Take a Bath in Fire
Luke 12: 49-56
I talked to my sister on the phone the other day, she told me that while she was making pizza for lunch she went to take the pan out of the oven and accidentally grabbed the 400+ degree pan instead of the oven mitt. She said that she had a blister that covered most of the tip of her finger, She was in shock, she had never been burnt so badly. She immediately put her finger under cool water and instinctively, in a state of panic and delirium from the pain, she started calling my mom—but she didn’t pick up, my dad—he didn’t pick up, she called me—I didn’t pick up, finally her boyfriend picked up and she was able tell someone about her pain.
For the rest of the day she kept her finger in a cup of water until she was able to put burn ointment on it, for it was too painful to be exposed. She said that she hadn’t experienced this kind of pain since she could remember, it was mind numbing.
When our body, our skin, touches fire, when we are burned, it sheds away layers of our skin, leaving vulnerable, raw skin exposed. Our nerves scream from the pain of simply feeling air. This feeling can also happen to us emotionally, if we experience severe grief or trauma.
My pastor friend’s dad died recently, and our other pastor friend said to her, “You don’t have skin on right now, everything is raw.”
Something happens to us when our tender insides, vulnerable skin, or painful emotion is exposed to the rest of the world. It hurts. It hurts, and sometimes, we heal with time. And sometimes we are left with scars, both physical and emotional. We are left altered. I have different scars on my body, because of injuries and surgeries, and there are parts of skin near the scars that don’t have feeling. The nerves just don’t work anymore. The fire changes us.
In the Luke passage we heard today, Jesus is talking to a “crowd of many thousands” as well as his disciples. He says that he has come to bring fire to the earth. He speaks of a baptism that he is going to undergo, and this stresses him greatly. The word translated as “constraint” in verse 50, recalls a sense of distress, pressure, of holding tightly and squeezing.
This “baptism” he speaks of is his looming crucifixion. Jesus knows that he is going to die so he is filled with a sense of urgency and passion. He isn’t messing around. Things need to change and fast.
If the crowd and the disciples are going to follow him, they need to understand what that exactly means.
Following Jesus is not all fun and games.
It means physically leaving your home and following in his footsteps—traveling with him wherever he goes. It means walking long distances. It means listening intently to what he has to say, absorbing all of his teachings and wisdom. It means rejecting all that the devil tempted Jesus with: Power, Fame, Control.
Following Jesus will have consequences. Those who are used to the status quo, to the way things have always been, to those who benefit from power, fame, and control—will be threatened by this new way of being in the world. Tension that has been simmering all this time will burst up to the surface. Peace, defined as a lack of tension—will be uprooted.
This tension, the pressure on the powers that be, the overturning of tables, those leaving their family responsibilities to follow Jesus, all of this will split up families. The pressure Jesus is putting on the dominant religion, the way he is defying the governing powers, will have personal effects.
The world at large, all the way down to interpersonal relationships, will be affected by Jesus’ efforts to announce and create the reign of God here on Earth. Yet Jesus’ efforts are clearly falling flat, at least to those in the crowd. They aren’t getting it.
They can look at the sky and understand what the current weather pattern means, but they don’t see how Jesus’ words and actions will play out. They don’t understand that Jesus is going to be killed for preaching peace, for his interpretation of scripture, and for his claim that he is the son of God. They don’t see the storm coming, looming overhead.
“The weather is nice!” They say, ignoring the crackle of electricity in the air.
“Everything is fine,” they say as they cross the road to avoid the man lying there dying.
“All you need is the law, just believe in and follow the law of God,” the religious leaders say to the man excluded from society because of his leprosy.
“Shoo, the Gospel isn’t for you,” the disciples say to the woman whose daughter is possessed by a demon.
“God is in control” they say as officers march Jesus, forcing him to carry his cross, forcing him to bear the weight of the weapon they will use to execute him.
The crowd, the disciples don’t see how “peace” may rule the land, but this peace only brings violence. This “peace” starves those without food. This “peace” allows for politicians to execute anyone they feel threatened by. This “peace” will murder the son of God.
So Jesus, greatly distressed, is ready to rain down fire if that is what it will take to wake up this crowd to the reality of the times. Their skin is too thick, tough. They don’t feel the pain of others, because it is not their skin which is raw and exposed.
Maybe the fire of Jesus’ passion, the power of God’s justice, will cause their way of life to blister.
The same Jesus, who “experience(ed) harm that we might know healing, under(went) judgment that we might know pardon, suffer(ed) death that we might know life, both now and in the world to come.”
Maybe it will take Jesus being baptized on the cross, dying for and by all our sins, dunked into the water three times, three days under and then brought back up, back to life—for us to see that Jesus’ division was true peace for us all.
