August 12, 2022

Christ the Cornerstone

Fire of God’s love is meant to heal and unite us

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

“I have come to set the Earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing! There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the Earth? No, I tell you, but rather division” (Lk 12:49-51).

The Gospel reading that we will hear this weekend, the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, is disturbing. Jesus, normally the meek and mild teacher who has told us that “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Mt 5:9), reveals that he has not come to establish peace on Earth but division.

Division is something that we know well. Here in the United States, we seem to be hopelessly divided on practically every substantive political, social and economic issue.

In the Church, too, there are great divisions over the way we worship, over matters of social justice and pastoral care, and over what we understand to be the fundamentals of Christian faith and practice.

The Prince of Peace says he comes not to bring peace, but division. What’s more, he has come to set the Earth on fire, and he longs to see it blazing! How can we reconcile this bold contradiction? How are we supposed to understand what the Lord is telling us in this provocative passage from St. Luke’s Gospel?

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has written that the fire Jesus is speaking about is his own passion of love, “a fire that is to be handed on. Whoever comes close to him must be prepared to be burned. This is a fire that makes things bright and pure and free and grand. Being a Christian, then, is daring to entrust oneself to this burning fire.” And, we might add, anyone who dares to approach the fire of God’s love, separates himself or herself from the crowd of bystanders who hesitate at first, and then refuse to get involved.

A contemporary image we might use to help us understand what Jesus is telling us is that of first responders daring to rush in as others are fleeing from a burning building. The fire of divine love is purifying. It separates us from our sins, certainly, but it can also divide us from those who don’t see things the way we do—and even from family members and close friends whose opinions and beliefs run contrary to the Gospel message.

There are many great paradoxes in our Christian faith. For example: The same Jesus whose teaching divides us can also unify us. The fire of God’s love can burn us, but God’s tender mercy can also heal us. The Lord makes demands on us that can seem impossible to fulfill, but God’s love is given to us unconditionally.

In his encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti: On Fraternity and Social Friendship,” Pope Francis reminds us that true peace is not conflict free. To achieve a true, lasting peace, enemies must acknowledge their differences and work through them. They must forgive each other for the legitimate grievances on both sides, and they must genuinely seek common ground and the common good of all. As the Holy Father teaches:

Those who were fierce enemies have to speak from the stark and clear truth. They have to learn how to cultivate a penitential memory, one that can accept the past in order not to cloud the future with their own regrets, problems and plans (#226).

It’s only by the grace of God, given to us by the power of the Holy Spirit, that we can accept the past and reconcile with one another in spite of the wounds (real and imagined) that divide us from one another and from God.

Yes, Christ’s peace can be divisive. His demands can seem unreasonable. And his love requires us to make the same kind of sacrifice, suffering and surrender that our Lord had to make when he gave his life for us on the Cross. And yet, we believe that Jesus truly is the Prince of Peace, and the tender and merciful Lord of love, whose healing touch unifies us and saves us from our sins.

The second reading for this Sunday (Heb 12:1-4) asks us to place these things in the proper perspective: “For the sake of the joy that lay before him [Christ] endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God. Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb 12:2-3).

Let’s pray for the peace of Christ. The burning fire of God’s love can be disturbing, but the division it causes is meant ultimately to heal and unite us. †

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