Standing in the Fire

I Wish Jesus Hadn’t Said That!

Warning: Read the gospels and you’ll run into things Jesus said that you would like to avoid or ignore. Here’s one of mine:

“I came to cast fire upon the earth. How I wish that it was already ablaze!  I have a baptism I must experience. How I am distressed until it’s completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I have come instead to bring division. From now on, a household of five will be divided—three against two and two against three. Father will square off against son and son against father; mother against daughter and daughter against mother; and mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:49-53)

Bishops Kammerer, McCleskey, Carter, their spouses with me at Junaluska.

I’ve done a very good job of avoiding that text! Across 50 years of ministry, I’d never preached on it until it popped up in the lectionary for last Sunday. I was preaching at Lake Junaluska and decided to tackle it. But I’ve had good reasons to avoid it.

We, warm-hearted, grace-filled, peace-loving Methodists don’t really like Jesus when he talks this way. We’re like the tea-totaling woman who, when asked if she realized that Jesus turned water into wine, said, “Yes. But I would have thought better of him if he hadn’t done it.” 

But here it is. We’re stuck with these uncomfortable words, not just because they’re in the lectionary, but because they’re in gospel. And here we are, stuck in a nation full of people divided against each other on just about everything; not even able to agree on the difference between facts and lies. And here we are as the church, sorting out whether we will be “United” or “untied” Methodists with colleagues and friends divided against each other, each believing they are led by the same Spirit to the convictions that separate them. 

What will we do with this fire-spreading, peace-shattering, home-wrecking Jesus? More important, what might he do with us? 

One way to deal a difficult text is to look at the context in the hope that it will make it a little easier to take. Sorry. Not much help here. Unfortunately, in this case it makes things worse. 

Luke 11-12 are full of dire warnings culminating in Jesus’ challenge for his followers to be faithful servants who are doing their master’s work when the judgement comes. 

Jesus says, “I am deeply distressed.” Other translations read, “very troubled,” “consumed.” He has good reasons to be stressed out! The opposition has been building. Jesus can see the cross ahead. He has experienced division in his own family. His mother and his siblings think he is out of his mind. (Mark 3:20-21)

Jesus is stressed out, exhausted by the tension, weary of the conflict, not at all sure he wants to face what lies ahead but knows he can’t avoid it.   

When I heard Jesus saying, “There’s a fire I must go through, a baptism I must face, and I wish it were over,” I remembered Jeremiah saying, “There is a fire in my bones which I’d like to put out, but I can’t.”  (Jeremiah 20:8-10) I heard Jesus’ words as a precursor to the struggle he will face in Gethsemane when he is forced to wrestle with what it will mean to be the faithful servant who does his Father’s work regardless of consequences. Jesus is facing a fire he would prefer to avoid but cannot. 

Living with Jesus’ words, two songs rattled through my brain. The first is from the gospel according to Garth Brooks

We call them cool
Those hearts that have no scars to show
The ones that never do let go
And risk the tables being turned

We call them fools
Who have to dance within the flame
Who chance the sorrow and the shame
That always come with getting burned

But you got to be tough when consumed by desire
‘Cause it’s not enough just to stand outside the fire

Standing outside the fire
Life is not tried it is merely survived
If you’re standing outside the fire.

Jesus knows it’s not enough to stand outside the fire.  He knows that the only way to find life is to face the fire and go through it. It raises some disturbing questions. 

What if the baptism of fire that John the Baptist predicted Jesus would bring is not only the fire through which Jesus went, but the fire into which he calls us to go as well? 

What if following Jesus doesn’t necessarily extinguish all the fires, but sometimes intensifies them? 

