Room for the Pain
Carly Simon sang in 1974 that she hadn't room for the pain. You need to make room. Here's what one commentary says about our text: "For Jesus to say I have come to bringdivision' is very disturbing. It implies, at least, that family conflict is now a necessary consequence of Jesus' mission. It is stated so strongly in order that disciples may face this reality and make their decision for discipleship with full awareness of the pain ahead (Tannehill, Luke, 214). Have you room for the pain?
Jesus says He came to kindle a fire on earth. He did this for the OT Church in a dramatic way when He instituted worship in the tabernacle and then in the temple. In the case of the tabernacle Leviticus 9:24 reports, "Fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar. And when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell facedown." In the case of the temple 500 years later, 2 Chronicles 7:1 reports, "When Solomon finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple." Then 1,000 years later Jesus kindles NT worship with the tongues of fire He sent at Pentecost.
Fire separates, divides. You are either on one side or the other of a fire. There is no sharing, no handholding, no communion with people on the other side of a fire. And it's not a matter of feeling, opinion, or refusing to get along. Once a fire is lit the separation is a fact. To the badly divided church at Corinth Paul scolded them for petty divisions but said that there are necessary ones. "There must be divisions among you so that you who have God's approval will be recognized" (1 Cor. 11:19)!
But fire does more than separates; it purifies, it enriches, it enables. Before you dig a splinter out of your finger with a needle, you pass that needle through fire to sterilize it. Sugar cane fields are burned to enrich the soil. The pinecones of the White Pine don't open without the heat from a forest fire enabling them. So this fire that Christ kindled although it by nature divides also helps. Cyril of Alexandria some 1,600 years ago said, "We affirm that the fire Christ sent out is for humanity's salvation and profit" (ACC, III, 217).
Before you can make room for the pain, you have to make room for the fire. No you don't, do you? Fire makes its own room. You're automatically on one side or the other of a fire. Even a fire started with water. Jesus, after saying He wished the fire was already kindled, went on to say what starts it. "I have a baptism to undergo." This unique joining of fire and water gives us the figure of baptism by fire. "Baptism by fire" is a soldier's first combat experience or a severe ordeal experienced for the first time. But the phrase goes back to the first Christian martyrs. In some cases they were arrested and burned at the stake for confessing faith in Jesus before they could even be baptized. Hence their burning at the stake was called a "baptism by fire." But I think, as do others that they got the expression from Jesus' words here. "How I wish the fire was already kindled, but I have a baptism to undergo."
Jesus' baptism of fire is nothing less than answering for, paying for, being responsible for the sins of all time, all places, all people. That's why Jesus says, "How distressed I am until it is completed." It was a heavy burden to shoulder; a dirty, ugly, painful task to accomplish. And it all started when He was baptized in the Jordan by John. That's when my sins, your sins, all sins were poured on Him publicly. That's when the separation that is between God and us because of our sinfulness was put on Jesus. In Jesus' Baptism the fire started and it wasn't finished till that final dread hour on the cross when Jesus cried out, "It is finished." In our text Jesus says He's distressed until His baptism is completed, finished. Jesus uses the same word for finish here as He does on the cross.
Here's a pain Jesus doesn't want you to make room for: the pain of paying for your sins and sinfulness. Wouldn't it be a shame if you were distressed over the same sins Jesus was distressed by 2000 years ago? Wouldn't it be terrible if both you and Jesus were answering for, paying for, suffering for your sins? Give Jesus His due; let Him have His victory. Jesus says He's distressed until He can finish paying for your sins, bearing their burden, going to the hell you deserve, and on Good Friday He cried, "It is finished." Don't you go around saying, "Oh no it's not. There's still something left, some shame, some grief, some guilt, some pain, however small it might be, that I must still bear." Don't be like Carly Simon also sang. Don't have your suffering be the only thing that makes you feel alive. No, it's Jesus' suffering that gives life.
