Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18
“I came to bring fire to the earth”
Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” (Luke 12:49-51)
These are difficult words to hear from Jesus. These words are not the comforting words one normally expects from Jesus, they even sound violent. What might he be saying?
Rabbi Jonathan Sachs, the recently retired chief rabbi of Great Britain, once wrote: “Religion.. is like fire. It warms, but it also burns, and we are the guardians of the flame.” (From Optimism to Hope p. 45, 79.)
Jesus said “I came to bring fire to the earth.” Fire, Rabbi Sachs tells us, warms, but it also burns. Fire is something that we cannot live without. In winter it keeps us warm, with it we cook our food, with it we produce the energy, which powers our modern world. It is an essential element of human life, even when we don’t see it. But fire, when uncontrolled, or when it escapes our control, can burn our house down in a matter of minutes, it can kill, it can easily destroy, it can hurt and maim a person and scar them for life.
So, like fire, the Rabbi tells us, is religion. It too can warm us, comfort us, give life and meaning, provide us with the energy and motivation for human life. As with fire, religion is indispensible, human life does not really function without it. To some, religion is old-fashioned and no longer relevant, but like fire, religion it is an indispensible part of life. When religion is uncontrolled or when it is ignored, it can destroy, it can kill, it can hurt and maim a person and scar them for life. Religion is a reality, and we see this again more and more in our own time.
Rabbi Sachs goes on to say, “we are guardians of the flame.” What does he mean by that? Fire is both a necessity of life and at the same time very dangerous. As humans we have learned how to harness fire and most of the time it is a life-giving force. Religion, like fire, is both a necessity of life and can at the same time be very dangerous. As, Christians, both clergy and lay, we are called to be “guardians of the flame.” It is only through proper care, knowledge, and skill, that religion’s life-giving power can be experienced. When not, religion can become destructive, coercive, even deadly.
What is the fire that Jesus is kindling? It is a fire, which was embodied in how he lived out in his earthly ministry. It was a fire of love for humanity, for the outcast, the sinner. It was a love, which was so intense that it led his own religious leaders to reject him and to crucify him. Yet, this fire of love was so powerful that death could not hold him, and he rose victorious from the grave. This is the intensity of his love.
Jesus himself was a victim of religious intolerance. He was the victim of the kind of religion that excludes, kills, and maims anyone who deviate from its precepts. Today we see examples of this in various religious traditions. Perhaps, it is most obvious today in some forms of Islam, but it is also present in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and others.
Thus Jesus speaks about bringing not peace, but division. It is a division, which even goes to life within families. The fire of love is often rejected by fear, by intolerance, by closed-mindedness. This can lead to division.
The church has struggled with this throughout its history. As Old Catholics, we too have experienced rejection.
In the beginning of July, I was privileged to spend a week in Utrecht in the Netherlands to participate in a seminar on Old Catholic theology. There were participants from Holland, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the United States and Poland.
Of great interest to me were the historical developments, which led to the development of Old Catholic theology and spirituality. As you know, in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Croatia, the Old Catholic movement came into being when Rome introduced a series of novel innovations in the nineteenth century, culminating in the First Vatican Council in 1870. This included changes in how the church was governed and what it believed. This included the idea of papal infallibility and new dictatorial powers giving the pope universal jurisdiction over every Catholic Christian in the world. It also included new ideas about Mary and her role in salvation. Many theologians, clergy and educated laity, objected to these innovations. These dissenters were subsequently excluded from the Roman church due to disobedience to these new teachings.
In Holland, there was a separate development, where the ancient a
Archdiocese of Utrecht rejected pressure from both Protestant and Jesuit sides to abandon their ancient prerogatives and particular theological views. The theological views of God’s grace from St. Augustine, which say that we all are sinners and have access to God’s forgiving grace, had gained prominence in the Dutch church. The Jesuits, who viewed grace as being controlled by legalistic formulations through the sacrament of confession, felt challenged by the Augustinian teaching on Grace. So they arranged for the Pope to declare these views as heretical. Thus, eventually the Archbishops of Utrecht and the other the Dutch bishops were declared in schism with Rome in 1723. When after 1870, it became clear that Rome had no intention to reconcile with the Dutch church, the Dutch joined with those rejecting the teaching of the First Vatican council to form the Old Catholic movement that we have today.
A key part of Old Catholicism is the understanding of God’s grace, of God’s love, being more powerful than religious authoritarianism. The fire of God’s love is made present in new and living ways in different generations. This was true in the early church and it is true today. God’s grace is not mediated through an authoritarian religious institution, grace is available to all. The grace of ordination is not confined to unmarried men, or only to males. Women are equal in the sight of God, women are welcome to be ordained. Gay people are welcome, persons of every race, social status, gender, or sexual orientation. The fire of God’s love is there for all.
Religious violence is the fire of religion when it is out of control. Religious violence is not only killing others in the name of God. It is also refusing God’s love and grace due to an authoritarian interpretation of religious texts. This kind of exclusion is violence as well.
Rabbi Jonathan Sachs wrote: “Religion.. is like fire. It warms, but it also burns, and we are the guardians of the flame.”
Religion is not indifferent, it is very complicated. We are called to a discernment of spirits.
In a sermon after the murder of a priest in Normandy by an Algerian immigrant claiming allegiance to ISIS, the Archbishop of Paris made an excellent point with regard to religion. He said that the murderer was not serving God or Allah, but Moloch, the ancient Canaanite idol who demanded child sacrifice. This is not a religion of love, it is a religion of hate.
Similarly, the director of the Center for Islamic Studies in Münster Germany noted recently in the Frankfurter Algemeine newspaper that most of these attacks are not conducted by devout Muslims but by “religious illiterates” who do not know the truths of Islam, and are thus easily led astray by false teaching. His solution is not less religion, but more intense study of religion and devotion to it. This would prevent religion-based violence.
In my many years in the American South, I learned that the most racist, sexist, or homophobic Christian people were those who had but a superficial relationship to the church or the Bible. Intense study of scripture, prayer, and devotion always opens people’s hearts to others.
Jesus said that he came to bring fire to the earth. The fire that he brought was the fire of love. The fire of unreflective and authoritarian religion can burn, it can be deadly. May the warm fire of God’s love be kindled in us now and always. Amen.