Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Peace, but Only through the Cross

In our Gospel this week, Jesus says, “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.  From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three,” etc.

I’m afraid with my summer travels I haven’t finished writing my Sunday reflections in a couple weeks.  (I have several half finished!)  But we remain in the context we’ve been in, in Luke 12:

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“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” Jesus said last week.  But then, “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy.”  Then he gave the principle: “Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.  For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” 

On the one hand, we have no reason to fear.  God will provide!  But that doesn’t mean we should settle into worldliness.  To the contrary, our trust that God will provide is why we are not worldly, why we abandon earthly riches and trust in heavenly.

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The same dynamic comes out in our reading from the prophets this week.  The princes say to the king, “Jeremiah ought to be put to death; he is demoralizing the soldiers who are left in this city . . . ; he is not interested in the welfare of our people, but in their ruin.”

(I just did a long personal study of Jeremiah.  I recommend it: he’s the easiest to understand of the long prophets.)

The context is this: the Nothern Kingdom, called Israel, has been taken into exile.  Judah, the Southern Kingdom, is under seige by the Babylonians.  And the prophet Jeremiah says, “we deserve this.”  God will protect us, he says—but first he will punish us.  And we need to accept that punishment.

As always—as today—the people of his kingdom want a prophet who will say, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” but who will not say, “Sell your possessions and give to the needy.”  They want an easy Gospel, what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.”  We all want Christianity without the cross.  But there’s no such thing.  That is not what the Christian God’s love for us means.

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Jeremiah does care about them.  But that care includes God’s “severe mercy.” 

In fact, in our reading, Jeremiah dramatizes the whole thing.  He is thrown in a cistern—a pit for gathering water—and sinks into the mud, until the king’s eunuch comes to his rescue.  God protects Jeremiah, and he will protect us—but through our weakness, not through our strength, and through our acceptance of the hard road of conversion, not through cheap grace.

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Our reading from Hebrews shows the same thing with Jesus.  “For the sake of the joy that lay before him” (that sounds nice!) “he endured the cross, despising its shame.”  So too we have to “rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race.”  God will come through—but it won’t be easy.  That’s the religion of Jesus Christ, the religion of love through the cross.  He died and so must we.

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In our Gospel, Jesus says, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”  The “set” is more like “throw.”  The image is something like fire and brimstone, or shooting lightning bolts.  Some translations say, “how I wish it were already kindled,” making us think of starting our fire small and gentle—but our translation rightly shows the violence of Jesus’s language: he’s not gently warming our hearts, he is crashing in, kicking down the walls.

Then, “There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished.”  Jesus uses lots of mixed metaphors.  Notice how he’s shifted from fire to the water of baptism.  (Baptism literally means dunked in water.)  It seems to me he shifts metaphors partly to keep us from getting too attached to any one of them.

But notice too that he has shifted persons.  He wants to cast fire on the earth, on us.  But he wants to be plunged into the waters himself.  That’s his love: He leads the way, “the leader and perfecter of faith,” as our reading from Hebrews says.  And that is the meaning of our baptism: we are violently plunged into the cross of Christ, the radical call of conversion—and so the waters cast fire on us.  This is not the religion of a comfortable bath, it is the religion of the radical cross.

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And then the household.  There are five characters here, father, mother, adult son, daughter, and the son’s wife, a pretty picture—but “a household of five will be divided.”  He says, look, the religion of love is going to be hard; it will not make cozy happy homes; it will set us at odds with a fallen world.  That’s ironic—as ironic as the fire and water he has just discussed. 

But that’s the cross.  That’s setting our face toward Jerusalem, which is both the place of communion and the place of the cross.  Of course he has “come to establish peace”—but not “on the earth.”  It’s a hard peace, the peace of radical love.

Where do you use God’s love as an excuse to avoid conversion?

eric.m.johnston

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