It is true that there can’t be many Gospel passages more surprising than the one set for last Sunday, in which Jesus shockingly claims that he hasn’t come to bring peace but fire and division. Or, in Matthew’s more straightforward phrase: ‘not peace but a sword’.
Nothing in the Bible is presented more positively than peace. It’s a gift of God, an integrity experienced as a thousand blessings, from debts cleared to health restored. Christ without peace is just not thinkable: a doctor without medicine, a baker without bread.
Yet this is his contention. No surprise that preachers can lament the impossibility of finding much ‘good news’ in these verses’ relentlessly challenging images. Indeed, the Church of England finds any negativity quite hard to deal with at the moment. As Anglican influence and numbers plummet, high-octane claims of how wonderful things really are waltz glitzily across the cortex of social media. ‘Fresh expressions’ here! ‘Missional’ appointments there! Just look at the wide-eyed, beaming positivity! (And we won’t talk too much about those other more troubling matters.)
To brighten the whitewash yet more, the Ministry of Fun is working overtime, not least with one or two very popular summer events (some of my reactions are here). There are other indications, such as one northern bishop seeking to attract more clergy to the diocese with the tweeted promise that ‘We’re having fun up here!’ For fun is the one thing needful, rendering these distinctly fun-free verses of Luke 12 especially tricky. Luke, after all, is at considerable pains throughout his Gospel to present Christ as the King of Peace, with the Baptist ‘guiding our feet into the way of peace’; Christ’s birth being hailed as ‘peace to people of good will’; and Simeon’s departure ‘in peace’ being possible now that he’s finally seen the Messiah. Later, Jesus tells women he heals to ‘Go in peace’, while his seventy missioners are also told that their first word in people’s houses should be ‘Peace.’ Luke even reworks the Palm Sunday texts to celebrate Jesus as ‘the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven …’
Despite all this, there is no equivocation in his denial: ‘not peace but division.’ Luke’s reasons for this jarring inconsistency must be good. Looking for clues in the whole of Chapter 12, we find that it begins and ends with a dramatic accusation: ‘Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees,’ Jesus warns his disciples; ‘their hypocrisy’ — or the coercive deceit that abandons the unleavened obedience of Moses as a primary recipient of the promises of God. When the charge is repeated at the end of the passage (verse 56), it is directed at those who can read the weather yet remain ignorant of the meaning of the times, notably the role of Christ as powerful judge of all (v. 58).
Between these aggressive poles, the chapter delivers a series of emollient encouragements and stern warnings, principally to offer the support and solace of the Spirit to any who might be called upon to defend themselves in court or synagogue. This would appeal not particularly to Jesus’ own contemporaries, but would provide comfortable words for Luke’s community five or six decades later as they faced serious persecution and division from religious and political authorities. Jesus the true judge (himself judged by the hypocrites of his own day) sets himself squarely on the side of those who now face the powerful pseudo-judges of their own time and place.
The disciples/readers are additionally taught not to fear physical death (verses 4 -5); to know their own intrinsic value (‘worth more than many sparrows’, verses 6-7), to ‘sell [their] possessions’ (verse 33), and live in alert ‘readiness’ for the master’s return (verses 38-40). Any servant bullying another will be ‘cut in pieces’ (verses 41-46), while the disobedient will be ‘flogged’ (verses 47-48).
These are not instructions for the right ordering of a fun-filled social occasion. They are grown-up words for dark, grown-up times. As Christ faced the vindictive vigilance of the Pharisees, so Luke’s Church lived with the consequences of Simeon’s prophetic description of Christ as ‘a sign to be opposed, set for the falling and rising of many.’ Luke fleshes out the bones of this opposition later: just as Mary’s soul has been pierced, Christ’s martyrs will fall by the edge of the sword. Jesus offers no easy, knock-down peace simply because there is none. Instead, there is fire, baptism, division.
Fire is a positive symbol and a dire warning. Yes, it is the chosen medium of divine punishment from Sodom to faithless Jerusalem, and its heat was felt by all who perished in the onslaughts of Assyrians, Romans, and other disturbers of the peace of each successive generation of Jews. Fire is also a sure means of purgation: the messenger of God is ‘a refiner’s fire’, who purifies God’s servants (‘salting them with fire’?) until their offerings are once more acceptable. Those who refuse reform remain worthless chaff that will (in the apocalyptic warning of the Baptist) be winnowed to perdition and consumed by unforgiving flame. Fire is also, however, a most welcome symbol of the powerful Spirit of God enabling and equipping the Church at Pentecost. Fire and Spirit together: the constituents of Christ’s baptism, without which he will remain distressed and constrained, unable to complete the salvific task which he has terrifyingly embraced.
