Rev Dr Alan Webster (1929-2013)
Based on Luke 12:49-56
I bring you a contradiction. Nothing could be more contradictory than the image so gloriously shown today of the Olympic symbol, with the thrilling story of the gift of Greece to world civilization, and the image in the Gospel, of Jesus announcing terrible fire upon the earth. The President of the Olympic Association had stated in a fine message that we need peace. And here, in today’s Scripture, Jesus declared conflict and division. What sort of sense does it make, especially perhaps for those who have studied and valued Greek philosophy, science and mathematics, to have to hear Jesus pronouncing fire and destruction upon the whole scene? Is Christianity so out of touch with the times?
I hope to show that the beauty of the good and the ugliness of the bad are two directions of life and energy itself. If Christianity is consistent with universally valid perceptions, which I tend to feel, its truth will describe life-full and death-full options. There is crisis in the world and it is constituted by the incompatible directions of life and energy and our choices about them.
This is a very uncomfortable Scripture but we must admit that in the Bible there is much confrontation of hypocrisy and of unfounded comfort and self-congratulation. But we tend to think the Bible is ultimately about harmony. Our idea of peace itself is mild and shallow. Often our families follow a principle of ‘peace at any price’. Like the Stoics, we seem to think orderliness and harmony are all there is to life.
Conflict is often legitimate, but preachers and politicians who stir are often unpopular. And in our era of smoothness and the self-admiration of our individualistic age, the idea of a Jesus who sees conflict as a necessary feature of discipleship won’t attract many from the salon and the fitness and perfection school.
In short, we much prefer a Jesus who sees peace as smooth interpersonal relations, who shows us how to get everything as it should be and how to be a good local councillor.
Well, that’s not what we seem to hear in this terrible saying of Jesus in Luke chapter twelve. To most regular church-goers, the saying could sound like some foreign religion. Let’s just listen to how it sounds -just pretend you are hearing it for the first time. I’ll spell out the meaning a little, paraphrasing Jesus’ message:
- The time of the end has come. Those who have heard the truth and ignore it will be punished. Even those who don’t know the truth will receive a beating. The more you have, the more will be expected from you. Expect no favours. Once the truth is known, struggle has begun.
- There will be fire on the earth. All who think God doesn’t mind how we respond to his purposes will be destroyed.
- I will never be satisfied until God’s awful will is done.
- I despise your ‘peace at any price’ philosophy. God’s truth is about division. Only that truth will survive.
- If you think agreeableness is the sign of God’s presence, you are deluded. The sign of God’s presence is conflict.
- Family harmony is not God’s prime purpose; the domain of God is all that matters; the family takes second place to discipleship. You think your family makes you a superior person? I tell, even evil people can have great families.
- The new regime divides the comfort-lovers from the justice-seekers. It divides those who choose comfort from those who choose truth. Disharmony follows.
Those who think this is their time and God will wait till they have had their fill are in for a great shock! Right now, the ruin of your delusory world is upon you.
God’s rules are no different from the rules of a judge of the court . The judge demands payment for a crime and prison for him who cannot pay. You have committed a crime: you cannot pay; therefore you will receive your just punishment
- The judgement of God is already upon you: look out on the world and you will see that justice is now being done. It will not cease until all have seen it and have received their just desserts.
The law of love and justice makes no exception for those who imagine they are God’s favourites. God’s way is the perfection of all life; it is the energy of true life, a holy fire. Only those who love the rule of God will survive his holy fire. That fire is the power of uncompromising love. God’s love demands compassion and justice beyond human reason and beyond human boundaries.
What is happening on the earth right now is God’s judgement. If we live in the world denying God’s justice, then we come under judgement. The only eternal law in God’s world is that of compassion commanded by justice. In that world, we receive what we give. It is the rule of reciprocity. There is no favouritism with God. He cannot break the universal rule of just exchange. His just laws were laid down at the foundation of the world. He does not arbitrarily disrupt those laws; they are eternal and will fulfil themselves.
That is the law of this new religion. It is not new. It was announced by Jesus. Nor was he making it up. He was reading the signs and lambasting those who could predict the weather but were blind to the obvious justice of God’s way in the world. He was telling it the way it was. The way it is.
Jesus saw us as part of the processes of life and death. We have the gift of choice. We as people, like those whom Jesus spoke to, have moral choice. They and we are seen as actors, not just passive observers. The outcome of the terrible cosmic experiment which Jesus saw as consuming itself depends incredibly on human choice. Despite the fact that it is all laid down in the laws of life, we have a part to play in how those laws and the possible outcomes actually work out in history.
So we can decide what to do with the terrible warning of Jesus. There are three options.
Firstly, we can ignore it by evasion. We can just say it doesn’t really apply to the world or to us now. Justice is not real in today’s chaos. So we make a world where injustice is the real law - the invisible hand that cares nothing for inequality - indeed it is based upon inequality. That de facto belief system suits us better than all this justice stuff, the latter of which denies our privileged status in the world.
Secondly, we can further ignore it simply by saying that was then, this is now. There’s not much wrong that can’t be put right by a little fiddling of the social system. And these people who say the system is unfair to women, the workers, minorities, the disabled, the poor - they go too far. There’s no need to be radical. Next thing you know, they’ll be blaming us for what the poor have brought on themselves.
Thirdly, there is the temporal relevance argument: either Jesus was talking about conditions of his time, which have changed (or so we like to think), or perhaps he was talking about the end of the world - and there’s not much we can do about that. Rather than ignore it, we can spiritualize it. That means re-defining the crisis as inside ourselves. This would require some sort of spiritual uplift that we can wait to see and can pray for. Praying for things that have already been made clear is one of their best-practised tricks of piety. What it typically says is, “I’m waiting for guidance on the Lord’s will” - when in fact we already have plenty of information. Like asking, “Lord do you want me to do an act of random kindness today?” By doing that, we make God responsible to turn us in the right direction. But we get full marks for being willing!
Now, it would be unkind and unfair to suggest that Christian people don’t do a lot of good. Church-based volunteers make up the main people-resource of much of the voluntary social and educational activities of our community. The world is a much kinder place because of Christ and the kindness of Christian workers. The clearest religion-linked finding of our Study of Values is that church-goers are more kind-hearted and actively kind than others. That’s the most convincing evidence around that the call of Jesus has had effect. And yet it still doesn’t measure up to the challenge of fire upon the world.
More religion is not the answer
The evils and injustices of the world do not easily succumb to the individual kindnesses- the charitable activities - that usually pass for love of the neighbour. This is because we see the target of our kindness as individuals, not the systems of society and of the large economic systems of the world. This is why more religion is not the answer.
We miss the point of what Jesus was trying to push home - that the religion of niceness, which was already well established in Jewish society, was helpless against the vast institutions of the Jewish hierarchy and the oppression of the Roman Empire.
No effect of mere legal goodness on these vast systems seemed possible. And niceness was never nice to those who were most friendless. In fact, Jesus was pretty negative about the legalistic goodness of the worshippers of the day. Niceness was a trade-off between nice people. If you doubt that, just read what Jesus had to say about people who greet those who greet them and invite to dinner those who will invite them in return. Even the tax-collectors and the non-religious people do that! He told them instead to subvert the system by changing the rules about who they should treat as neighbours and who they should have home for a meal. He knew, as we also know, that the stability of society depended on knowing who was important and making sure that such like-minded people kept the rules of privilege, wealth and power. So to treat the vast majority as equals would be to invite chaos.
Add to that the fact that he changed the image of God and you have a recipe for social and religious conflagration - fire upon the world. How did he change the image of God?