In this Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 12:49-53), we hear three uncomfortable statements from our Lord Jesus: “”I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were ablaze already. “There is a baptism I must be baptized with, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished.” “Do you think I have come to establish peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”
We know that fire destroys lives and property, but that’s not the kind of fire Jesus brings. In Exodus 19:18, fire symbolizes the presence of God. In Exodus 13:21-22, the pillar of fire also symbolized God’s presence as the Israelites traveled through the wilderness, protecting them by night just as he protected them in a pillar of cloud by day. And in Acts 2:3-4, tongues of fire appeared to the apostles at Pentecost, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Fire is therefore the devouring presence and love of God for us, his people.
Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan was already done when he spoke of his need to be baptized. Does that mean he was looking forward to another baptism? No, in the literal sense. Yes, figuratively. He symbolically looked forward to another baptism – his death, burial and resurrection.
For us, it is our baptism that establishes our identification with him. Saint Paul writes: “Do you not know that we who were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him by baptism into death, that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we also might live in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).
His third and final statement is the most disturbing – that he came not to bring peace on earth but division. At first glance, this seems contrary to the message of the gospel. Even long before Jesus was born, among the many titles given to him was that of “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). In 1 Corinthians 14:33 we are taught that God is not a God of confusion but of peace, and in Ephesians 2:14 we are told that Jesus himself, who in his flesh broke down the wall of separation from hostility, is our peace. So what could Jesus’ statement that he would come not to establish peace but division mean?
This means that obeying Jesus and living the Christian faith will not always be easy. One thing is certain, there will be a lot of opposition and conflict. Jesus knew it beforehand. He warned his apostles that they were sent as sheep among wolves (Luke 10:3). He also said, “If the world hates you, realize it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you. Remember the word I said to you: “No slave is greater than his master”. If they persecute me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. And they will do all these things to you for my name’s sake, because they do not know him who sent me” (John 15:18-21).
All of these conflicts could be misinterpreted by the world as a lack of peace in the life of a believer, but in reality, this is not the case. The truth is that a Christian enjoys a kind of peace that non-believers do not understand or even know. In John 14:27, Jesus says, “Peace I leave you; my peace I give you. I don’t give it to you like the world gives it to you. Don’t let your hearts be troubled or frightened. Despite all the troubles, a Christian can always rest on God’s promise: “In the world you will have trouble, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).