What if:  

“The peace Christ brings is not … an anesthetic that makes one numb to the conflicts of the world; it may indeed sharpen them. [Jesus] is not peaceful, but under stress and turmoil. The road to God’s peace is not a detour around the cross but goes through it.”  (Eugene Boring/ Fred Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, p. 230)

Going Into the Fire

On August 14 the Episcopal Church honors the memory of Jonathan Myrick Daniels. He was the 26-year-old seminarian who left the security of Cambridge, Mass., to step into the fire in Alabama with Martin Luther King, Jr.  On this day in 1965, he was arrested along with 29 other protesters. Released after six days in a stinking, un-air-conditioned cell, they were waiting for a ride when Daniels with three others went to buy a cold soft drink at Varner’s Cash Store. That’s when an unpaid special deputy leveled his shotgun at seventeen-year-old, African-American Ruby Sales. Daniels pushed Sales down, caught the full blast of the shotgun, and died instantly. 

Not long before he was arrested, Daniels had written in his journal, “I began to know in my bones and sinews that I had been truly baptized into the Lord’s death and resurrection.”

Gratefully, we’re not all called to be martyrs. But sooner or later, any of us who are serious about following Jesus will be there with him — distressed, troubled, consumed, standing outside a fire we would prefer to avoid. 

For most of us most of the time, they are not the monumental fires of martyrdom.  They the small, deeply personal fires of compromise, temptation, or division within our own lives and relationships; the profoundly personal crises that force us to decide what it will mean for us to be faithful servants, doing our Master’s will.

Finding Jesus in the Fire

Here’s the good news. When we choose to go into the fire, we, like the Hebrew boys, will find the presence of the one who really is the Son of God. (Daniel 3:1-30) The same Jesus who refused to stand outside the fire promises to be in the fire with us. By his presence, the fire we thought would destroy us can become the fire of divine love that refines, purifies, and transforms us more deeply into the likeness of the one who went into the fire before us.  

I promised you two songs. The second comes from – who else? – Charles Wesley. 

Charles was four years old the night of the fire in the Epworth rectory. Samuel thought all the children were out, but then he saw six-year-old John, they called him Jacky, in the upstairs window, the flames closing in around him.  Samuel got down on his knees to commend his son’s soul to God.  Fortunately for both John and for us, there were less-pious people who made a human ladder to rescue him.  For the rest of his life, John described himself as “a brand plucked from the burning.”  

The memory of fire evidently stuck with Charles, too. In many of his hymns he used the biblical image of fire to describe the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Here’s one.

O that in me the sacred fire
Might now begin to glow!
Burn up the dross of base desire,
And make the mountains flow!

O that it now from heav’n might fall,
And all my sins consume:
Come, Holy Ghost, for thee I call,
Spirit of burning, come.

Refining fire, go through my heart,
Illuminate my soul;
Scatter thy life through ev’ry part,
And sanctify the whole
.

Charles knew that by God’s grace, the fire we would rather avoid can become the refining, purifying fire in which we are purged of narrow self-interest, sanctified, being made perfect in love. 

It Still Happens!

Some of my clergy colleagues and I were exchanging email responses to some of the mean-spirited attacks that are flying back and forth on social media among deeply divided brothers and sisters in the church. One colleague described a particularly grace-filled response by another pastor.

He is a walking and breathing in the flesh example of a life transformed and continuing to be transformed (born again, and again, and again) through Christ. With all of his humanness and his awareness of his own shortcomings and limitations, he is passionate and deeply grateful about being a vehicle through whom Christ works in the lives of others.

Knowing the pastor about whom they were speaking, I knew hellfire he has been through in own journey; fires that might have destroyed him, but in which he ran head on into the presence of Christ.  That’s what Wesley was singing about.  That’s what it means for the fire through which we are called to go to become the refining fire of the love of God. Another colleague confessed:  

I see how necessary — and difficult — it is to live with a heart at peace.  Looking within my own heart, I see how necessary — and difficult — it is for me to live toward others with a heart at peace. Lord, in your mercy … ”

By God’s grace, the fire we would rather avoid can become the refining fire in which we are being sanctified, being made perfect in love.  

Faithful People Have Been in the Fire Before

Another way to deal with a text we’d rather avoid is to look at the other lectionary readings to see if they have any help for us.  In this case, Hebrews 11:29-12:2 does!

The letter to the Hebrews was written for stressed out folks like us; folks who were facing some baptism of fire they would prefer to avoid; folks who were going through times of crisis, stress, and division. It was written to give them – and to give us – the kind of faith, hope, and love that would see them through their own crisis in a way that could be consistent with the way Jesus stood in the fire in his life.