What a long way from this immensity of purpose our understanding of baptism has been brought by the Church of Fun. What a cutesie, beribboned thing we’ve made of it. And not just for babies: even the adults ‘joining the family of Jesus’ with cakes and fizzy wine are kept a safe distance from the dying and rising, the burning and purgation. If we can persuade them into a home group and get them to sign a direct debit mandate, we’re likely to consider the job well done and pause awhile.
This may be no bad thing. Like ways of skinning cats, routes into the Kingdom are legion, and there is no hard border. The thing that really is needful is a recovery of the sense of the demands and danger of the life of the baptised. ‘Make it hard for them!’ a group of school chaplains was once advised when talking about younger Christians and their faith. ‘Make it tough: they’ll love it!’ This means locating our emphasis in the dignity of baptism (not ordination, which can be people’s first and only thought) and in finding real joy (and missional traction!) in fighting the fires and attending to the serious divisions and disunities we find on our own doorstep. Hong Kong today. Hertford, Hereford and Heckmondwike tomorrow.
It is surely significant that the only real divisiveness experienced by western/European Christians is within the Church, usually in response to Biblical interpretation or liturgical practice. Unlike Luke, we know nothing of the experience or consequences of standing out against political power as Christians. There is, moreover, not even much difference between me and my godless neighbours in our moral judgements and decision-making: Christianity has indeed shaped indelibly the values of the west.
We may therefore find that our ‘division’ is something much more akin to the ‘division’ of the Letter to the Hebrews, that speaks of the Word of God ‘cutting more finely than a two-edged sword, piercing and dividing soul from spirit, joints from marrow.’ We will begin with this surgical sword of decision before we come to wield a more martial sword of social division. We begin with repentance, the paring of courage from fear, action from indolence, prayerful encounter from self-absorption.
It is this that kindles and stokes the baptismal fire, that excites the Spirit. It is this that makes baptism not ‘something done to us,’ but ‘done by us, a willing consent to be affected by God, … to be more consciously aware of the power of the risen Christ, the invasion of the present by what is yet to come.’
This commits us to an all-consuming way of life, and we should feel distressed and constrained whenever we are distracted from it. It is this life in Christ that is our peace. We do not begin with peace: it is our journey’s end. We begin with decisions and proceed with divisions, both fairly trivial and unspeakably painful. These form the canvas on which our baptismal life is drawn, in which we will find our meaning and purpose long after the circus has rolled out of town.
In the end, the good news is not that Jesus gives us instant fun and happiness, but that through taking up his cross we wear his crown and share his throne, where there is not division, but unity; not death, but life; not a sword, but peace.
 Proper 15/Sunday 20 Year C: Luke 12.49-56.
 Matthew 10.34.
 See the entry on Peace in the Dictionary of Biblical Theology ed. Xavier Léon-Dufour for an excellent survey of possibilities.
 Luke 1.76, 79.
 Luke 2.14.
 Luke 2.29.
 Luke 7.50; 8.48.
 Luke 10.5-6.
 Luke 19.38.
 Luke 12.2.
 Luke 2.34.
 Luke 2.35.
 Luke 21.24. See also 21.12-19 for the most systematic indication of the suffering of Luke’s community. The opening pages of chapter 8 of Graham H Twelftree: People of the Spirit – Exploring Luke’s View of the Church (SPCK, 2009) offer a helpful account of this question.
 Genesis 19.24; see also prophetic texts like Isaiah 66.15f, Jeremiah 11.16, Ezekiel 15.6f, Zephaniah 1.18, Joel 2.2.
 Malachi 3.2.
 Mark 9.49.
 Luke 3.17. The Qur’an is equally keen on the symbol of fire as divine punishment (e.g Sura 39.9, 16).
 Acts 2.3.
 Luke 3.16.
 Luke 12.50.
 By Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP. Conference talk at Liverpool Hope University, June 2015.
 Do you, dear reader, even know the date of your baptism? (I’ve now got mine on annual repeat in my diary.) Ordination anniversaries clog my Twitter feed every Petertide and Michaelmas. But of baptisms, ne’er a word!
 Nick Spencer: The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values (SPCK, 2016).
 Hebrews 4.12.
 Ilia Delio, OSF: Making All Things New: Catholicity, Cosmology, Consciousness (Orbis, NY, 2015), 86.