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Black and White

August 18, 2019
By Rev. Peter Heckert

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our meditation is from our Gospel text, where Jesus says, “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

This is one of those Gospel texts that, when it’s read, the response is more like a question than a statement – as in, “This is the Gospel of the Lord?” I say that partially tongue-in-cheek, of course; every word of Scripture is God-breathed and inerrant. However, there are some texts that, shall we say, give us pause when we read them, usually because they bring us a modicum of discomfort.

In this case, the entirety of Jesus’s discourse seems … mean. Unfriendly. Antagonistic, even. He’s talking about “casting fire on earth,” about how great His distress is until His cleansing is accomplished, and then flat-out tells His disciples, “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Much about this text makes us uncomfortable, but perhaps it’s that bit about “division” that really strikes a nerve …. We, as a people, know what it means to be divided. Let’s face it – we live in very divided times. It’s a true rarity when civil discourse can take place between two people with dissenting opinions. Often, disagreement is construed as a personal attack, as “violence” even. I know you’re thinking about where we see this most often – politics – but it can be found in any and every area of life: relationships, work, education, movies, video games, philosophy … and religion.

But what makes Jesus’s words here so divisive? Yes, we see the word “division,” and we hear the examples that He gives about father being against son, mother against daughter, and mother-in-law against daughter-in-law, and vice-versa. But what’s the source? What’s the cause of all this division? What could split families in twain and cause hostility between those you’ve known and loved your whole life? Well, it’s not so much a “what” as it is a “who,” and the “Who,” the source of division that Jesus is talking about … is Himself.

The discourse of this entire chapter has gone back and forth between warnings and promises. Jesus starts off by warning a crowd of thousands and His disciples to “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” He goes on to tell them not to fear those who are capable of killing the body, but not the soul; instead, they ought to fear the One who can kill both body and soul in hell. Next comes the discussion that all those who confess Him before men, He will confess before the Father, but the ones who don’t confess Him will be denied before the Father. This is then followed by the parable of the rich fool, the encouragement about the needlessness of worry, and finally the admonition to be ready for the coming Day of the Lord, “for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”

This is all building momentum, and it’s meant to show why Jesus has set His face toward Jerusalem. Though we are still a ways away from Good Friday and Golgotha, things are becoming more real, as Jesus reveals what He has come to do. I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! Whenever you see “fire” imagery being used in Scripture, usually it’s an indication of judgment, and there is a connotation of judgment in what Jesus is saying here, but it’s more than that. He’s longing for the Kingdom of God to be revealed – not only through this judgment, but also in the grace and deliverance that it brings.

His next statement supports this, as He tells His disciples, “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!” You can’t really tell in the English, but in the Greek, the latter clause of that sentence implies that Jesus is emotionally torn. He knows that this “baptism” that He is to be baptized with is not going to be pleasant; in fact, it will be torturous and lethal. Not surprisingly, Jesus is dreading what awaits Him in Jerusalem – the betrayal, the beatings, the humiliation, the scourging, the thorny crown, the heavy cross, the piercing nail, and the agony of crucifixion. More agonizing than this will be the unbearably heavy and humiliating burden that He will bear: the full weight of sin from all space and all time. He will be bearing the full brokenness of all creation, the sinless Son of God becoming the embodiment of sin. He will bear an excruciating load that is antithetical to His very existence, and then the immortal God … will die … and He will be buried in the grave of sinners. It is little wonder that His distress is great until He cries out from the cross, Τετέλεσται, “It is finished!”

However, Jesus also knows what will come after He breathes His last, after His heart stops beating and is pierced. He knows that this great distress, this judgment to be meted out upon His own holy and divine flesh will bring full atonement for all sin, the rescue of His people, the glory that is rightly His as the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world. He knows that His death will bring peace between God and man, and that it will undo the curse of sin that broke creation in Adam’s fall. Jesus’s death will be the beginning of the end of Satan’s reign in God’s good creation. So, yes, He is distressed and torn, knowing the agony to come but also the glory that His suffering will bring. And it is this that will bring division between father and son, mother and daughter, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.

Yes, it is true that Christ unites His people in Himself, as He brings us through His death and resurrection in the blessed waters of Holy Baptism. However, all you need to do is look throughout God’s creation and you will see such divisions abounding, especially in countries that are predominantly of a different religious stripe. When a member of the family is brought to faith in Christ, they are often ostracized, if not worse. There are some places where the penalty for converting to Christianity is death … and sometimes, family members partake in the execution. While things usually don’t get that extreme here in the US, we do still see families and relationships torn asunder because one member of the family is called to believe in Christ’s all-atoning sacrifice.

It breaks my heart when I hear of these divisions transpiring – like the eight Christian converts who were recently condemned to death in Iran. I’m sure that it breaks your hearts as well, but the truth is black and white when it comes to things eternal: “[T]here is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” The reality is that those of this world will not accept Jesus’s sacrifice, will not accept His exclusive claim of being the only One through whom the world’s sins are atoned for. They will not accept His gift of salvation, preferring instead to work for a salvation or nirvana that doesn’t exist. So there will be division between those who dwell in darkness and those who have been called out of darkness into the marvelous light of Christ Jesus. It will happen. These are the signs of the times. People will not know what to make of Jesus, and they will be divided because of Him and His free gift of grace. But Jesus knows His own, and for those who are called, we are not divided. We are ONE in Christ Jesus, the only Person in whom unity truly, eternally matters.

+ In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.