The Tenth Sunday After Pentecost | Proper 15 | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin |14 August 2022 | Isaiah 5:1-9 | Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18 | Hebrews 11:29-12:2 | Luke 12:49-56

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God who brings fire to the earth.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth.” He says that he has not come to bring peace, but rather division. These are harsh words. And they may be startling words coming from Jesus. After all, when the angels first proclaim Jesus’ birth in the Christmas story, they sing about peace on earth and goodwill to humankind. And Jesus preaches about loving everyone, even our enemies. So shouldn’t that kind of universal love and goodwill lead to peace, and not to fire and division?

We’ll work with those questions today—questions of why Jesus would be so harsh, why love would lead to conflict and division rather than peace and unity.

And we’ll also work with the difficult yet liberating truth that the Gospel is not actually about making everybody happy.

So. Let’s look at what Jesus says here in this first part of our Gospel reading. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled,” Jesus says. He refers to his coming death. And then Jesus challenges the expectation that his mission will be all about peace. He says that what he’s doing on the earth will actually bring division instead. Even members of the same family will end up on opposite sides of the conflicts that Jesus will stir up.

This is pretty disturbing. Most of us really want peace on the earth. Most of us really want to get along well with our families, and this passage is painful to those of us who are estranged from family members. Some of us even have deep religious trauma around fire and brimstone pictures of God’s judgment. And so it’s hard to hear our loving Savior Jesus talking about fire and division instead of peace and unity.   

It’s also confusing because Jesus doesn’t say here what the fire and division and conflict are about, just that he’s here to bring them. So one thing we can do to work with the disturbance of this passage is to look for that context. Maybe if we can understand what the conflict is about here, then we can see how Jesus’ harsh words might square with what we know about God’s love, and the vision of peace on earth.

So that’s our first step. We try to see what the division is about. If we zoom out from this one scene and pan the camera back and forth across the landscape of Jesus’ life, we can spot some of the major conflicts of Jesus’ ministry—sometimes these show up as stories of confrontation, and sometimes they show up as teachings or parables where Jesus says “No” to certain behaviors.

So, there’s the time when Jesus crashes through the temple turning over tables and driving people out with a whip. Jesus is in conflict there with moneychangers who make a profit off of folks who don’t have a choice.

Even beyond this memorable scene, some of Jesus’ harshest words in the Gospels are spoken to religious leaders who weigh down their people with rules instead of helping them bear the burdens of life. These are conflicts about oppressing people in God’s name.

Also about oppression but without the religious context, Jesus tells some burningly harsh parables about rich people who don’t help their neighbors. We read one a couple of weeks ago with the rich man who builds bigger barns instead of sharing what he has; and there are more, like the parable of the rich man who ignores the beggar Lazarus at his door. Jesus engages in an ongoing conflict with folks who pile up wealth and ignore their neighbors in need.

We can see a pattern in the conflicts in Jesus’ ministry. When Jesus speaks words of harsh judgment or enters into conflict with people in the Gospels, usually it’s about this kind of thing.

It’s so often about people using the power and wealth they have to keep folks with less power down, or failing to use what they have to lift other folks up. Jesus gets angry when powerful people oppress those who are weaker. Jesus gets angry when rich people ignore those in need.  These are the main times when Jesus brings the fire of his wrath. These are the times when Jesus disturbs the peace. These are the times when Jesus takes sides and causes division.

So maybe with that context in place, we can see how today’s harsh-sounding Gospel fits in with Jesus’ message of love. Maybe we can even see how it fits with the peace on earth and goodwill to humankind proclaimed at Jesus’ birth. Love for all people means speaking out when some of us hurt others. When people act in ways that harm their neighbors, it turns out that being quiet and peaceful is not really the most loving thing to do. There is a place for fire and conflict and division in the name of love for all God’s children.

We see this love behind the harsh judgement in our reading from Isaiah, too. Those who “join house to house” and leave no room for their poorer neighbors to have a home are on the wrong path. God loves every one of God’s creatures deeply. God wants everyone to be housed and fed and free and flourishing—that’s the vision of peace on earth. And that means that if we’re God’s people, we don’t get to build a real estate empire while ignoring those of our neighbors who sleep outside.

If we want to live our lives as part of God’s love, that means there are some actions, some patterns of life, that are out of bounds. We can’t use the power we have to keep people down. We can’t use faith to make people less free. We can’t hoard our money and not share with folks in need. And when we see that sort of thing happening, we have to say “No.” But the way our world is set up right now, that “No” is radical. That “No” disturbs the peace. And that means living out God’s love is going to lead to some conflict and division.

God’s love is infinite. And because of that infinite love, not in spite of it, Jesus’ mission leads to fire and division and conflict sometimes. God’s vision for peace on earth is more than just a superficial calm where nobody is arguing or complaining; it’s a deeper peace that comes with justice. It’s a vision where all people can flourish.    

