20th Sunday of Ordinary Time
In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted
to the point of shedding blood… (Heb. 12:4)
How many Christians in our day are, in fact, shedding their very blood in the struggle against sin! In this passage from Hebrews, the sin spoken about is the sin of the world, the power of sin that opposes the Kingdom of God, the sin that caused Jesus to shed his blood as he “endured such opposition from sinners.” Today in Egypt, Christians are being attacked, and some killed, and their homes and Churches are being destroyed for no other reason than their religion. Sadly, Christians are also regularly being killed by Muslim extremists in Asian and African countries. This is the fate awaiting European Christians as well, if these radical Muslims ever gain a hold in their countries. Martyrdom is a reality in the 21st Century just as in the 1st Century.
But what are we to make of the anguished words of Jesus about bringing fire on the earth, about his terrible Baptism, and about bringing not peace but division. Do these two readings tie together in some way with regards to Christian martyrdom, and if so, what is Jesus trying to tell us?
Certainly, His Baptism by fire has to refer to his own shedding of blood for the salvation of man, his own supreme and saving act of martyrdom. On the other hand, the fire with which Jesus has come to set this world ablaze is not only the fire that divides men, even within families as we see at the end of today’s Gospel. Surely, we can extrapolate the meaning of this fire to include also a reference to the fire of the Holy Spirit, which he will also pour out on this world. In both cases, this fire, the fire of the world’s opposition and the fire of the Holy Spirit is a fire of purification and a form of judgment, separating the good metal, the gold, of the Kingdom from the dross that will be cast away. So the two-fold fire not only purifies the just who repent and thus inherit the kingdom, but also separates out the unrepentant by that same fire, and casts them into the darkness.
Again, the baptism that Jesus speaks about is clearly his passion and death, which is the beginning of God’s judgment on this world. Jesus will die because His word is opposed and rejected by the world. Like Jeremiah he is condemned to death because his words cause the world to choose, to choose either to repent or to silence the prophetic word of judgment. The world, those who oppose God, will choose to kill the Messiah, the One who bears God’s message of repentance and forgiveness rather than accept His judgment which condemns its sinfulness. And thus Jesus, like so many of the Prophets, must be put to death to silence His voice.
The baptism of His death follows directly from the rejection of Jesus’ word and mission by the world. It is all part of the great division in this world which his person and mission will always cause. Jesus speaks of this division when he speaks about dividing people right down to the level of their families. He is the Prince of Peace, and yet, paradoxically, the peace he brings cannot be established without this fire which purifies and divides the human race.
Jesus proclaims a Gospel of absolute truth and of God’s great mercy, but His is also a Gospel that demands repentance and conversion. Wherever in this world absolute truth is proclaimed there will be division, for the subjects of the evil one do not accept the existence or the claims of absolute truth on their lives. It was the case in Jesus’ day and it is the truth in our benighted age. Nonetheless, the salvation Jesus announces depends upon a conversion to truth, a willingness to submit oneself to the truth of God, and thus a willingness to recognize our sinfulness and our need for God’s mercy and forgiveness.
It is precisely this absolute linkage between salvation and truth that causes the great division of the world in relationship to Christ. It is because he claims to be not just a messenger bearing a message but truth itself that he is hated or loved. It is because he claims to be not just one way to God, but the only way to God, that he is either loved or rejected. It is because he claims to be not just another teacher of ethics, but the very life of mankind, that he is either loved or rejected. His Baptism unleashes the fire that Jesus casts on the earth, the fire of opposition and division, the fire of martyrdom.
But, thanks be to God, Jesus also casts another fire on the earth, the fire of the Holy Spirit and God’s Spirit is the Spirit of truth and judgment and also the fire of God’s saving love and mercy. From the moment of Pentecost to the end of time, this great Gift of the Spirit, and of the fire of Christ’s grace of purification and renewal, are also at work in this world, a kind of counter fire, like those set by fighters of forest fires to swallow the fires set by the children of this world. The fire of Baptism and Confirmation can always defeat the fires of opposition and division in this great struggle between the fires of Hell and the Fire of God’s Holy Spirit.
Today this great process of purification and judgment continues to divide our world, even our families at times. It always revolves around the issue of truth and the way the teaching of truth affects our lives. The Lord continues to speak through the voice of the teaching Church – did he not say to the Apostles he who hears you hears me? And did he not say, he who rejects you rejects me, and rejects Him who sent me?
Thus the great work of purification and division always continues in the life of the Church. In former ages it was more often the great doctrinal issues that brought these divisions, while today it is the great moral issues of our day that is generating the process of purification and separation. Just like Jeremiah, Jesus was opposed because he caused division by his teaching, and so this great mystery continues to today as Jesus’ Church continues to teach things that are unpopular in our world, things which divide people, and even families.
The great divisions we see in the world today, in the Church herself, and even in our families are a sign of the times, a sign that the judgment continues to take place, and that the children of the Kingdom are being purified by the fire of the Spirit, and are being separated out from those who do not accept the truth of the Gospel. It is a confusing time, and we are not to anticipate God’s judgments related to the Kingdom. Our task remains just to cling to the way of truth, to accept the purification by fire that is taking place and to stand firm in fidelity to the Gospel. We must, like Jesus, always seek the Kingdom of God, and long for that peace that follows this purification by fire.