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Readings: 12th Sunday after Trinity

09 August 2013

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Proper 15: Jeremiah 23.23-29; Hebrews 11.29-12.2; Luke 12.49-56

Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray and to give more than either we desire or deserve: pour down upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid and giving us those good things which we are not worthy to ask but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

IT IS tempting to rush to the familiar words at the end of the epistle, without thinking what lies behind them: "Let us lay aside . . . run with perseverance . . . looking to Jesus who, for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of God."

Perhaps disconcertingly, in the Gospel, Jesus describes this joy as a severe stress for as long as he lived with the tension of waiting for God's time, and his baptism of death.

The people mentioned in the epistle shared the stress of keeping faith before God's promise was fulfilled. Remarkable faith was not rewarded instantly with blessing. So, while some, by faith, were delivered in extraordinary circumstances, others, also by faith, were tortured, imprisoned, and stoned to death.

It is hard to reconcile being mocked, destitute, or sawn in two with the blessings promised in the Old Testament when God's people were faithful. We cannot measure faith by outcomes that are expressed in terms of human success.

There are also paradoxes inherent in the Gospel reading. Jesus said that he came to bring division, and he has certainly done that over the centuries. Beginning with his siblings (John 7.5), families were set against each other, as they responded to him (Luke 21.16). Jesus insisted uncompromisingly on the cost of discipleship - that people must love him more than their family (Luke 14.26).

Yet this seems the exact opposite of John the Baptist's mission to reconcile families (Luke 1.17) and Jesus's own expansion of the definition of his family (Luke 8.21). Just as perplexingly, on the face of it, Jesus spoke of bringing fire and division to the earth, not peace. Yet, beginning with the angels' message, Luke's Gospel is pervaded by messages of peace, and ends with the resurrected Jesus's speaking peace to his terrified disciples (Luke 24.36-37).

Jesus had rebuked James and John for wanting to call down fire on a Samaritan village that rejected him because he was going to Jerusalem (Luke 9.52-54). Now he refers to bringing fire to the earth himself. His fire could be that which destroys all that does not bear good fruit (Luke 3.9, 17), or the eschatological fire of judgement accompanying the revealing of the Son of Man (Luke 17.28-30).

Jeremiah, too, refers to fire in the hand of the Lord. His words were directed at false prophets, who encouraged evildoers and led the people astray by tacking "says the Lord" on to their own words. Jeremiah knew, like Isaiah (Isaiah 13.6), that the Lord brings destruction of all that is evil. Whereas James and John were avenging the snub of inhospitality, Jesus brought fire to purify and to cleanse.

So how should we interpret today's readings? Jesus was speaking to his disciples, not to the crowds. This week's readings are best understood in the context of living by faith in a world that is beloved of God, and yet tragically far from the righteousness of the Kingdom of God. Despite the cruelty referred to in Hebrews, despite the corruption of Jeremiah's contemporaries, the world is the location of the incarnation of the one who brings fire to purify.

The angels' song of peace on earth among those with whom God is well-pleased does not preclude judgement where this is necessary. As we listen to the world news, and the relentless stories of cruelty and injustice, this should be a comforting spur to prayer.

While biblical commentators understand the fire Jesus referred to as purifying all that is ungodly, God also sent Pentecostal tongues like fire (Acts 2.3), when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples. This takes us back to Hebrews, because the peace that Jesus brought to his disciples was a product of this fire. They then readily and bravely gave their lives for the gospel, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of their faith.

The readings this week challenge us with seeking true peace, shalom, wholeness, and not just a convenient, insipid calm. Zechariah spoke prophetically of God's acting to guide our feet into the way of peace (Luke 1.79). Mercifully, God's peace gets to the heart of all that is wrong in our wayward world.

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