We may be skeptical of the Jesus portrayed by firebrand Evangelical preachers like Billy Graham and others throughout the years.
Sure, Jesus is the gentle, loving figure depicted in many Gospel stories. But he also has a fiery side. And it has come out in full force this weekend.
Jesus is here to push our buttons and show us the true-North of his Gospel message.
But are we listening?
We were at our final deacon Lenten retreat during formation at Mt. Angel Seminary in 2012.
Fr. Dave LaBuda was a last-minute replacement for another Maryknoll educator who was supposed to lead our weekend.
Dave is a very direct person. He loves to tell it like it is. He doesn’t soften his words especially when it comes to opinions about the Gospel or Jesus.
I sat in awe all weekend long, chuckling at some of his button pushing antics.
Do you know who else is good with pushing buttons with his words and actions? Pope Francis.
His words and actions have ignited divisions not seen in our faith in centuries.
For Christians, it’s easy to get comfortable in our faith and think we have it all figured out.
St. Augustine is the saint who encouraged Christians to strive for a faith that seeks understanding. He also advised humility as we strive for that understanding.
When we hear Jesus talk about fire today, we should be reminded of St. Augustine. We should also be reminded of Pentecost and the arrival of the Holy Spirit. The fire of the Holy Spirit is what leads us to an understanding that is beyond our human capacity. And we should be reminded of St. John the Baptist announcement that one mightier than I would “baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit” in Luke’s Gospel.
Jesus knows of the divisions caused by faith.
When we follow the will of our creator (as we heard in last weekend’s Gospel), when we are all-in with our commitment to Jesus and follow the Holy Spirit, there will be detractors who will criticize us, and some may even persecute us or seek to hurt us.
We may be in harmony with our creator, but we may not be in harmony with our family, friends, acquaintances or even our enemies.
This is part of the reality of following Jesus. It’s not always going to be easy.
There’s another dimension of fire we need to consider. Fire is also an image of purification as in the refinement process for precious metals. Gold and silver are described as being tested by fire both in the Old Testament and the New Testament. Such purification allows disciples to learn what it means to follow Christ.
As Bishop Mueggenborg said in his book, “Come Follow Me,” “When Jesus says that He came to cast fire on the earth, He is drawing on all of these images (of fire). He came to destroy the power of evil, to purify us of our weakness and attachment to sin, to sanctify us with the gift of the Holy Spirit, and to awaken within us the gift of faith through loving obedience to His Word. What a powerful image!”
My Maryknoll friend Fr. Dave was the one who invited me on my first pilgrimage to Central America to see the sights and hear the stories of the martyrs of the 20th Century nearly 10 years ago.
On that pilgrimage I first heard of Fr. Dave’s own brush with the fire of the Gospel.
As a Maryknoll priest he served the poorest of the poor in Honduras and Guatemala for 20-years.
It was at times dangerous work for him and his fellow disciples of Christ.
While on pilgrimage he shared a terrifying story when the Holy Spirit saved his life.
As a priest who worked in remote areas, he would travel by boat for hours every weekend to serve Mass in small rural communities dotting hundreds of miles of rivers.
As Fr. Dave and Fr. Charlie were traveling upriver, Guatemalan military authorities stopped them. The two priests were seen as suspicious and immediately placed into a makeshift prison-cell as the lieutenant radioed headquarters.
Since both spoke fluent Spanish, they understood the lieutenant’s words as he asked for his commander, saying, “I don’t believe these men are priests and I want permission to shoot them.”
Fr. Dave and Fr. Charlie were freaked out. They saw no way out of their predicament.
Hours went by as the men sweated it out in the hot afternoon sun sensing the end of their lives was near. The anticipation was unbearable.
The lieutenant kept radioing headquarters, but his commander could not be found.
Eventually, the lieutenant brought both men out of the prison cell. They thought this was the end.
But in their moment of terror Fr. Charlie noticed the lieutenant wearing a big class ring from his military academy and started to ask questions about it.
The lieutenant began to regale them of his graduation day when he got the ring 10-years earlier. He told them of finding a priest as they strolled through town after graduation to bless the ring. A gringo priest.
Fr. Charlie told the lieutenant, “I was that priest!”
The lieutenant immediately recognized him and said, “Padre!” And gave him big hug.
The danger of this moment is the fire Jesus is speaking of today.
This is the fire experienced by the martyrs of our faith (the so-called “great cloud of witnesses” mentioned in our second reading) for over two-thousand years.
While Fr. Dave and Fr. Charlie literally dodged a bullet that day, they both suffered from PTSD for years from the near-death experience.
How prepared are we to give our all for the Gospel?
This is what Jesus is warning his disciples of today.