Jesus started the fire that separates with the waters of His baptism. The benefits of that fire purifying, enriching, and enabling come to us through the Word and Sacrament ministry Jesus lit on Pentecost. The fire of the Holy Spirit that landed on the Church on Pentecost is passed on to you in the waters of Baptism, in the Words of Absolution, in the Body and Blood of Communion. In these 3 things burns the fire of the Holy Spirit cleansing, fortifying and empowering sinners. Bask in the warmth of this forgiveness; see the truth of your salvation by its light, but know this: In giving off heat and light fire also separates. Fire makes room for itself. It's a room full of the certainty of being saved, of being forgiven, of being a new creation. But it's also a room of pain.
Carly Simon sang that she was released from the pain of a past love by knowing a new one. We're released too. Not in our knowing Jesus but in Him knowing us. It's not that we love Him, says John, but that He first loved us. We're separated from others by a flame of love Jesus lit in us by knowing us in Word and Sacraments, by knowing us in the promise of forgiveness, by knowing us as His beloved bride. His love for us causes us to love Him and the things He says, all the things He says.
You know those stories where a wolf is known and loved by a family? Love transforms a snarling, mean pup that wouldn't hesitate to bite the hand that feeds it into a loving family pet. There's a definite separation between the wolf pack and the family home. Not all wolves can sleep in the house. They wouldn't want to. In those stories, if the wolf that has been known and loved into the family tries to go back to the pack, tries to live in fellowship with the wolves, he usually can't do it. He's been changed too much. He will live with the pain of separation from the pack for the love he knows in the house of his new family.
"Brothers and sisters" is how Christians refer to each other. Baptismal water that joins Christians to one another is thicker than blood, and the blood of Jesus is thicker still than family blood ties. Jesus' family isn't determined by bloodlines but by the Word of God. Jesus said those hearing and doing His Word are His family (Lk. 8:21). That means in those areas where someone isn't hearing or observing His Word they're outside His family. This is where the pain comes in. All those in the Holy Christian Church regardless of what denomination they belong to are our brothers and sisters in Christ. The Waters of Baptism and the Blood of Jesus that we have in common make us one family. However, that doesn't mean we can or should go to Communion together. Doing so would be an offense to Jesus because we don't all believe or teach the same things about Jesus. By communing together we would be saying Jesus says contradictory things: like babies are and are not to be baptized. He is and is not present in Communion. Do and don't pray to His mother.
We've lived with these painful divisions in Christianity since the 16th century, and we can't by fiat declare them gone because these divisions are based on God's Word. They come from the fire God kindled. Now the fire has spread. For decades there have been pastors and churches within the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod who believe and teach contrary to our agreed confession of what the Bible says. They have stood on the other side of fire from us. Since 1983 I've been among others calling them to come back to our side of the fire. Most haven't. Then in 2004 several of the positions on the other side of the fire were recognized in convention to be the new LCMS position.
In terms of the wolf in the story, suddenly in 2004 things that were allowable in the wolf pack became allowable in the home. The pet wolf could bite without warning and jump on the table and eat the roast. We protested. We said, "You've opened up the doors of our family home to what we had agreed was the doctrine and practice of those outside our family." For 15 years we've protested; our protests haven't been answered. We said from the beginning that eventually we would have to protect ourselves from these errors. The family eventually has to put out the wolf that insists it can be a wolf and still be part of the family. This is painful because after all, at one time the wolf was part of the family.
But what about the president of Synod for the last 9 years? He is on our side of the fire, but he has been trying to hold hands with those on the other side of the fire. The worst construction is he hasn't had room for the pain. The best construction is he's willing to be burned in hopes of bringing some back to our side of the fire. In 2010, after 5 years calling for repentance, we stopped communing people just because they were LCMS. This was our confession that Jesus did kindle a fire, and there are two separate sides. After 9 more years of being ignored, we have separated from the LCMS recognizing she chooses to stay on the other side of the fire. This causes us pain. We don't relish the pain, seek the pain, but we make room for it. Why? Because the fire Jesus has lit that separates is the same fire that saves. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (20190908); Luke 12: 49-53