When I became a parent my understanding of what ‘family’ means shifted a gear or two. As a child I took my family for granted, but when I began to have children I came to see things from a different perspective. I love my family and look forward to seeing my children and grandchildren whenever I can. And when there are tensions and breaks in a family they are deeply felt.
So when we hear Jesus speaking about coming to bring fire upon the earth and bringing not peace but division even within families, I can understand people sitting up straight and wondering if we are hearing Jesus the Good Shepherd who cares for his sheep or not. How do we understand this saying, because in so many other places in the Bible the word we hear is that God seeks reconciliation and harmony between people? How good and how pleasant it is when people live in harmony, says the Psalmist.
In Jesus’ day ‘family’ was very important. Almost everything centred around the family. Family undergirded and helped to establish stability in society. And yet what Jesus was doing was to create a new kind of family; a family beyond flesh and blood; a family joined together by the love of God and the vision of God’s kingdom of peace. Jesus expanded our idea of family in an all-inclusive world-wide community marked by justice and love.
I grew up in a large family of seven children. As my father was a minister we also grew up in the Church, and I always felt that in the church I was surrounded by extra aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparent figures. And certainly I have sought to foster that vision in every congregation I have had the privilege of working in, because I have also seen how easily families can be torn apart. Sometimes it is parents trying to live through their children and control their lives. Sometimes its fighting over money. Sometimes its jealousies and favouritism; but whatever the cause it touches most families.
What concerns me is the rise of ‘clans’, or ‘tribes’ across the world that are based on fear or hatred – white supremacists, jihadists, fundamentalists of every religious faith who want to control and dominate, and suppress views they fear or reject.
Whether it be some form of ideology, or whether it be fear or greed or jealousy or pride, the community of faith we call the Christian Church is called to be a ‘colony of heaven’, a ‘beacon’ of light and hope and love in our world – a parable or sign of what the kingdom of God is like. For Jesus the fire and the baptism he speaks of is his saving death and resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit into our lives to guide us into all the truth. Some people are drawn to that light, others hide in the darkness and cause mayhem and chaos.
More than ever before our world needs communities that stretch beyond the narrow confines of family to embrace others with the love and justice of God.