“I have come to set the earth on fire…”
This gospel reading is potentially the most troublesome of all the readings that we have of the sayings of Jesus. So many people today want to have a nice, friendly, non-confrontational, experience of Jesus. But that is obviously not what he says is supposed to be.
“I have come to set the earth on fire.” This is certainly not the peace and love Jesus that some people picked up forty or fifty years ago around the end of the Vietnam War. In fact, it was 50 years ago that the Woodstock phenomenon happened. I am not trying to justify war, but the distortions that so many peace philosophers make out of Jesus, is quite honestly, a gross distortion of the gospel story.
Jesus tells us in this gospel that he did not come to establish peace on earth! Families will be divided over whether or not to be committed to Jesus. I know, this is a great tragedy. I know that it breaks the hearts of many parents today to watch their children, their grandchildren, even the third generation choose to walk away from the faith that they hold so dear. But Jesus today warns us in the gospel that this is what is going to happen.
I don’t like it any more than you do. I feel it too my own family. But, are there any families that have not been touched by this Exodus from the faith? I know there are signs in some of this turning around, but Jesus warns us that this kind of a problem is going to be there.
So, what are we to do? Or maybe the better question is: what are we not to do? We are not to throw up our hands and say it’s all wasted effort. We are not to give into despair. We are not to stop praying for those who have chosen to walk away. We are not to keep after our family until they get angry. But Jesus is warning that families will be split up over the issue of who he is!
The reading from Hebrews encourages us to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. Regardless of what comes, regardless of who seems to turn against us, fixing our eyes, our hearts, our souls on the promises that Jesus has given us is the only sure way that we can continue in the hope that is the basis of our faith. We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, men and women of faith who have gone before us: martyrs, confessors, priests, sisters, lay men and women who have all chosen to follow Christ. It is as though they have finished their race, and are now sitting in the stands cheering us on to finish what we have begun.
I know it is hard to consider the possibility that people we know and love will be separated from Christ because of their choices. I have had people ask me how they could possibly be happy in heaven if people they love here on earth are not with them in heaven. I do not have a comfortable answer to this before we see God face to face. But, when we are in heaven, we will know that the people who are not with us have made that choice to walk away from God. And, as hard as it is to believe, they will be happier in hell than if they had to stay in the presence of God, because they won’t have a love for God.
It would be more tortuous for someone who does not love God to remain in heaven then to go into hell. That is why they will run away from God as soon as they see him after their death.
This is why we are called to share the love of God with everyone we meet. Because if we do not, there is a risk that they will choose not to love God when the final choice comes on them.
Some of the things that Jesus says in different places in the gospel are a deliberate overstatement, such as pluck out your eye or cut off your hand. But I don’t think that is the case with this gospel reading. There are people, there are families, who cannot abide one another because of faith. It is our responsibility to see everyone, as much as we can, as a potential saint. Every human being has a potential for being with God for all eternity. Unfortunately, there will be many who choose not to. As some of you know, that causes heartache in families. In our gospel today, Jesus warns us that this is our reality.
Jesus, we ask you to hear the cries of our hearts especially for our own families. We struggle. We cry out in prayer. We wonder what we can do, or say that would draw our families back to you in the fullness of your love.
We may not be the ones who will be able to draw our families back to you. So we ask you today to send someone to each of our family members who is able to reach them so that they can embrace the faith again, so that they may return to the race and persevere all the way into heaven.
Give us the courage that we need to continue the race ourselves, regardless of what may seem to stand in our way. Jesus, you “endured such opposition from sinners”. Help us in our opposition to everything that is not from you. Help us to stand faithful, even if we are the only one in our families. You warned us of division in families because of faith in you. Help us to overcome that, so that we can rejoice in your presence for all eternity. Amen.