As we all know, religion is becoming increasingly strange to many Australians. There is therefore an increasing onus on us as believers to speak coherently about faith. Often this begins with actually speaking about our experience of faith. What does it look like? What does it explain? How does it work? All this gives people a way of understanding us, a way of testing it in their own lives.
I think today’s gospel can help with that, precisely because it can strike us as strange. Perhaps this gives it an advantage. It can grab the attention. It does not look like the sanitised image of Jesus as a shampoo model. It does not sound like the warm and fuzzy feeling that often love is reduced to by our culture. We have to work to make sense of it.
So, what do we do with such a Gospel? When we hear that Jesus is in anguish until he suffers baptism, what do we understand and how do we respond? How does Jesus saying he will split family members against each other tie in with how we imagine a loving God responding? How is any of this Good News?
Perhaps one way in is to look at that image of fire that we find in our Gospel today. Fire often goes along with the presence of God. We remember the image of the burning bush or the tongues of fire and Pentecost. It is often linked to the idea of judgment. Elsewhere Jesus talks of being salted with fire, or the fires of Gehenna linked with the final judgment.
The very presence of God is experienced as a burning fire. It burns up everything in its presence that is unholy. In a certain sense, this is why God expels Adam and Eve paradise, to protect them. This is why St Paul warns people against receiving the Eucharist if they are in a state of serious sin. God is utterly dangerous for all that is impure.
There are a couple of good examples of such an experience, both positive but one that feels negative, and I would like to start with this supposedly negative one. This is the experience of resisting temptation. Anyone who has undergone serious temptation, especially temptation in the form of addiction or despair as in our psalm today, knows this fire. It is the overwhelming sense that one cannot get past the temptation. A fire in the mind, a roar about the ears, a growing realisation of the enormity of the battle and stakes involved. This fire might be God seeking to purify me if I just remain faithful in the moment of temptation. It is incredibly painful, and so just so easy to give up. But it is something with which I am sure many of us are familiar. This feels negative but in the final analysis is positive.
The other example is fiery prayer. This is that moment that again many of us might have experienced when a prayer is obviously answered. There is an immediate sense of God’s presence, such a powerful presence that the truth of the moment immediately begins to judge and order other moments of my life. If this moment, this prayer is true – and the fire in our blood leaves no shadow of a doubt, then other things about our life must change. Again, it is the same type of experience but characterised by prayer rather than temptation. Both, though, are clear moments of grace, of fire.
When we get this, one side of today’s gospel makes sense. Jesus is bringing the fire because he is that fire. He is the presence of God. All that is unholy will be split from all that is holy. This will happen at every level of creation. It will happen even within families. It will happen even within each one of us. And as we hear in the story of the final judgment, in the separation of the sheep from the goats, our response in the presence of God to this judgment, a response that in the end just is our very self, a self that we have created for or against God’s will, this will be our final destiny.
But this also reveals the other aspect of that gospel, Jesus in agony awaiting his baptism. The only reason we feel this fire is that Jesus has come to where we are. The all holy one has entered into sin. As St Paul writes, he has completely disregarded his own state out of concern for us. The one that cannot stand the impure is wracked with an unholy agony in order to be with us. The Cross is both agony and fire, and both agony and fire because it is the God who is love loving us as a human.
This in the end is the reason why, like in the Letter to the Hebrews, we must keep on running the race, keep throwing off the sin that clings so easily. This is the reason why we must want to be judged and to endure the fire of purification. We do all these things simply because we want to be with the one who loves us in an utterly foolish way. The one who will endure such a baptism just to be united with us. How could we remain unchanged in the face of such love? How could we go on unmoved when the source of all movement has come to get us?
What else could be worth everything but love?