Jesus’ division meant true peace, true justice, true equality for all. Jesus’ division meant turning the other cheek, eating with sinners, healing the sick and welcoming the outcast. Baptism by fire and the Holy Spirit means surrendering control, submitting yourself to your Creator, denying your tendencies to blame, shame, and guilt so that you may be purified, so that you may breathe the fresh air and live into the new life that is God’s reign.
So may it rain/reign fire.
This week I wanted to present a story of someone who experienced the purifying power of Jesus.
Someone who was exposed to ways in which humankind can be evil to one another, yet still believed in a different way of being in the world. Someone who knew that Jesus’ division meant denying the status quo and living into the true tension of God’s peace breaking in justice.
When Martin Luther King Jr. was in the Birmingham Jail, he wrote a blistering letter. He breathed fire, exposing the ways in which “good,” even church-going people, were getting in the way of equality.
King talked about the steps that his nonviolent campaign took to bring about justice:
1. Collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist,
4. Direct action.
His term “self-purification” stood out to me. They would prepare themselves by, “…(participating in) a series of workshops on nonviolence, and (repeatingly asking themselves) “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?”“Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?”
King says, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue, so it can no longer be ignored.”
King says that he was disappointed with the people who would sit back, refusing to involve themselves in the struggle, those “who (are) more devoted to "order" than to justice; (those) who prefers a negative peace—which is the absence of tension— to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
King said that those who participate in nonviolent direct action (such as protest marches or sit-ins) were not the creators of tension. They just brought to the surface the hidden tension that was already alive.
Negative peace, an absence of tension.
This is the peace Jesus was talking about.
The tension of positive peace, the presence of justice.
This is the division that Jesus was talking about.
King said that early Christians used to be “disturbers of peace” and “outside agitators” for the way they disturbed those in power and the status quo. He was worried that the church has lost its fire. That good people will remain silent in the face of injustice.
Jesus and Martin Luther King both spoke with a burning urgency, they spoke scathing words to people who thought they were good, yet they turned their backs on those in need. People who claimed to be believers but secretly were grossed out and offended by the least of these.
Both Jesus’ and Martin Luther Kings’ words should bring us to our knees. Their words bathe us in fire, the fire of God’s justice. A justice that peels away our hard hearts and thick skin to expose our tender, raw underbelly.
The parts of us that run to our mom and dad when we are hurt.
Jesus wants to bring out the parts of us that want to be good, even when the world has callused our skin, making us believe that tenderness is weakness, that vulnerability is embarrassing, that kindness is for fools, that dreaming of a better world,a world of true positive peace, a world of God’s justice, is for the naive.
What does God need to burn away in us so we can give up on the illusion that we have it all together and under control? What will it take for us to admit that we too are complicit in harm to others (even if we don’t mean to)?
Jesus is lighting a fire underneath us, so we don’t wait our life away. Can we let this fire consume us, purify us?
Will we follow the path, the cloud of fire, even if it means we must take an uncomfortable look at the hypocrisy that lives in us?
Jesus didn’t spit fire, die on a cross, and rise again--defeating death, just so we can turn a blind eye to the very things that nailed him on the cross.
So, as often as you look at the weather app on your phone to see what the weather is like outside, may you open your eyes to what is simmering around you. What are we missing? Avoiding? If we enter into Jesus’ flames, know we will meet him in the fiery furnace.
He will be in there with us. He will endure the heat, the flames that melt away our hard hearts, our calloused skin. He will tenderly hold us when we expose ourselves for who we really are---children crying out to mom, to dad, to God for comfort. Children crying for our pain to be taken away. Children who really, truly want to be good. People who really, truly are good—even when we are made to believe otherwise.
When Jesus carries us out of the flames, our exposed nerves will scream as they touch the air. Jesus will run us under cool water, bathe us in the Holy Spirit, soothe our wounds.
And then, maybe someday our scars will tell stories of the ways we have shed our false skin, the times when we dug deep and did the right thing, our scars will be witnesses for the pain we experienced and endured.
God’s fire burns but it does not consume. It purifies, it melts away all that does not serve us, it makes us stronger even as it reveals our tenderness, and it illuminates the truth that Jesus has been with us, holding us, all along.
May it be so.
 Luke 12:1
 Commentary on Luke 12:49-59
 Commentary on Luke 12:49-59
Commentary on Luke 12:49-56
Commentary on Luke 12:49-56
Erik J. Thompson
Commentary on Luke 12:49-56
Commentary on Luke 12:49-59
Letter from a Birmingham Jail
Martin Luther King, Jr.