I don’t suppose there is very much in life that more of us value more highly than simply peace of mind, freedom from stress, from anxiety. That being so, these readings must ring a little harshly in our ears.
In the First Reading, Jeremiah had spoken out often and loudly against the abuses of the king and the leading people of the community, and because of that he found himself deeply in conflict.
In the Second Reading, St Paul tells his readers that simply because they are believers, followers of Christ, they will find themselves in conflict with those around them from time to time. In the last line, he puts it very graphically. He tells them “Keep at it. Keep up the struggle. After all, you haven’t been killed yet.”
In the Gospel we find some of Christ’s strangest sounding words. He says, “I have come to bring fire to the earth, and I wish it was already blazing.”
In everything that he said and did, Christ was the supreme realist. Christ knew more clearly than any other that faith, to accept the fact that it is God’s world and must be lived in on his terms, is a crisis, a turning point in one’s life. It disturbs our comfort in the world. Faith makes us face reality and see ourselves as we really are, citizens of God’s kingdom, not really at home here, not really even meant to be …. rather a little bit out of place in the world.
Perhaps the crisis a believer might experience might involve taking a look at one’s life and saying, “This just isn’t good enough. This isn’t the way it should be.” It may even be an experience of really having to say, “My life is a mess. And worse, I’ve gotten fairly comfortable with that mess. Fairly complacent about it.” Maybe it is time for some of that fire and sword that Christ promises to be also a part of the experience of faith.
In any number of situations, it may well be that the clearest mark of faith is simply to say with Christ in the gospel, “It’s time to stir things up a bit. I don’t care how tense it gets around here. What is going on now is not good enough.”
The fire that Christ tells us he has come to bring us is a cleansing fire. It is meant to burn away our attachment to an unreal world, false values. Such a fire may be upsetting, but it is never deadly. Peace of mind is our heritage as believers. But it is not the serenity of a pure spirit somehow withdrawn from the stress of a very real and incomplete world.
Rather, it is the serenity of one, like Paul in the Second Reading, who knows that a great deal of effort will be demanded of him, but one who knows as well that that effort is a noble thing, a sacred thing, and it will be successful.