In the wake of the success of ‘Star Wars’ in the late 1970’s another science fiction franchise that made an impression on me as a young boy was ‘Battlestar Galactica’.
Drawing upon theories of lost civilisations and humans on Earth being descendants of space travellers, the original story of ‘Battlestar Galactica’ was essentially a reinterpretation of ‘Frankenstein’. The mechanised creations of humanity known as Cylons, turn upon their makers whose surviving remnants then seek a new home known only in myth – Earth.
In the late 1970’s life was quite simple for me as a child and this was reflected in ‘Battlestar Galactica’ – the humans were the goodies and the Cylons were the baddies.
But we all grow up.
Life becomes more complex and so did ‘Battlestar Galactica’ when it was relaunched in 2004. The Cylons now looked like humans, they believed in God, they varied in their opinion as to whether humanity should be wiped out or not – they had soul!
The Cylons became much more of a reflection of humanity with differing shades of virtue, belief, and morality. It became harder to tell who were the goodies or the baddies and civil war in space never felt so real.
I grew up going to a church with bullet holes in the walls.
What I should explain is I grew up going to a church with bullet holes in the walls that originate from the English Civil War (1642-1651), the time of the Cavaliers and the Roundheads. It is well known to local historians and Civil War re-enactors alike as being of strategic importance during that period of British history. All I can say is that it was something of a surreal experience as a child to sing hymns of peace and love while surrounded by these historic reminders of divided humanity!
Would you be a Cavalier or a Roundhead, I wonder?
Although we can toy with that idea in our imaginations now, it was a real, stark question for the generations before us in England. Families divided over loyalties, brother against brother, daughter against mother – each having to make a choice in their religious and political allegiances. Some of these divisions have reverberated well into the 21st century, for example in Ireland where Oliver Cromwell’s suppressive policies enacted by his New Model Army inflicted lasting social divisions.
I think of that when I come to the gospel passage Luke 12:49-53, when Jesus says:
“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
I think it is one of the most disturbing passages for any Christian to deal with. One reason being that it may not fit well with our ideas of Church or God at all.
But there it is.
So apart from ignoring it – how can we respond to Jesus’ words today? Perhaps we need to begin by reminding ourselves of some important things in the language that Jesus was using.
- The ‘fire’ that Jesus came to cast is best understood as a purifying and refining fire. The prophet Malachi spoke of the Lord being “like a refiner’s fire and like a fullers’ soap” (Malachi 3:2) that separates the good from the bad. This fire is cast upon the earth to refine and purify everyone and everything – it is God’s act and not the act of a group of human beings to be the ‘refiner’s fire’. What I mean by this is that caution should always intervene when the words ‘God is on our side’ are used as history can teach us.
- The baptism spoken of here must not to be confused with the water baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist (Matthew 3:16). The baptism Jesus speaks of in Luke 12 is a baptism that had not yet occurred. This baptism is his death, burial, and resurrection. The result of this baptism is the kindling of the refiner’s fire that is cast upon the whole earth.
These two factors pose us with a choice.
In verses 52-53, Jesus shows that this division will affect family loyalties. This is perhaps the hardest verse to listen to, but we know it is true and that it happens. For the listeners of Luke’s Gospel the choice was stark because Christians were a persecuted minority. Choosing to be a Christian was a costly decision. Sadly, that is still true in some parts of the world to this day.
But having said that and apart from the English Civil War, families in this country until relatively recently, have suffered as a result of divisions over religious affiliation. Granted most of the people I talk to on this subject are in their 80’s or 90’s but occasionally I still hear a story like:
“Uncle Bert married Aunt Bertha and because she was a Catholic nobody in the family had anything to do with them ever again.”
I do not think those are the divisions Jesus was referring to. Instead some of us probably know that we have to be prepared as Christians to make choices when it comes to our love of God and love of family – because sadly in some cases – the two may not go together.
We may never have to make the dramatic choices made by those Christians who first listened to Luke’s Gospel and lived under the oppressive regime of the Roman Empire. We may never have to make the choices of allegiance made by our predecessors in the English Civil War or by Christians persecuted around the world to this day. But even now we will have to make choices and some of those choices may be uncomfortably close to home.
My simple rule in such situations is always to be open to another point of view, even within my own family, but that does not necessarily mean it is my track. And sometimes that can be hard – that cannot be denied and Jesus even tells us that to follow him is not always the easy path.
The second half of this gospel reading portrays Jesus chastising the crowds for not recognising the signs he bares. Like dark clouds or a stormy wind, the teaching and acts of mercy he performs indicate what will come. Jesus is born for one thing: to herald the coming kingdom of God, and to establish this kingdom he will raise neither banner nor sword but instead hang on the cross, the vulnerable insignia of God’s new reign.
Those who recognise the signs and choose to follow him will not only need to forsake the trappings of power that adorn the lords of the present kingdom, but can also expect resistance, even opposition. But if Jesus’ call to a new way of relating to each other — via forgiveness, courage, and humility — stirred up division during his time and that of the early church, what does it bring today?
Christians in the western world are asked to give up very little for the sake of faith in the 21st century. How, then, do we hear Jesus? To answer this question, we must engage in our own weather forecasting by discerning the signs of the times:
- What elements of our lives hinder our service to God?
- The God of the lowly and powerless?
- The marginalised and the forgotten?
- The God who challenges the status quo?
But if we fear undergoing Jesus’ baptism by fire, we might take comfort in the simple yet stark fact that Christ who comes to baptise us with fire and the Holy Spirit first embraced his own baptism — experiencing harm that we might know healing, undergoing judgment that we might know pardon, suffering death that we might know life.
Thus, looking backward to Jesus we may find the courage to look forward to discern the signs and challenges of our own times. To run the right way – but also understanding this may not be the same way all the time as others. In the letter to the Hebrews 12:1-2 we are encouraged to choose to live by faith because:
“…we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Photo via Good Free Photos
And when I still question myself I am reminded of one simple fact from the church where I grew up – the bullet holes in the walls are man made.
God’s fire is a refining fire that comes in love – not anger, or hatred, or fear, or greed – or any of the other factors that make up the division and war of human history, religious or otherwise.
- How do we choose to run toward that love rather than away from it?
- How do we express that love to those that might oppose it?
Therein lies not only our history but our story – yet to be finished. Like athletes I am sure the answer to our story lies in our daily training. Hopefully NOT lead bullet holes but gold medals will be the inheritance we pass on.
But time will tell if Cylons with soul will be our final legacy…