I like to be liked.
One day last year, I was accompanying two volunteers from our church on their usual Meals on Wheels run. My job was getting out and carrying the meals to the people. One of our stops was to a certain elerly woman who is a church member. I carried her the meal. We visited a bit. She said, "Well, I really hope you like it here...." Then she paused for a bit, and got a funny look in her eye, and then said something even more honest: "I really hope we like you!"
I like to be liked. But Jesus is more courageous and honest: he comes preaching about fire and division.
In Luke 12:49, he says, "I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!" The Greek word there for "bring" is also translated as "throw"-- picture Jesus throwing fire on the earth. He says, "I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and how I am constrained until it is accomplished! Do you think I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division."
I'm a people pleaser. I want to be a uniter, not a divider. But Jesus breaks into the world like a thief in the night. It's like its his house, it belongs to him; but the people there won't let him in, so he breaks in from outside like a thief in the night. And he is the one through whom everything was made; in him all things hold together; but the ones made through him have rebelled against him, so in order to be a uniter, he is a divider.
So families will be divided by Jesus. There will be stress, arguments, three against two and two against three: "father will be divided against son, and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against her mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law."
A few months ago, my wife Lindsey showed me in the news about ten Christian medical workers who were killed in Afghanistan, two from that country, one from Germany and one from Britain, six of them from the USA. One of those was a friend of a friend of hers. It's good for us to remember today that coming into harm's way because of the Christian faith is not just a thing of the past. Jesus Christ, coming to unite the world in truth, in the peace that can only come through divine forgiveness, Jesus causes division, and awakens hostility... in families... and in nations.
When I was in college I began to be struck with a deep love for Jesus. It caused a great distance between by longtime best friend of many years and me, because he was not a believer, and so we began to live very differently. But now--and here I think is one of the keys to grasp about the division Jesus causes--now, though my friend is still not a professed believer, the distance we felt is largely gone. And we even have very enjoyable and honest conversations about life and even God.
The mystery in the divisions Jesus causes is this, I think: the division Jesus causes results in the possibility of a greater and better unity in the future. This is because of the character of God, the very nature of Truth. We might suffer for standing with truth when others don't, or we might make others suffer for standing with the Truth when we won't: but the truth who is God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is like that strange dad who welcomes the prodigal son back with open arms: the truth welcomes back even those who sin against the truth, when they come. The truth even goes out and scours the wilderness for the hearts of those who are in hiding, turned away, like the one lamb who has gotten lost from the 99, and has gotten stuck in the thorns and thickets.
Are you distant from a friend or loved one because you or they have turned against the truth? Pray for them, or if you were wrong pray for yourself and go repent, reconcile, make things right.
But take courage. If you choose truth at the expense of human unity, you might pay dearly, but you will grow closer to Jesus Christ, who knew something about suffering for truth. If you choose unity with other humans at the expense of truth, the results might not be so good. How the world fears people who would choose truth over unity. How governments fear people who choose truth over unity.
Jesus came with fire and division.
In the year 1886 some 26 Ugandan Christians were burned alive for their faith. They were recent converts, Anglican and Roman Catholic, young men and teenage boys, servants and pages in the king's court. The king's mind had turned against Christians, whose strict morality made them unsubmissive to his own amorality in a number of ways. So in a rage the king gave an ultimatum: if you don't pray, you can live; if you do pray, go stand over there. Charles L'wanga, a young man himself and recently the leader of the Christians in the court after the king had killed the last leader, led the walk over. The king ordered them burned alive in Namungongo, a village 20 miles away. They willingly died rather than renounce the faith.
Fire and division, Jesus brings.
But now... now, the death of those martyrs is remembered as the spark that lit the wildfire of Christianity in modern Africa. It is a true saying that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. Today in that spot where they were burned alive there stands a gigantic church called a basilica, itself made in the shape of a traditional African hut or maybe the funeral pyre where those martyrs were burned. And every year on June 3, half a million people gather right there to celebrate the feast day of those Christians who were martyred-- the day is a national holiday in Uganda.
What an awesome unity, in response to the witness of those faithful martyrs! They suffered like those persecuted heroes of faith in Hebrews, and they have joined the communion of saints, the great cloud of witnesses: they surround us in the eternal love of God, they encourage us in the race we run.
The division Jesus causes always results in the possibility of bigger, better, deeper unity in the future. Because Jesus is who truth is, and Jesus is what truth is like.
So Jesus says, "I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how I am constrained until it is completed." The baptism he must undergo is his own submersion, his own death at the hands of sinners. And after the submersion he is lifted up, and will draw all people to himself.
And the fire Jesus comes to throw on the earth, that burns on the fuel of the Holy Spirit, that warms the world and causes division... that's you.
Clifton Stringer is the pastor of Lakehills United Methodist Church in Lakehills, TX.