“I am come to send fire on the earth, and what will I, if it be already kindled?”
The more I think about Jesus the more I am drawn to the unorthodox nature of His ministry. From the time of His birth in a cow barn in Bethlehem until the moment of His death on a crude and cruel cruciform out by a city dump called Golgotha, Jesus never fit the mold, never conformed to the pattern, and never lived up to the expectations of the religious establishment.
Whenever I think about Jesus, I am compelled to remember a barefoot, itinerant Palestinian preacher who spent His time on planet earth demonstrating to those who had become content with their hunger that even two fish and five loaves would be sufficient for their filling, assuring the lame, the lepers and the lost that theirs would be an abundant life, and telling those who had nothing and prospects of less that they were entitled to everything, “full measure, pressed down and running over.”
Whenever I think about Jesus I cannot escape being drawn to this One who had the audacity to walk on water and then tell others that they could do the same. Whenever I think about Jesus I think of One who made preachers out of crude fishermen, who sat at table with winos and roughnecks, who claimed to be a preacher but who was often seen in the company of a local prostitute, and who went out of His way to talk with a woman at the well, hold an in-depth psychological interview with a mentally challenged resident of the Gadarene Cemetery, took time to be touched by a woman with an issue of blood and then stopped by Bethany to take the grave clothes from a dead man’s body.
The more I think about Jesus, the more I am drawn to the unorthodox nature of His ministry. It is this unmistakable bent toward the unorthodox that occasions the words of this Lucan text. Here in the twelfth chapter of Luke’s unfolding Gospel, Jesus is in the process of parabolic teaching, sharing with his disciples His views on what He called the Kingdom of God. Here Jesus speaks of the economic principles of the Kingdom, suggesting that where your treasure is there will your heart be also, and ultimately suggesting that no matter what your economic status may be, “seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you.”
But then, this word: “I am come to send fire on the earth: and what will I, if it be already kindled.” There is something strange, and peculiar, and unorthodox about this word. Don’t you find it strange that this word on fire is a word direct from the mouth of the Son of God? This word on fire is born in the heart of Isaiah’s Prince of Peace. This word of fire falls from the lips of the One we have come to know as a compassionate Christ. It is a fire that He sends and He sets. For those disciples to whom this word was given Jesus says, then and now, Set the Church on Fire!
This word on fire bears a contemporary ring. Surely there are none who are unaware of the burning of African-American Churches across the length of our land. There is a sense in which those of us who march and minister under the banner of our Christ stand aghast whenever the sacred is profaned. The epidemic of fire and hatred directed particularly toward African American churches is a clear indication that we are still a nation divided, separate and unequal.
What is there in this nation of ours which has brought us to such a low ebb when men dare to trample on the holy and have no regard at all for the places of our worship?
What is there in the post-modern mind where nothing is normative and where the whole of a culture appears to worship at the altar of relativism and materialism so that now there is no longer safety in the sanctuary and there is no haven in the place we thought was holy?
Strangely, those who have sought to destroy the African American church have instead highlighted its significance. Perhaps those who are responsible for these burnings more fully appreciate that significance than their actions suggest.
Yet, through it all there yet remains this haunting refrain: “I am come to send fire on the earth.” I am convinced that the problem may be that there is a fire ON the church because there has been no fire IN the church. It may well be that if fire is symbolic of judgment, and it is, then it may well be that there is a judgment which has fallen upon the people of God who have failed to be the Church of God because they have not been committed to the Word of God.
This is a word of judgment upon those of us who have been keepers of the brass, and the silver, and the gold, the ornaments and the icons of the church, and who have not been at all concerned about those who are among the least, the lost, the last, and the left out.
Perhaps this fire is a word of judgment against those who have been the keepers of ecclesiastical antiquities and who, in cloistered towers and Gothic steeples, have decided to keep God in so God can’t get out and the wrong folk can’t get in.
Perhaps this fire is a word of judgment against a Church that has become uninteresting, so disconnected from the culture, so cold, and formal, unmoving and unbending that even if angels came to church on Sunday morning they could not sing a new song because it’s not written in the hymnal or printed in the order of worship.
But Jesus says that He came to set fire to the earth. And that means fire to the religious establishment, and fire to the religious hierarchy, and fire to ecclesiastical Pharisaism — make no mistake about it, Jesus came to set the church on fire!
It will not take long to pass in review the Biblical record which underscores the fact that the authentic nature of the church is always in relationship to its engagement with fire.
Moses stood on Mount Sinai and there God hid him in the cleft of a rock and showed him a bush, burning but not consumed. Israel would not reach the promised land without first meeting the fire of persecution and pain.
