? And what time is it? No matter how hot it gets, it's always time for Jesus, the one who knew both trial and triumph.

Yes, today, there's Good News. The Good News is that there is more to Jesus' baptism than just division and death. There is also celestial fire, God's eternal flame of the peace that surpasses all our understanding. We find God's incomprehensible peace all through Luke's gospel, from the angels who greet Mary (1:79) to the sick whom Jesus heals (7:50, 8:48) to his final, resurrection appearance to the disciples (24:36). Jesus does come to bring peace, but it is not the kind of peace that smoothes things over, makes everything nice and tries to keep things all in the family. God's peace in Jesus Christ is a baptismal fire.

Today, it's time to look to Jesus, no matter how hot it gets. One person who wears a pointy little hat of spiritual fire, the retired Bishop of Kansas, loved to preach on this hymn text (Hymnal 1982, # 661): They cast their nets in Galilee, just off the hills of brown; such happy, peaceful fishermen...before the Lord came down. Contented, peaceful fishermen, before they ever knew / the peace of God that filled their hearts brimful, and broke them, too....The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod. Yet, let us pray for but one thing - the marvelous peace of God. AMEN.