I think that’s what this Gospel passage is about. There are times when what appears to be peace on the earth is not equally peaceful for everybody, and so fire and division are really a move toward a deeper peace.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. talks about this kind of righteous division in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. King writes this letter in 1963 as a reply to a group of clergymen who had asked him to be more polite and patient in seeking equality for Black Americans. There were Episcopal priests in that group of clergy. They called the actions of the Civil Rights Movement extreme. They thought that the protests and sit-ins were disturbing the peace and causing division.

But King points out that the status quo was actually not peaceful, not for Black southerners. King’s community experienced constant violence and degradation. White moderate Christians were able to ignore it before the actions of the Civil Rights Movement, but the violence was there all along. King correctly argues that his work wasn’t the source of the conflict in Birmingham. He says: “We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.”

And that is necessary work if we’re going to take part in God’s love for all people. “I come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled” says Jesus. There are harmful structures in this world that need to burn for all God’s children to be housed and fed and free and flourishing. “I come not to bring peace on the earth, but rather division,” Jesus says. There are hidden tensions that need to be surfaced. When we follow Jesus in doing that, we might make a lot of folks unhappy. We might offend our relatives. We might disturb what passes for peace. 

And this isn’t to say that every division is about justice. Plenty of times we get crosswise with each from failures in communication, or we accidentally bump into one another’s unhealed wounds. Some conflicts just happen when we live in community, and we do our best to mend things and move forward. But, for better or worse, a conflict-free existence is not the ideal set forth by Jesus in the Gospel.

Some conflicts become inevitable when we try to live out God’s love in the world. The truth is that the Gospel is about loving everyone, and the Gospel is not actually about making everyone happy.

For me this truth, that the Gospel is not about making everybody happy, is both hard to accept and freeing. Y’all, I really want everybody to be happy. A part of me gets very uncomfortable when I can see people aren’t happy. The way I was raised, it was my job as a Good Christian Woman to make sure everybody in the house is happy, and try to fix it if they’re not. (Thank God, I’ve grown since then!)

Many of us carry that impulse to smooth things over, to go into fixing mode if we even see that anybody is upset or unhappy. And so we definitely wouldn’t want to cause the conflict ourselves. For people who have experienced abusive households, this need to keep everyone happy can be even more deeply ingrained, because for a time, keeping surface-level peace was genuinely a matter of safety—parents or partners would lash out when they were unhappy. Whether or not we carry that trauma, conflict is difficult, and most of us want the people around us to be content and peaceful.

So it can be hard to accept that the Gospel does not in fact call us to make sure everyone is happy. It’s hard to follow Jesus toward fire and division. It’s hard to accept that loving everyone is not the same thing as appeasing everyone.

And this is where the truth sets us free. Because love is better than making everyone happy. Love means we no longer have to contort ourselves to meet conflicting expectations.

Love is demanding, but never distorting—love asks a lot of us, but it never asks us not to be ourselves. We can stretch out and grow into God’s love. We can say “No” to things that harm our fellow creatures, and we can say “No” to things that harm us. It’s not our job to protect a false sense of peace even when this world is messed up. It is our call to love each other, and to tell the truth about the gaps between this world and God’s vision for a world where all people can flourish. And that is not always easy, but it is such good news.

There’s even more good news for us in Hebrews, and we’ll end with that. Friends, we have a great cloud of witnesses cheering us on. The Gospel is not about making everyone happy, but the Gospel is about community, and it is about joy. We are held in the love of the saints, living and dead. We don’t strike out on our own with our righteous rage un-anchored. We love each other. We delight in each other and we delight in God together. We strengthen each other. We hold each other accountable.

When we wonder, “Am I about to get into a fight for God’s love here, or am I just about to be a jerk?” we have people we can ask, who will tell us the truth. Thank God!

When we do enter conflict for the cause of love and truth, and we come back grieving and weary, we have mentors and friends who will comfort us. We have the stories of the saints who endured, and we have their prayers. 

Through conflict and community and suffering and joy and the messiness of it all, this cloud of witnesses leads us onward to the joy that surrounds God’s throne. This cloud of witnesses leads us through fire to God’s vision of true peace.

At the center of our community is Jesus, the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” Jesus burns through false peace with the holy fire of love. Jesus forgives us and feeds us. Jesus invites us to come to his table and find strength in communion with a great cloud of witnesses. From the strength we find here, Jesus calls us more and more each day to become part of God’s fierce love for all creatures.


The image is Kelly Latimore’s beautiful icon “Christ Breaks the Rifle” (…/christ-breaks-the-rifle). It’s a depiction of the need for decisive action (and conflict) in the service of a deeper vision of peace.