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to bow down before the idols of a Godless king, and for their faith they found themselves in a burning, fiery furnace. The people of God are in harmony with the will of God only when they are willing to burn for what they believe. In other words, your religion has no power until it has been singed with the fire of conflict and confrontation.
On the day when the Church was born, in an old upper room in a city called Jerusalem, 120 people from all over the world gathered to hear a word from God. There came a “sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting…And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.” The church is never the church until it is energized by the breath of God, anointed and commissioned by the fire of God.
Jesus brought this word, this unorthodox word to the consciences of His hearers primarily because whatever they had been doing before didn’t work! We may as well face the reality that with the problems which mark our society, whatever the church has been doing doesn’t work. Whatever our plan, whatever our strategy, whatever we thought we were doing in the name of the church, it doesn’t work. Don’t look now but the prayers are gone, the schools are gone, the morals are gone, our children have no fear of death, common decency is gone and it looks like nobody really cares about the church because in this culture of violence what we’ve been doing doesn’t work.
Set it on fire. Jesus said set it on fire! If you want the church to have power, Jesus said set it on fire! If you want the church to be what Jesus intended for it to be, Jesus said set it on fire!
The church that is set on fire is a church that is composed of combustible material. Fire cannot take place when it is in an environment that is hostile to combustion. The church, to be on fire, must be composed of combustible material. Those who compose the church, must find a way to create a kind of chemical or spiritual reaction that creates both heat and light.
In that same Pentecost moment the record says they were in one place and on one accord. The empowered church is a church of one agenda. The response we seek, however, moves beyond power to peace. The church was born in fire and persecution. So shall it ever be. We must summon the spiritual power which is ours to form new alliances and join new constituencies to bring about justice for all God’s children. From our holy fires comes a moment of great opportunity to give vocal and visible opposition not only to church burning but to the possible dissolution of her dream of justice and freedom for all. When there is one agenda, an agenda that centers on one Christ, one Lord, one Faith, and one Baptism the church regains the power which once she had known.
Jesus said “set the church on fire” because fire has the power to Consume. Whenever fire breaks out it’s hard to keep it in one place. It’s contagious. Those men and women who composed the first church found themselves going everywhere telling others about the name of Jesus. They told it because they had to tell it. The more they told it the more they had to tell it. Strangely enough, the more they were consumed by this fire…this Holy Ghost fire…the more they discovered that their own difficulties disappeared. Those who were disciples discovered that the more they found themselves on fire for God, their individual goals disintegrated.
The doubts and fears of Thomas disappeared.
The radical militancy of James and John was tamed.
The impetuous and irrational behavior of Peter was Drought under control.
They discovered that the only thing they were concerned about was Christ. No matter what fire you are experiencing, if you take your eyes off yourself and place your eyes on Jesus, what you thought was your problem will become your possibility, what you thought was your stumbling block will become your stepping stone, what you thought was your defeat will become your victory.
This fire will consume you with Jesus. And that’s the way I want it. I want, in the words of Gardner Calvin Taylor, “more of Christ and less of me until there is all of Christ and none of me.”
Set the Church on fire!
Jesus said set the church on fire because it has the power to Control the Uncontrollable. In the church of my childhood they did not know anything about internal combustion, they didn’t know anything about consuming fire. They said that when they came together they felt something on the inside that made its way to the outside. They said they had a love that ran from “heart to heart and breast to breast.”
Every year the nation is seized by fires which break out in the great forests of the land. Whether caused by drought or carelessness the fires run rampant through acres of trees and land/very often bringing threat and harm to human life. I have noticed, however, where there is a fire that appears to be uncontrollable, a strange and unorthodox thing occurs. Firemen may try to drown the fire from ground level or try to extinguish it with chemicals flown in by special planes. But when the fire is uncontrollable they draw a circle around the fire, dig a trench and then set a fire in the trench so that when fire meets fire, the fire is brought under control. I am convinced today that there is power when fire meets fire. When my fire meets with your fire that which appears to be uncontrollable is brought under control.
We have a fire that can change the world.
We have a fire that can alter men and nations.
We have a fire that can replace truth with falsehood.
We have a fire that can warm these stony hearts of ours.
We have a fire that can give strength to the weak, hope to the hopeless, power to the powerless, and love to those who have no love. We have a fire that can change the world.
The more I think about Jesus the more I am drawn to the unorthodox nature of His ministry. In fact, whenever I think about Jesus and all He’s done for me, my soul cries Hallelujah!
“I am come to send fire on the earth, and what will I, if it be already kindled?”