When shouted loudly, there is one word in our vocabulary that is universally understood–Fire.
Because of what this shouted word portends, civil authorities have enacted laws that outline in detail what will happen to those who, in jest, speak or scream this word in public places or on trains and airplanes. The great escape artist, Harry Houdini, once noted that…”fire has always been and, seemingly, will always remain, the most terrible of the elements.” In our modern world, then, it is unsurprising that we attempt to protect ourselves from fire through legislated fire codes that require safety sensors and alarms be installed in our businesses and homes.
Like this very recognizable word, during the 1990s, a phrase caught on about Jesus that was catchy and remains with us to this day: What would Jesus do? In a certain sense, it built upon a question that has been asked by Jesus’ followers since Christ physically walked among us some two-thousand years ago. Founded in Holland, Michigan, the What Would Jesus Do movement spread nationally with many Christians beginning to wear bracelets bearing the initials, WWJD. But to really understand this movement, we would need to read an 1897 book entitled, In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? In that book, author Charles Monroe Sheldon details the happenings at a small church in the railroad town of Raymond, Maine. According to one book reviewer:
The novel begins on a Friday morning when a man out of work appears at the front door of Reverend Henry Maxwell while the latter is preparing for that Sunday’s upcoming sermon. Maxwell listens to the man’s helpless plea briefly before brushing him away and closing the door. The same man appears in church at the end of the Sunday sermon, walks up to the open space in front of the pulpit, and faces the people. No one stops him. He quietly but frankly confronts the congregation—“I’m not complaining; just stating facts.”—about their compassion, or apathetic lack thereof, for the jobless like him in Raymond. Upon finishing his address to the congregation, he collapses, and dies a few days later.
The following Sunday, it is said that Reverend Maxwell was so moved that he began encouraging his congregation from that day onward to do nothing without first asking, What would Jesus do?
In the Gospel of Luke (12:49-53) for this 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, we would be wise to ask: What did Jesus do? He told us that He had come to set the earth on fire and to foment division, not peace.
Set a fire? Doesn’t Jesus know that fire is dangerous? Can’t He simply revert to that bracelet so many of us wear? Can’t He remain silent on that holy card filed away in our purse or wallet? After all, doesn’t Jesus simply want us all to go-along and get-along? Not if we listen to His words!
First, we must understand that this is no ordinary fire that Jesus desires to ignite in each of us. This is no fire that we see on the evening news. This fire is divine fire, a fire that transforms. And in the 3rd chapter of Luke’s Gospel (3:16), we are told that, at our baptism, God filled us with the fire of the Holy Spirit. This is the same baptism (Romans 6:3) that Jesus speaks of in today’s passage from Luke. Jesus’ baptism is His passion and death. And through His passion flows our redemption. In Acts of the Apostles (2:3), we read that on the day of Pentecost, “there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them.” Those present were inflamed with the presence of God and went forth to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ!
Second, can we truly say that we are on fire with the flame of God in the same way that the prophet Jeremiah (38:4-6, 8-10) was or the “great cloud of witnesses” mentioned in the Letter to the Hebrews (12:1-4)? To the best of our ability, do we proclaim Jesus Christ in everything we say and do?
In following The Way of Jesus, as evidenced by the prophets and martyrs, it is true that we will create adversaries as we stir up the transforming fire of Christ among those in which we live and work and interact. There are those on the path who will say to us: Who are you to question my lifestyle? Who are you to take choices from me? Aren’t you also a sinner? Can’t you understand that truth is relative? WWJD? He wouldn’t condemn me, why would you?
While it is not our place to condemn, as followers of Jesus, it is our place to teach, to love, and to let others know that Jesus’ divine fire has been lit–not to condemn but to provide us with peace and mercy and forgiveness so that we might live our lives abundantly.
Among the saints of the Church, one such follower who sought with his entire will to be the loving eyes, feet, arms, and hands of Jesus was St. Anthony of Egypt (251-356 A.D.). While Anthony “was not the first ascetic, he was the first monk to flee the city to pursue God in the desert. Or perhaps, to let God find and catch him there.” (Mystics and Miracles, Bert Ghezzi, pp. 44) In reflecting upon his loyal friend, St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria and Doctor of the Church, wrote this:
Anthony was like a good physician given to the people of Egypt. For whoever came to him afflicted who did not go away rejoicing? Whoever came to him full of rage who was not enriched with graciousness and long-suffering? And what person ever came to him troubled in mind who did not go away with it composed?…People loved him so much that after he had departed from this world , his memory never died. Everyone took courage from the repetition of his triumphs and of his words.
Will the same be said of us?