Jesus said to his disciples: ‘I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already! There is a baptism I must still receive, and how great is my distress till it is over! ‘Do you suppose that I am here to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on a household of five will be divided: three against two and two against three; the father divided against the son, son against father, mother against daughter, daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’

The angels at Jesus’ birth proclaimed peace on earth, and Simeon, holding the baby Jesus in the Temple, said to God: “Master, now you may let your servant go in peace.” But here Jesus tells the crowd not to think he has come to bring peace; he has come to bring division. Simeon said as much when he turned to Mary and said that the child was destined for the rise and fall of many and to be a sign that will be contradicted. Peace is the ultimate end of the Kingdom of God, but peace has a price. Jesus is warning the crowd that wherever the Word of God is heard and acted upon, division occurs. Fathers will be divided against sons and mothers against daughters.

The coming judgment forces us to look at the implications of our commitments. As Jesus warned in last Sunday’s Gospel, a commitment of faith requires us to change our attitude toward material possessions and to take even more seriously our moral responsibilities. Here he reminds the crowd that those who commit to him will find it affects the way they relate to friends and family members. The angel who announced the birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah said John would go before Jesus to turn the hearts of fathers toward their children. But a commitment to Jesus forces us to change the way we live our lives, and this can put strains on relationships.

We don’t expect to hear such difficult words from Jesus in the Gospel. But it is good to be reminded once in a while that the decision to do the right thing, the good thing, is not always easy and without conflict. Jesus himself did not make easy decisions and avoid conflict. In today’s reading, he reminds his followers to be prepared for difficult decisions and conflict as well.

JESUS MAKES THREE IMPORTANT STATEMENTS in today’s Gospel.

a. “I have come to bring fire on the earth.”

This is not the fire of destruction, the fire that ravages rain forests every year.

It is the fire of heat and light. It is the fire that cleanses and purifies. It is the fire of God’s presence as in the burning bush that Moses saw, as in the pillar of fire that accompanied the Israelites in the desert, as in the tongues of fire at Pentecost where the bringing of fire was mandated to the disciples, to the Church, to all of us.

As a purifying fire it can also bring pain and purification but it ultimately leads to conversion and liberation.

b. “There is a baptism I must receive and great is my distress till it is over.”

This does not mean that Jesus is to be re-baptised in the Jordan. The word baptism implies total immersion (the way sacramental baptism was carried out in the early church and in some churches today). There is a close link between the catechumen being “buried” in water and rising with Christ and Jesus being “baptised”, immersed in his suffering and death on the way to resurrection. Jesus does not look forward to his “baptism” for the pain it brings but for the salutary effects it produces for all of us.

c. “I have come not to bring peace but division.”

This is a statement that critics of religion would cynically agree with. Religion is seen by many as a major source of division, suffering, and war in our world. In our own times we have only to look at the Middle East (Jews and Muslims), the former Yugoslavia (Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims), India (Hindus and Muslims and Christians), Northern Ireland (Catholics and Protestants).

But to others it is a very puzzling, even alarming, statement. It seems to contradict the whole message of the Gospel. At the Last Supper Jesus told his disciples that he was giving them peace, a peace that the world could not give, a peace that no one could take away from them. We call Jesus the Prince of Peace. In the Beatitudes we read, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God”. They especially are the ones who do the work of God – and of Jesus. In the letter to the Ephesians, Jesus is called our peace, breaking down the walls that divide peoples. “By this will all know that you are my disciples, that you have love one for another.”

Painful words

It is especially painful to hear the Gospel speak of families being broken up because of Jesus. But this is less a prophecy or an expression of God’s will than a description of the Church’s very real experience from the time the Gospels were being written down to our own day.

In many countries, both Christian individuals and Christian communities are seen as a threat to governments, various power groups and other religious groups. We saw this in practically every Communist regime during the 20th century: the Soviet Union, the East European satellites, China and Vietnam. And these governments had reason to fear even though Stalin mockingly asked once how many divisions the Pope had. Yet it was the faith of Christians, who, without firing a shot (Stalin was right), was significantly instrumental in the collapse of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe.

Yet, in the long history of the Church, how many families have suffered because members became Christians? Most of us – especially those who have lived in non-Christian or anti-Christian societies – probably have met someone who was rejected by their family for becoming an active Christian. And, not infrequently, persecution comes even from other Christians, from within the Church itself.

It is significant in the First Reading that Jeremiah is dumped into a cistern not by outsiders but by his own people who did not like the message from God that he was bringing. And how many people realise that there have been more martyrs for the faith in the supposedly advanced and civilised 20th century than in all the preceding centuries!

Non-violence

The Christian message is non-violent. It brings love, compassion, harmony, peace.

It brings people together so that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female… But it also of its nature challenges injustice, corruption, discrimination, abuse, dishonesty and all attacks on human dignity. The role of the evangeliser is “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.”

Vested interests – the rich, the powerful inside and outside the Church – will do anything to keep what they have. When the Church preaches and lives the Gospel, conflict is inevitable – even though in no way wished or intended.

So, in one way, religion should never divide (as in Northern Ireland). It is only a false Christianity and religion that deliberately creates division (“them and us”). It is not Christianity or any other religion as such which has brought so much suffering but certain people who call themselves “Christians” (or Muslims, Hindus or Jews).

At the same time, true Christianity in defending truth, justice, human dignity and freedom will inevitably meet opposition and be attacked. The passage which says that the peacemakers are blessed also says that those who are persecuted in the name of the Gospel are equally blessed. Strangely enough, both go together.