“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! “ Luke 12:49
Forecasts of the end of the world used to terrify me. Our staff at school were very deeply steeped in a brand of Protestant fundamentalism that found all sorts of stuff in the Bible to tell themselves that a time was near when Jesus would return and take them to be with him, leaving the world in the hands of Satanic powers and those left behind to a future in hell.
Some versions of what would happen were slightly more optimistic for people like myself, Jesus would return as he said, taking to himself those who had believed in him, but then there would be a period of three and a half years in which there would be a chance for those who had been left behind to repent.
There was an American company called Chick Publications that produced comic books, which were distributed in school, explaining how all these things would happen. The writers of such stuff said that the ‘ten-horned beast’ in from the book of Revelation was the European Community (there were nine members at the time and a tenth was expected) and identified other texts from the book with things happening at the time, particularly the conflict in the Middle East in the 1970s.
When I went to theological college the approach tended to be much more analytical. The apocalyptic parts of the New Testament; Jesus talking, as he does this morning, about fire coming down on the earth; the predictions of the ‘end times’; the book of Revelation at the end of the Bible; these were part of a tradition in Jewish writing dating back to prophets such as Ezekiel and Daniel and much of it would only make sense to readers at the time.
Looking at the book of Revelation, much of it means nothing to people in our own times. John was writing at a time when the Christian community in Rome was suffering terrible persecution under the emperor Nero. John dare not speak the name of Nero, so he calculates what his name would be in Hebrew characters where each letter also represented a number, and he gets the number ‘666′.
There has been a tradition amongst Anglicans of avoiding the apocalyptic bits in the Bible. The extremists on both sides have made so much of these texts, that we, being people of the centre, have avoided getting involved with verses of Scripture that are often very obscure and that have often been subject to drastic misinterpretation, (like the European Community being prophesied as some Satanic beast). It is a pity if we ignore the texts completely because their insights can help us with being Christians.
I think what many people need today is the confidence to go on being Christians when everything and everyone around them says they should give up. The faith that has held people down through the generations is losing its grip on people’s lives. Why go to church when there are other things to do? Why keep the Commandments when other people don’t bother? Why believe when it seems to make no difference?
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! . . Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” We look at Jesus’ words and they seem confusing. This is not the Jesus to whom we are accustomed; this is not the language of love and unity; this is not peace he is offering to his followers. Instead, we hear him talking about fire and about division.
Why does Saint Luke include words that seem at odds with much else that Jesus says? Maybe these words were important to the people who read Luke’s account of the Good News.
“From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three”, says Jesus. Many of the people reading Jesus’ words were going through difficult times. By the late First Century, they are facing hostility, persecution and even violence and death . It would have been much, much easier for them to have given up what they believed; life would have been so much safer. There would not have been divisions in families; there would not have been the need to face the harsh words of Jesus. Anyway, what confidence could they have had that their faith was going to survive? They couldn’t look back on 2,000 years of Christian history in the way we can.
At the heart of the apocalyptic parts of the Bible, those parts we find most difficult to understand, there is a belief that this is some special revelation to encourage and build up the faithful people. There is a strong sense of God being in charge of things, of God working his purpose out, even if that purpose was very difficult for people to discern. In Revelation, there is a declaration that God is in charge. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”
There used to be graffiti on a wall in Belfast that said,
“For those who understand, no explanation is necessary.
For those who refuse to understand, no explanation is possible.”
Sometimes faith can be like that. If we have a sense of God, then we don’t need any explanation as to why we go to Church or why we try to live by the Commandments; we do these things because our faith tells us to do these things. If, on the other hand, we have no such sense, then no explanation of Christian worship, or Christian living, will ever be convincing to us. Our human reason can take us so far, but there comes a point where we must make a leap of faith
Belief in an apocalyptic God, a God who had the whole of time in his hands, sustained the early Christians through the most horrific trials. Anglicans are challenged to have the same faith. The faith that places first call upon who we are, on what we do, and on what we have. I came to bring fire to the earth”, says Jesus. Faced with the divisions of which he speaks, we must decide where we stand.