His fire brings change

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20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C: Aug. 18, 2013
Jer 38:4-6, 8-10; Ps 40; Heb 12:1-4; Luke 12:49-53

I often heard it said that “people don’t like change.” It seems that this increases as we get older; and it certainly increases when things are going the way that we want them to, and we have our lives arranged just so. Indeed, it seems that Americans have a talent for changing every religion they meet—whether it be Catholicism or Buddhism or whatever—into the message that we are perfect just the way we are, and we don’t need to change at all; it’s everyone else who needs to change! Just leave us in peace.

But this is not the message and mission of our Lord Jesus. What did we hear him say in our Gospel reading today? “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” And he says most provocatively: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”

Jesus sets up the analogy of comparing what he is doing, to fire. And so we do well to consider what ordinary, physical fire is and does. It is a great agent of change! We know that it has been incredibly important in the history of the human race. With fire, in darkness, we can have light. In cold, we can have heat. We have been able to cook food safely; to purify metals and reshape them. We have been able to sterilize by killing germs, and to destroy objects that we wanted to be rid of or to remove. All of these are changes that we desire.

But the very power of fire always carries the risk that it may escape our grasp, so that we are no longer its master; so that it kills not just germs, but us; so that it destroys not just rubbish, but possessions we need or want. We depend upon natural fire, but we also are afraid of it, and work hard to keep it in check.

Our Lord Jesus said, “I have come to set the earth on fire.” But his fire is not impersonal, unintelligent, unfeeling, like the natural fire that we know; it is the love of his Sacred Heart. Our Lord Jesus has brought the fire of his love, his power, his holiness to a world that is cold, dark, damp, and sick; and he longs to set it on fire.

And that means change. At times we welcome this, as when we hear him say: “The Spirit of the Lord… has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor… to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” (Luke 4:18) That sounds great! But what about when he wants to achieve this, by changing us inside? By burning away our selfishness and greed and anger? By killing our lust and resentment? By burning up guilt and bad habits and unnecessary possessions that weigh us down? By enkindling a love for everyone around us? Can we trust him? Is this a good and beneficial fire?

We can trust him! He is good! And so the saints urge us on. By their example, they show us what comes from welcoming Jesus’ fire; by their prayers, they help us to say yes to him. And so, as we heard in the second reading:

Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.

Jesus loves you just the way you are; and he loves you too much to let you stay that way!


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