Monday, August 15, 2016

The Church: pyromaniac? Or Flame retardant?

Isaiah 5:1-7
Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Luke 12:49-56 

“We are partakers of the Holy Spirit, who is like fire within us.  We have been baptized with fire and the Holy Spirit.”  St. Cyril of Alexandria, “Commentary on Luke, Homily 94”

What was it that once got us fired up about faith, the Gospel, The Lord and His Church?  Surely there was something about these things we were once excited about but are no longer.  If this is true, then we are compelled to ask ourselves what extinguished that fire that once burned so brightly?  What were we once so excited about that we were almost willing to fight over or did fight over, but then just let it go? 

In almost every instance, what can diminish enthusiasm for any given thing is to get excited about it, embrace it, and then discover those who once shared and even encouraged our enthusiasm just faded away and left us holding the bag and bearing all the burden.  There is probably nothing that dampens enthusiasm for something more than to discover we’re alone.  Thus due to a lack of fresh air, the fire is starved of oxygen and slowly dies out.

Jesus wants “fire upon the earth”, so we must think in those terms to understand what Jesus was teaching and how His desire for fire will lead to the divisions our Lord refers to in Luke’s Gospel – and what those divisions mean to us.  Frankly it may seem that if this fire is going to cause division even among families, then the fire may seem necessary to avoid

It is a fire which must be understood.  This is why it is important for the Church to engage such difficult passages and understand them because the Holy One who teaches us to honor mother and father (Exodus 20:12) and demands we teach our children about the commandments of The Lord (Deuteronomy 6:7) is also the One who seems to suggest He is deliberately setting us against one another – even in our own homes. 

So if the Church will not engage such challenging passages that command our attention, there is no reason to expect or hope those outside the Church will care to.  And this, of course, must be our great concern because if the Church is unconcerned about those outside these walls or one another for that matter, there is no Church, no Body that represents Christ Jesus.  We can call it what we like, but we must first be willing to be honest with ourselves and with one another. 

For the “fire” Jesus refers to is the very lifeblood of the Church that will pass the Holy Torch from one generation to the next!

Fire is a very strong force, a formidable element.  Jesus desires this fire in terms of discipleship for two reasons, I think, before we can continue on The Lord’s path.  Something must be destroyed as only fire can destroy; but this kind of fire our Lord speaks of must also spread. 

It is the Savior of the world and The Head of the Church who says: “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow Me cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:27).  He also said, “Whoever comes to Me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes and even life itself, cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26).

And we ask ourselves; does Jesus say we “cannot” because He will not allow it?  Or does Jesus say we “cannot” because when our allegiances are divided, we lack the capacity to devote ourselves fully to Him; that the cross we are to carry is more “in the way” than The Way itself? 

It must be the latter because Jesus would not forbid anyone to follow Him.  It is that what is required of a disciple means we must not attempt to carry so much baggage that will only weigh us down and divide our attention to the point of fatigue, and the fire we once knew is diminished until it is finally and completely extinguished.

St. Peter also refers to the need for such fire when he encourages the faithful to first embrace the great joy of the “salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5) because of the great sufferings and persecutions we will surely face – IF WE ARE AS FAITHFUL as the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) who have gone before us.  The fire of our faith must at least match theirs, remembering their faith didn’t just sit there and “believe”!  Their faith WAS fire that spread!  We are also to be “tested by [that same] fire”, Peter says, but we are assured we can face this fire by the strength of the Church as we come to know we can depend on one another as surely as we can know of the “salvation to be revealed in the last time”.

With that very fire, we must be “purified”.

This means some things within ourselvesnot others - must be destroyed.  Not tamped down, not hobbled, not even controlled; completely destroyed.  Much in the same way The Lord demanded of Israel to destroy the people of the land they were to inherit, they had to do away completely with those things, those practices, and even those people who had the potential to draw them away from one another and the Covenant they shared with The Lord. 

What we know from those experiences, when Israel decided for itself to allow a little of those things, is that Israel – the very “nation of priests” – fell to the temptations they refused to destroy until they became fully a nation of apostates; turncoats, adulterers.  What The Lord and Moses had warned them about came to pass – even though they probably believed they knew better.  The “leaven” which would threaten the people of Israel eventually overwhelmed them to their own destruction – and that by their own doing.

It is fair to say the destruction and eventual exile of Israel began first from within a divided family, each choosing for oneself the prophets who tried to call Israel and Judah back to their senses as The Lord’s Chosen Ones, and those false prophets many of the people preferred – not unlike today - such as those prophets condemned by The Lord through Jeremiah; those who are “deluding you.  They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of The Lord.  They keep saying to those who despise the word of The Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to all who stubbornly follow their own stubborn hearts, ‘No calamity shall come upon yon’”  (Jeremiah 23:16-17).

Surely we can see that when we are almost completely self-absorbed, it is most likely friends and even some family members who are likely to “delude” us with notions of self-entitlement and personal favor to the exclusion of all others, including the Church?  Even in the face of the certain death so many churches have already suffered as well as the many facing the same fate, no one is willing to “carry the cross” because everyone expects someone to do it.  No one will help because it isn’t their “thing”, but someone had better see to it according to these who will not.

These things and persons necessary for the mission of the Church, the “fire” of the lifeblood that brings forth and sustains life in the Church, cannot be attended to because we are too heavily burdened with the “weight and the sin that clings so closely” (Hebrews 12:1).  We “cannot” carry the burden of the Cross because we choose the weight of so many other things we personally prefer.  It isn’t what we are forced to deal with; it is what we freely choose for ourselves to the point of utter exhaustion under the weight of which we are unable to free ourselves because someone never showed up, no one helped us, everyone abandoned us … and the fire died out.

The fire of the Holy Spirit that should be within each of us so baptized has been replaced by the raging fires of individualism, consumerism, and self-entitlement.  It is this fire which has almost completely gutted the Holy Church because everyone wants something, but no one is willing to see to it. 

If we would but ask, however, our God stands at the ready to re-energize His people, His Church for its God-ordained mission.  We as a Body must continue to pray together for revival by the power of the Holy Spirit to restore the United Methodist Church and its witness, but we must be willing and prepared to first cast aside all those things and persons we have placed before our God and His Church.  

When we determine to “seek FIRST the Kingdom of God and His righteousness”, only then will we find all other things worth keeping – including our loved ones – “added to us”.  By His Mighty Hand and by His Spirit alone, let the people of the Church declare, YES, LORD!  Amen. 

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