Homily for Proper 15, year C. Luke 12:49-56
With thanks to my friend Rod Prince.
In four months’ time you’ll be singing about the Prince of Peace, while I, for the first time in almost 70 years, will be free to enjoy the fleshpots of Maspalomas or some other sacred spot. “Christian children all must be” you’ll warble, “mild, obedient, good as he.”
One of the many sins of the Church has been to promote the travesty of Jesus as nice, meek and mild. Meek maybe, in the proper sense of humble and unassuming—but “mild”? Oh per-leeze! Sunday School pap. “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam”.
Making Jesus cuddly—and many do—is patronising arrogance. It’s based on the notion that nanny knows best, and that horses must not be frightened. Consequently, Jesus is castrated and faith emasculated such that the focus is no more than a cross between fairy godmother and sky pixie. Why are we surprised when people, faced with such an anodyne Jesus, decide they have better ways of spending Sundays—and indeed their lives. No wonder people stay away in droves. No wonder men hate going to church.
Jesus talks about baptism. Don’t be deceived. The Greek word for baptism means to dip or to be submerged, but it’s also used to describe a ship that has sunk, someone submerged by drink or drugs or life, a scholar overcome by his subject. He’s talking about the doom that is to be his. In Jewish theology fire is judgement: for them, hell is more than just an oven, but a place of Judgement. Jesus says that he has come to bring judgement, but before that can happen he must be submerged by suffering and death. That is the way to new life: tried in the fire, phoenix rising from the ashes—for him and for us.
These are the words of a man deeply in tune with human psychology and human experience. He shakes his audience out of complacency to get them to see that things really can’t go on as they are if life is to flourish. The Jews believed they were a chosen people, simply being a Jew enough to secure eternal salvation. This complacency enraged him. “You’re good at predicting the weather, but you refuse to see the likely consequences of your actions and attitudes”. It’s like a new Vicar who sees with fresh eyes what must be done, but who meets complacency and obstruction at every turn.
Jesus is a radical. He condemns very little, but always, always, always pretence and hypocrisy. His message of freedom from religious and secular oppression, from fear, from intimidation, from control, comes at a price. There are always those who will kill to retain power and the status quo. We only have to consider struggles throughout history in all empires—including the British Empire—look no further than Ireland. Oh, how we need this man in today’s church with spineless, hypocritical leaders, and in national life with lying and deceitful politicians.
This struggle is never without cost. Just as an abscess can’t heal until the knife has been plunged in to let out the fetid pus, so the sword of righteousness must be wielded to decapitate the heads of the wicked. This will divide nations, communities and families—remember what Simeon said when the infant was presented in the Temple: “this child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many”—yet the struggle has to be waged. There will never be peace until there is justice. Fighting for justice is love in action. If you are not engaged in that battle you have no right to call yourself a Christian. No wonder Christians are persecuted. Christians should be persecuted.
This is not about my standing several feet above criticism and ranting about other people. It’s certainly not about you thinking that because you come to church you’re more virtuous than others, and that you can’t wait to get rid of this Vicar who makes you feel uncomfortable. It’s about you looking into your own heart and using the sword to cut out the hypocrisy and double standards therein. You may criticize politicians, but you’re just like them—you, though, don’t have as many opportunities to display your defects. And make no mistake, I’m no better than you. No worse either.
Christianity is not a security blanket that we use to insulate ourselves from the world. It’s not prayers to a sky pixie that we hope will make good our cock-ups. It’s an acceptance that I am imperfect, you are imperfect, he/she/it is imperfect, and that healing comes only when individually we face the reality of who and what we are. Only by excising the vain things that charm us most—that is, dying to self—will we rise like the lark ascending to new heights.