Based on Luke 12:49-56
Well now, there’s good news! Fire on the earth. Household division. Castigating the crowds for their refusal to fess up to present reality. Gee, sounds like Jesus just endured long silliness from a science denier; or just finished a holiday meal with a large dysfunctional family; maybe muttering “awkward” under his breath and escaping under the pretense of an emergency text message on his cell phone. But how does Jesus put a period on the whole sordid mess? He jumps into the middle of the reality show and calls it all out for what it is: stubbornness, disobedience, lovelessness, hypocrisy; all deserving time in God’s version of a correctional facility.
Is Jesus really the Prince of Peace or the Righteous Destroyer? Yes. Is this a preacher’s opportunity for a “hellfire and brimstone” sermon or sweet holy caresses? Also yes. But, yes to both either/or questions in a broader way than we usually dualistically think; because genuine peace is not separable from the fire that purifies and inspires. Throughout the Bible, fire is dominantly about purification and refinement. Fire also symbolizes God’s very presence. Think Moses and the bush. Think Pentecost. Fire is also about benevolent divine judgment, because unrighteousness, idolatry, and injustice cannot exist in God’s presence. For wherever God is present and recognized and trusted, there the love of God and love of neighbor flow from and to all directions.
Why is Jesus so zealous for fire? Because he sees what the present time means and so urges us with him to seize the moment. The present hour is infused by and with God. The present moment must neither be censored by a nostalgic grasping of the past, nor buried by illusions about the future. Past and future are necessary so to inform the present moment. But it is the priority of the present moment that so moves Jesus. God is so present to Jesus’ consciousness that the present moment must be recognized for what it is: the time for loving solidarity with the suffering neighbor; the time to see God’s kingdom come now for the well-being of this very world; the time for the healing of every suffering person who needs the holy hand of solidarity; the time for knowing that one is safe with God and God’s people, and that wherever God and God’s people are, there is Sanctuary.
But bad faith and bad theology narrow and fracture our field of vision. Ego and power-centered interest make of this Jesus moment a vision of “God with an itchy finger who just can’t wait to smoke some sinners” (Matt Skinner). This moment of promise and judgment from Jesus is not an excuse to celebrate one’s own righteousness and denigrate the other. Rather than recognize our common need for purification, bad theology divides and damages the visible Body of Christ. Bad faith and bad theology are anti-Christ.
One egregious example of this happened this past week when a news network deliberately mischaracterized the ELCA’s unified affirmation at its churchwide assembly to be known as a “Sanctuary” denomination. That network news program capitalized on the opportunity to denounce “sanctuary,” an ironic thing, really, for “church” representatives to do. The producers did not invite any ELCA representation or interpretation. Rather, they featured a prominent Southern Baptist pastor and a fundamentalist theologian who called us disobedient to God and country, not quite calling us heretics. They represent a sector that claims that no faith is Christian if it is not both fundamentalistic and nationalistic. This is just wrong. Like any subscription to ideology over Christ, it subverts real Christianity.
I have my own criticisms of ELCA practice when the rubber hits the road, but I am proud of the ELCA’s sanctuary stance. We are the first denomination to declare formally what most of our congregations have been doing for generations. In fact, we have been de facto a sanctuary church since World War II, immediately after which the Lutheran World Federation set the bar of caregiving for refugees and migrants. It is in our Lutheran DNA to care for the dispossessed neighbor, just as it is among the most mandated of Christian and Jewish behaviors throughout all scripture. As Martin Luther himself wrote, “The church that preaches the gospel in all its fullness, except as it applies to the great social ills of the day, is failing to preach the gospel.”
To be clear, the denomination as “Sanctuary Church” is loosely defined in this resolution. It is not binding on individual congregations. It does not call for illegal actions. It does mean that the ELCA cares for the most vulnerable people who are cut by the shards of a broken immigration system. We here at Christ the King Church have long shared this commitment to being sanctuary, and we will continue so. For example, a group has begun here at Christ the King Church to discern how we can care in legal ways for migrants and refugees near us who need our help with prayer, a toothbrush, soap and water, food, legal advocacy, or other. Whatever else “Sanctuary Church” means, it accords with God’s call to us to be A Healing Place.
So, we must discern the moment. What is God doing now? Are we seeing rightly? Or are we holding on to presumptions and pretensions that are little more than our personal and social preferences now turned into idols? This is the much more important question for us as church and as individuals to ask every day. It is also wonderfully true that when Jesus the true Prince and Maker of Peace comes into our lives, we will experience dislocation. We will be challenged to let go of the things and thoughts that resist the Spirit’s life-giving flames. This is what it means to be refined. This is what it means to take the leap of faith. An opportunity comes to a person or congregation. It is wholly unexpected. We struggle to use the best of what we have in well-winnowed wisdom to discern what to do. As Paul says, we test all the spirits. Is it a new job? A new life chapter full of the unknown? A call that indeed requires civil disobedience, like saving Jewish lives before and during World War II? A call for a congregation to do something heretofore wholly unimagined?
To answer well, Jesus says: discern now. Be not captive to your nostalgic past or your fantasy future. Interpret the present time. Trust Christ. As Thomas Merton put it, “You do not need to know what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and embrace them with courage, faith and hope. In such an event, courage is the authentic form taken by love.” And, all the while, as part and parcel of Christ’s refining love, he does not step away from the family meal. In fact, he endures and feeds it with his own real self by true word, water, feast, and acts of love. It is how we are refined, how we endure, how we can hope, and how God rules faithfully and lovingly.