We ended last week’s worship singing, “Soon and Very Soon” joyfully and full of hope. But if Jesus’ coming again is going to be like the Gospel of Luke describes it—“There will be distress among the nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken”—do we really want Jesus to come soon and very soon—or ever?
In all of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia chronicles, which are allegories of the Christian story told as children’s stories, Aslan the Lion represents Jesus Christ. He’s a real lion, a wild animal, not a tame cat. He has sharp teeth and claws. He has a big roar. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, before the Pevensy children meet Aslan for the first time, they are nervous. They ask Mr. Beaver if the Aslan is safe. “Safe?” Mr. Beaver scoffs. “Course he isn’t safe! But he’s good. He’s the king, I tell you.”
Not safe. But good. That informs the way we read today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus, whom we call the Prince of Peace, says, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! Do you think I came to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Do we really want to encounter this soon and very soon?
This passage doesn’t fit well with the all-too-familiar Sunday school pictures of Jesus with softly permed hair and perfect teeth and snow white robes. You know the ones—he was either carrying a lamb or knocking on a door. He was not disrupting anything or upsetting anyone. Those pictures were less Jesus-as-a-lion and more Jesus-as-a-kitty-cat. But in today’s Gospel, Jesus is calling down fire, threatening family values and possibly world order. I imagine his hair must be kind of messed up.
Whatever the artists have done to him, Luke’s portrait of Jesus is not passive or innocuous. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells the rich to give what they have to the poor. He asks the sick and alienated and lonely people to come and have dinner with him, instead of respecting the social hierarchy of his time. He tells the religious people that they would be closer to God if they would let go of their rules and rituals and instead embraced God and other people with fierce passion. Jesus touches untouchables and speaks of a kingdom that is more powerful than the empire that thinks it is dominating the world. And that kingdom is a kingdom where forgiveness counts more than being right, where compassion counts more than revenge, and where all people are sisters and brothers, not divided by race, religious convictions, or any other artificial boundaries. Now THAT is a Jesus I want to encounter soon and very soon!
But we know—as Jesus knew—what the outcome of such outrageous, extreme, and committed love would be. Crucifixion. And in his refusal to condemn even those who condemned him, he took the strongest stand anyone could against violence. He loved people even as they called for his blood. He loved people even when they destroyed his body. He is not safe, but he is good. And what’s more, he extended that goodness to all of us. Our God is not safe. Our God is active, engaged, willing to bring down fire if that is what it takes to change a corrupt world order and bring all of creation home.
The catch is that if we are following Jesus, as we claim we are, then we are not to be meek and mild either. We, as Jesus’ followers, are called to be not safe but good. Which is every bit as terrifying as it sounds. When Christians rise up to be our truest selves we threaten every idol our world holds dear. Those who follow Christ, who truly embody his dedication to the truth, are not blessed by the world. They are a threat to it. They challenge the status quo.
Think of Martin Luther, standing up to the church of his time, calling it to be faithful to the Gospel instead of to tradition. He was not safe. Think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. challenging the system of segregation in this nation. He was not safe. Think of Bishop Desmond Tutu, demanding an end to apartheid in South Africa. He was not safe. People who follow in Jesus’ footsteps, proclaiming liberty to the captives, good news to the poor, and calling for a reordering of our priorities are not meek and mild. They are not folks who walk around smoothing everyone and everything into mellowness, saying “peace, peace,” when there is no peace, like the false prophets Jeremiah complains about in today’s first lesson. No. Followers of Jesus are rabble rousers. They are fire-breathers. They are truth tellers. They are catalysts for change.
Jesus did not come to earth to say that everything is ok, and everyone is ok. He came to this world to speak the truth, to realign our allegiance to God and to our neighbors. And the great saints of all time followed his lead, no matter what it cost. Picking up where we left off last week, in today’s letter to the Hebrews we hear a catalogue of what people of faith did as a result of that faith: they administered justice, quenched raging fire, obtained promises, won strength out of weakness. They did brave and foolish things because they took the Bible seriously, not literally. They believed that Jesus meant what he said about everyone being children of God. They believed that Jesus was serious about honoring the least. They believed Jesus, and they lived as closely as possible the compassion and mercy and justice he stood for. And that got them in trouble. They were not safe. They threatened the order people had grown accustomed to. As the author of Hebrews points out, that led to mockery and flogging and imprisonment and persecution and often death in some graphic and gruesome ways.
Jesus is not safe, and following Jesus is not safe. It may mean taking an unpopular stand. It may mean getting involved in causes and missions that are more heated than you’d like. For sure it means that we don’t get to sit back complacently singing “Soon and Very Soon” while injustice goes on, with the idea that God will take care of it. Sometimes God’s way of taking care of the world is through our hands and voices and votes. Our body and blood.
The Good News is this: if anyone is suffering from oppression, Jesus is not sitting by saying, “It will all be OK, just be patient.” No, Jesus is struggling alongside the oppressed and through the oppressed toward liberation for all of creation. If anyone is imprisoned in body, mind, or spirit, Jesus is not complacently waiting in the visitor’s room, but is actively campaigning for freedom, reaching through the bars to clasp each captive’s hand in the darkness. If anyone is hungry or cold or in need, Jesus is not oblivious to this struggle, but is laboring to bring each longing heart and stomach and life all that is needed and much more besides.
And Jesus is doing it through us, the Church. We are not an irrelevant social club, as some people think. No. We are a dangerous company. Jesus is using us to change the world. We are not safe, but we are good. And if following Jesus means following him all the way to death, then that is how it must be. Because following him into the tomb also means following him into new life. If our baptisms take us to a death like his, they also take us to a resurrection like his.
In our baptisms, we have become united with Jesus. We have received his own passions, and through the Holy Spirit, have Jesus’ own yearning to stand firm against all that wounds the world God so loves. Now, even if your father and mother oppose you, even if your daughter or son rise up against you, even if governments silence you, even if neighbors ridicule you, even if all that you love seem to turn against you, you will never be alone. We belong to a community where water is thicker than blood. God’s mantle of acceptance and promise of new life surround us. It’s strong. It’s serious. It will hold against all odds. No, our Jesus is not safe. But he is good. And we belong to him. Thanks be to God.
~Pastor Susan Schneider