A Powerful Force
A Baptist pastor fresh out of seminary was assigned to a small church in the hills of Kentucky. In his first sermon, he condemned gambling, especially betting on the horses. The sermon was not well received. “You see, Reverend,” a parishioner explained, “this whole area is known for its fine horses. Lots of our members make their living breeding race horses.” The next Sunday the pastor spoke on the evils of smoking, and again, his sermon was not well received – for many of his members also grew tobacco. The third week the pastor preached on the evils of drinking, only to discover after that a major distillery was one of the town’s largest employers.
Chastised for his choice of sermon topics, the frustrated pastor exclaimed, “Well, then, what can I preach about?” A kindly, older woman spoke up and said, “Pastor, preach against those godless Chinese communists. There isn’t a Chinese communist within 4,000 miles of here!”
The message of Jesus is so powerful because he speaks of wonderful possibilities. No matter how we have sinned or how far we are from God, he speaks of welcome and the warm embrace of a loving, forgiving Father. When we are discouraged by the struggles of life, he promises us that we are not alone and faithfulness in carrying our cross will be rewarded. We even have the ability to forgive one who harms us and welcome a stranger as if they were part of the family, because our love for Jesus overflows to those around us.
So, how are we to take to heart his words in today’s gospel? “I have come to set the world on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” The message seems dark and threatening, speaking of division and families torn apart and loved ones betrayed. We are tempted to suggest that Jesus consider a subject with which we will be more comfortable.
The challenge of this gospel passage is to consider our level of commitment to following the Lord. He wants to be the most important – more important than human relationships, more important than any and all the other things we treasure in this world. We know he burns with that kind of love for us. We see the proof of his personal love for us each time we look at the crucifix. And he asks that we have the same love for him.
But, consider how much time we spent in prayer last week, or the way we spoke to someone when we were angry, or the opportunities to do good that we saw and chose to ignore, or the thoughts and attitudes we held because we knew no one else would be able to read our mind. In so many ways we do not provide much fuel for that fire of love with which Jesus wants to engulf us.
The gospel challenges us to be serious. We cannot be content to excuse our faults and little sins because we are a weak human being. Brittle iron is purified by intense heat and becomes hardened steel. And the fire of our love for Jesus makes us more sensitive to all the things we accept that are not worthy of the one we love – and we grow holier.
When we let the fire of love for Jesus burn within us, the light of truth fills those dark places in which we judge others and we begin to recognize our own imperfections and grow in patience and generosity in dealing with the faults of others. Our love for the Lord warms our heart and helps us to see each person as a brother or sister, one loved just as powerfully as we are.
The love of Jesus is a powerful force. It can make anger melt away. It brings peace to one whose world is falling apart, for we are not abandoned, but only invited to fall into the strong arms of God. It can transform any sinner into a true saint. And today, if we have to admit we are not on fire with love for the Lord, perhaps it is time to be more serious. Jesus invites us today to love him just as much as he loves us.
–Fr. Stephen W Bierschenk