The 11th chapter is the roll call of the faithful people who had been in the fire before them, to say, Hey!  You’re not alone. People of faith have been in the fire before. There’s nothing new about divisions in the church.  

I’m curious about folks who say they are contending for the orthodox faith that has been held by all people in all places across all time, as if there were some perfect time when there was no division, tension or crisis in the church. Haven’t they read the bible or church history? People of faith have faced the fires of division and conflict before. 

When I walked by the Lake Junaluska auditorium the night before I preached, the Salvation Army band was playing the William Tell Overture.  I texted a Salvation Army friend in Florida saying I had no idea that the Lone Ranger was a Sally! It reminded me of the division when William Booth left the Methodists because he felt called to go into the fires of suffering, poverty, and despair in England. 

The writer of Hebrews reminds us that we’ve been here before, building to the powerful words we need to hear. 

So then, with endurance, let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter. He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne.

Think about the one who endured such opposition from sinners so that you won’t be discouraged and you won’t give up.

So, strengthen your drooping hands and weak knees!…Pursue the goal of peace along with everyone … Make sure that no one misses out on God’s grace. Make sure that no root of bitterness grows up that might cause trouble and pollute many people. 

Perhaps Brooks got it right:

Life is not tried it is merely survived
If you’re standing outside the fire.

An Episcopal priest friend told me the amazing postscript to the Jonathan Daniels story. Ruby Sales went on to attend the Episcopal Divinity School, the successor institution to the seminary Daniels had attended. She has continued to work for human rights in Washington and across the south. You’ll find an 2019 NPR interview with her here.

There will be fires we can’t avoid. But whatever the fire might be for us, we follow the one who has already been through the fire and who promises to be with us there.  By God’s grace, the fire that might have destroyed us can become the refining fire by which we are being made whole.  

Grace and peace,

Jim

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9 thoughts on “Standing in the Fire

  1. Jim… Thanks and have a blessed week. SHALOM, Tom Mc

  2. Hi Jim! What’s not to love about the gospel according to Garth?! I have been very confused by the behavior of the WCA as well as the “christian nationalists” (what an oxymoron!) This quote speaks to me: “I love it when people that have been through hell walk out of the flames with buckets of water for those who are still consumed by the fire.” (attributed to Stephanie Sparkles) I was unpleasantly surprised in my work with people in recovery that would not offer the same unconditional grace that brought them through their fires. Instead of buckets, they bring more hell-fire. If I can smell smoke on someone and they’re not carrying a bucket–I don’t trust them.

  3. A very “timely Word” for all us walking in and, hopefully, through the fires of doubt and mistrust. People claim to “be the church” wherever they are (& rightly so).
    So, negative and contested interpretations
    of Scripture will often occur. Divisive issues with people, not God, will occur. By God’s Grace, we can “walk through these fires” together—hand-in-hand—then Go, Be The Church again & again. Amen.

  4. FYI

    Sent from my iPhone

  5. Sarah M. Parker August 21, 2022 — 9:31 pm

    Reminds me of the hymn, “He Leads His Dear Children Along”. “Some through the waters, some through the flood, Some through the fire, but all through the blood; Some through great sorrow, but God gives a song, In the night season and all the day long.”

  6. Thank you for your encouragement, Jim!

  7. Jim, wonderful presentation – sorry I could not make it to the Lake that morning – but as I read, I could not help but think of my own moments in or near the fire; and the One who was in there with me – although I often did not realize it as the time! I shared your article with the Maggie Valley UMC pastor. He, also, found it really helpful. I’m glad you chose the more difficult way in presenting your insights into this particular passage at the Lake.

  8. I love this and will be talking about it with my congregation this Sunday. In Christ, Pastor Judy Cramer who was at one time a pastoral student under your care when I lived in Tampa. I am now a pastor at Magnetic Springs Pharisburg Charge.

    1. Judy: I’m grateful for any way this can be helpful to you and your congregation. God bless your ministry.

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