20th Sunday of Ordinary Time
In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resistedto 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 referred to is the sin of the world, any and every power of sin that opposes the Kingdom of God. It was this sin that caused Jesus to shed his blood because he “endured such opposition from sinners.” Today, in many places throughout the world, Christians are being attacked and killed, mainly by radical Muslims, but also by radical Hindus and other political extremists who hate Christianity. Their homes and Churches are being destroyed for no other reason than their belief in and loyalty to Jesus Christ. These crimes have been taking place for years now in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, and this same fate is awaiting many European Christians as radical Muslims gain ground in their countries. Martyrdom is a reality in the 21st Century just as in the 1st Century, because sin and opposition to Christ and His Church is a constant in human history,
Jesus many times warned his disciples about this inevitable opposition and its deadly consequences, and He did so in the clearest possible terms. In the Gospel he says he has come to set the earth and fire; He speaks of his death as a fiery baptism, and He warns that loyalty to Him will cause opposition and divisions not peace, and this division will reach even into families setting their members against one another. Indeed, says Jesus, “a man’s foes will be those of his own household.”(Mt. 10:36) and even worse, “brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death.” (Mt. 10:21) Indeed, warns Jesus, that things will be so bad at times that “everyone who kills you will think he is offering worship to God.” (Jn. 16:2) In such a divided and perverse world, martyrdom always remains a very real possibility, and our present world in its rebellion against God and His Law is certainly such a world.
But all this talk about persecution and possible martyrdom is not to be understood in a purely negative way and certainly is not to lead the Christian to despair and hopelessness. So what is Jesus trying to teach us in these passages about suffering, persecution and martyrdom?
To begin with His Baptism by fire, this has to refer to his own shedding of blood, but His passion and death is for the most positive and hope filled end, that is, for the salvation of man and His creation. Moreover, the fire with which Jesus has come to set this world ablaze cannot be adequately understood as simply the fire that divides men, including families as we see at the end of today’s Gospel. Indeed, Church Fathers assure us that the meaning of this fire ultimately and primarily refers to the fire of the Holy Spirit, which Jesus will pour out on His Church and through it on the whole world. The fire of the world’s opposition and persecution is enveloped and transformed by the fire of the Holy Spirit into a fire of purification and sanctification. But it is also a fire of judgment, purifying the good metal, the gold of the Kingdom and separating this good metal from the corrupted metal 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.
Returning to the baptism of Jesus by fire, which is clearly his passion and death, this too is the beginning of God’s purifying judgment on this world. Jesus will die because His word is opposed and rejected by the world. Like Jeremiah in today’s first reading, Jesus is condemned to death because his words force the world to choose, to choose either to repent or to silence the prophetic word of judgment. The world, in the sense of the powers of this world who oppose God, will tragically choose to kill the Messiah, the One who bears God’s message of repentance and forgiveness rather than to 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. His disciples will face this same destiny down through the ages.
So to summarize, the baptism of His death follows immediately and inevitably from the rejection by the world of Jesus’ person and mission. It is all part of the great division in this world which that his person and mission will always cause. And Jesus speaks of this terrible division most clearly precisely 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. We must be realistic about all this and recognize that whenever and wherever in this world absolute truth is proclaimed there will be division. For the subjects of the evil, the world as Scripture speaks of it, will never accept the existence of such claims of absolute truth which impinges on their lives. It was the case in Jesus’ day and it remains the case in our own rebellious age. For the salvation Jesus brings always depends upon a conversion to truth and a willingness to submit oneself unconditionally to the truth of God. But that submission always demands a willingness to recognize our own personal sinfulness and our desperate need for God’s mercy and forgiveness.
Thus, we must see that it is precisely this absolute linkage between salvation and God’s absolute truth that causes the great divisions of the world related to Christ and His Church. This is so precisely because Jesus claims not just to be a messenger bearing a message, but He claims to be Truth itself, God’s Word, God’s absolute Truth, and for that reason He can ultimately be only hated or loved by men. To put this yet another way, it is precisely because Jesus claims to be not just a way to God, but the only way to God, that he is either loved or rejected. Or, we can say also that it is because Jesus claims to be not just another teacher of ethics, but the very ethic and life of mankind, that he is either loved or rejected. His baptism of death unleashes the fire that Jesus brings on the earth, the fire of opposition and division, the fire of martyrdom.
But, thanks be to God, Jesus also casts this other 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 who light fires to fight great forest fires in order to stop the advance of those great fires. Jesus’ Fire of the Spirit actually swallows and transforms the fires set by the children of this world. His fire of Baptism and Confirmation can always absorb and transform the fires of opposition and division in this great struggle between the fires of Hell and the Fire of God’s Holy Spirit.
And so today, this great process of purification and judgment continues to divide our world, and even our families at times. And it always revolves around the same issue of God’s Truth and the way the acceptance or rejection of His Truth inevitable impacts our lives. The Lord continues to speak to us, and to the whole world, through His teaching voice in the Church – that is, through the successors of Apostles to whom he declared solemnly that “he who hears you hears me” and “he who rejects you rejects me, and rejects Him who sent me.” And so His Church undergoes always to the end of time the rejection of the world, persecution and even martyrdom, because it is His voice and His body.
But the divisions do not only affect the Church from outside, from the world. The great divisions and the work of purification and will always continue also in the life of the Church. However, while in former ages it was the great doctrinal issues that brought on these divisions within the family of the Church, today it is the great moral issues of our time that are generating the process of purification and separation. Just like Jeremiah, Jesus was opposed by his own people 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 both in our world and in the Church herself, things which divide people, and even divide families.
Thus, the great divisions we see in the world today, in the Church herself, and even in our families are what Scripture calls “a sign of the times,” a sign that the judgment continues to take place, and also 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 definitely a confusing time, and we are not to anticipate God’s judgments related to the final Kingdom. Our task remains simply to cling to the way of Truth, to accept the purification by fire that is taking place, and to stand firm always in fidelity to the Gospel. We must follow Jesus and always seek first the Kingdom of God, and look forward for that peace that always follows His purification by fire.