Parish Eucharist 18th August 2019
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”
Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
These are not the words that we expect from the meek and mild Jesus who only a few verses earlier has been considering lilies and commending sparrows. One can understand why these words and similar, seemingly uncharacteristic utterances, have been called “the hard sayings of Jesus”; hard not just because harsh in themselves but also apparently incompatible with the rest of the gospel message, which reasonably enough, we associate with peace, reconciliation and love.
Perhaps the hardest thing about them is that they are generally thought to be among the most certainly authentic sayings of Jesus, on the ground that while editors of the Gospels might have been tempted to amplify and add to the friendly, positive and encouraging sayings, the temptation would have been to cut the harder ones. That these sayings survive the gospel writing process is seen as evidence that Jesus really said them. In brief, one might make up nice and easy bits, but why make up nasty and difficult ones?
I’m not wholly convinced by that argument. For us, with the benefit of 2,000 years’ worth of hindsight, the most striking thing about these sayings is just how true a prediction they are. Quite apart from the spiritual benefits of salvation, Christianity has brought immense worldly benefits to humanity the world and we shouldn’t forget that, but equally we cannot ignore the endless litany of ghastliness that has characterised Christian history; prejudice and bigotry, oppression, persecution and that most terrible cruelty, the cruelty of the ideologue who knows he is right. And all this not just within the church but inflicted on the innocent heathen too. The editors of the gospel didn’t of course know what was in store, but they knew about persecution; they knew about fire and division, and I think the temptation to make Jesus predict these trials might have been strong.
What interests me more, however, than these hermeneutics is the truth in these hard sayings. There is a realism about them that goes beyond mere prediction of the future course of Christian history. I think they are an essential part of the Gospel. The gospel is ultimately good news, but the salvation it promises doe not come without effort and struggle. We should not expect it to. Humanity has a natural tendency to self interest to the point of selfishness and greed; to conservatism to the point of resisting the prospect of a dangerously different new creation. Growth involves change and renewal and, on the whole, we don’t like it. That resistance to the Gospel has unsurprisingly led to division, to family quarrels and to worse. We shouldn’t expect the path to salvation to be easy or the struggle to create the Kingdom of Heaven, to be a push over.
This is all just one aspect of a central dichotomy in the Gospel and in Christianity; is it dealing with this world, here and now, the physical and tangible or is it really all about another, ideal world somehow outside and beyond in time and space, but yet attainable for human mortals? It’s a dichotomy which finds even deeper in expression in sin, hate and death versus forgiveness, salvation, love and true life. Other religions struggle to reconcile these forces, and understandably they are big questions; we in Hampstead have, mostly, and relatively, an easy existence, but we have troubles and anxieties enough; for many others, living in grinding poverty or under intolerable oppression, the hope of something better, something even elsewhere or in the future, is an essential for survival. This is the sort of hope that the author of Hebrews exposes so eloquently.
It may not be Christianity’s USP, and I don’t think it is unique to our faith, but it’s certainly an essential feature, that the Gospel does not ignore that struggle. It does not paper over the seemingly deep chasm between this world and the kingdom of Heaven. In bridging that chasm it recognises its depth. It recognises the pain that may be needed to reach healing, and it’s a pain, rejection and death that it’s teacher and its paradigm undergoes on the cross.
“I have a baptism with which to be baptised, and what stress I am under until it is completed”
St Paul certainly believed there were forces of evil in the world, and perhaps Jesus did too, although Satan is a somewhat elusive character. I’m more inclined to see these forces as metaphors for our own failures to be the ideal images of God that we are meant to be. We are placed in the Promised Land; the task is to understand what that means for us, and what we need to do to make it real. Perhaps I am to idealistic, but I am also realist about the prevalence of failure-in myself and all around me and I am aware of the terrible consequences of that failure, our failure, as Jesus puts it, to read the moral weather signs correctly. Our hope for the Kingdom drives us to strive for peace, justice, and for life rather than the moribund desert that we have made of so much of the social and natural world. But we can or should, I think, see hope in that striving and struggle. The difficulties, the pain and suffering, or at very least, discomfort, we must undergo, are part of the transformation that we need to experience as individuals and in societies big and small in order to attain the salvation which is ours if only we will grasp it. It’s not some outside force that leads us astray, but we ourselves. That suffering is integral; Jesus shows this on the cross and in these hard words, he’s being realistic, and ultimately, encouraging.
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