Today’s Gospel makes us feel uncomfortable, and we should be. When he talks about his baptism, he is talking about his death, which will establish the victory of God over sin and death. He uses stark, frightening language to make his point. He starts with fire, then adds the prospect of division of households and families, the tearing of our closest relationships.
Jesus, the Prince of Peace, the God of Love, cuts a very sharp line, not only through our communities, our friendships and our families, but through each of us as well. In this struggle, of good and evil, of life and death, there can be no compromise.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote the Gulag Archipelago about his time in a Soviet prison camp. He observed the lives and deaths of his fellow prisoners as well as the behavior of the guards. Among his observations was this:
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956)
That line is not a fixed position in our hearts. It oscillates, it moves, depending on our circumstances, our spiritual growth, on how tired or frustrated we are, and the provocations we endure. And Jesus wants to shove that line so far and so hard that the evil is finally driven out. Whatever issue or issues come up in life, we are called to be on Christ’s side. That is not always clear, but that is where we are to be.
Jonathan Myrick Daniels is a saint of this church. If you do not know about him, you should. His story demands telling and retelling, for what he did in his life, his sacrifice in death, and the confession of his heart coming to the side of Christ.
Jonathan Daniels was a student who got involved in the Civil Rights movement. He worked a spring semester and into the summer to bridge the racial divide, including integrating Alabama Episcopal churches.
On August 14th 1962, Daniels and several companions were arrested for picketing local businesses. After 6 days they were bailed out and waited on the side of the road for a ride. It was hot, so they went to get some Cokes at a nearby grocery store. They were confronted by a man with a shotgun, who leveled the gun at a 17-year-old girl. Jonathan pushed her out of the way and the man shot and killed him. His killer was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense.
There was a particular moment earlier that spring when he wound up in the front line of a major protest at Selma, Alabama and was blessed with an extraordinary insight. He wrote:
“After a week-long, rain-soaked vigil, we still stood face to face with the Selma police. I stood, for a change, in the front rank, ankle-deep in an enormous puddle. To my immediate right were high school students, for the most part, and further to the right were a swarm of clergymen. My end of the line surged forward at one point, led by a militant Episcopal priest whose temper (as usual) was at combustion-point. Thus I found myself only inches from a young policeman. The air crackled with tension and open hostility. Emma Jean, a sophomore in the Negro high school, called my name from behind. I reached back for her hand to bring her up to the front rank, but she did not see. Again she asked me to come back. My determination had become infectiously savage, and I insisted that she come forward--I would not retreat! Again I reached for her hand and pulled her forward. The young policeman spoke: "You're dragging her through the puddle. You ought to be ashamed for treating a girl like that." Flushing--I had forgotten the puddle--I snarled something at him about whose-fault-it-really-was that managed to be both defensive and self-righteous. We matched baleful glances and then both looked away. And then came a moment of shattering internal quiet, in which I felt shame, indeed, and a kind of reluctant love for the young policeman. I apologized to Emma Jean. And then it occurred to me to apologize to him and to thank him. Though he looked away in contempt--I was not altogether sure I blamed him--I had received a blessing I would not forget. Before long the kids were singing, "I love ---." One of my friends asked [the young policeman] for his name. His name was Charlie. When we sang for him, he blushed and then smiled in a truly sacramental mixture of embarrassment and pleasure and shyness. Soon the young policeman looked relaxed, we all lit cigarettes (in a couple of instances, from a common match) and small groups of kids and policemen clustered to joke or talk cautiously about the situation. It was thus a shock later to look across the rank at the clergymen and their opposites, who glared across a still unbroken "Wall" in what appeared to be silent hatred. Had I been freely arranging the order for Evening Prayer that night, I think I might have followed the General Confession directly with the General Thanksgiving--or perhaps the Te Deum.”
There was a divide – between the protesters and the police, between the march for Civil Rights and the segregation laws and policies of that time and place.
Jonathan Daniels saw another divide. He easily saw the hard determination in the young policeman’s face, saw the steeled stance and opposed it. When God’s grace that passes understanding descended upon him, he saw anger, hostility, even hatred and looming violence on both sides.
And just as he knew that just as the divisions based upon skin color were horribly wrong, he was convicted that the bitterness in his own heart was wrong too. Jesus pushed that line in his heart a good distance that day for the good. It wasn’t enough to be on the right side of the Civil Rights protest. He had to be on Jesus’ side in his compassion for the policeman on the other side, whom he did not know except in the midst of conflict.
You may think you’re on the right side of an issue, and you may be, but if you find your heart hardening against the other side, get on Jesus’ side with that, too. I find that to be a constant challenge, which brings me to another, related point.
Last week we looked at two aspects of faith, trust and anticipation which together feed into hope. Another vital aspect of faith is illustrated in today’s epistle from Hebrews (Hebrews 11:29-12:2), which is perseverance. The heroes of the faith, those listed named and unnamed, were all flawed but managed to hang in there, to persevere despite daunting odds and/or real hardship and suffering.
It’s in the tenacious clinging to our faith that we find Our Lord moving that line for good in our hearts, blessing us with insights and glimpses of his grace. What Jesus said about fire and division is scary. Life is scary. Death is scary. And this “great cloud of witnesses” reminds us that we don’t give up. You may have chronic pain. You may have strife at home. You may have financial struggles or problems at work. You may have sin in your life that tears at you day by day, night by night. That line between good and evil may seem hard to move. Faith is a struggle.
We don’t give up. Don’t you ever giver give up. Jesus will never, ever give up on you.