TEXTS: Hebrews 11:29-12:2 and Luke 12:49-56
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Luke 12:49)
Some of you may know the name Li Juncai. He is the pastor of the Yuanyang County Central House Church in Xinxiang, Henan Province, in the People’s Republic of China.
On February 20, 2019, local authorities detained Li for refusing to remove the church’s cross and replace a religious sign in the church with a state-approved one. Mass removals of crosses from church buildings began in Henan Province in 2018, with police removing at least 4,000 crosses in the span of one year.
When authorities brought a crane to remove the cross from Pastor Li Juncai’s church, a group of Christian senior citizens, mostly women, met the plainclothes policemen and their crane. The Christians sang hymns and prayed while attempting to keep the authorities from taking the cross. Police beat and arrested the protestors before forcing the church gate open and removing the cross. Pastor Li Juncai told the workers they should proceed according to the law and that he opposed the removal of the crosses. He was arrested and charged with “obstructing official business.”
The next day, Religious Affairs authorities removed signs from inside the church building and forced church members to fly China’s national flag from the front of the church. Many churches are now required to do the same, along with hanging an image of President Xi Jinping inside the sanctuary and installing security cameras facing the congregation.
In January 2021, a court sentenced Li to five years and six months in prison and fined him 50,000 yuan (about $9,500 CA) for “misappropriation of funds,” “embezzlement,” and “intentionally destroying accounting books,” as well as the original charge of “obstructing official business.”
If you keep tabs on missionary agencies, you will know that Christianity is viewed with suspicion or outright hostility by many governments in the developing world.* Even in places that we would consider relatively civilized—like China—the practice of Christianity is considered to be a dangerous behaviour that threatens to destabilize society.
Of course, Christian faith is viewed quite differently where we live. In fact, it seems that church attendance is still reasonably common among those who control the laws and finances of this country. If we were sitting in any of the big churches in Ottawa on a Sunday morning, I think that—as we looked around—we’d be a lot more likely to notice senior bureaucrats and bankers than subversives and agitators.
In our society, Christianity is seen as safe and conservative and acceptable. And I wonder whether that is a major factor in why it also appears to be dying out. Because it seems too familiar, too hum-drum, too safe. We keep hearing that people in our society are hungry for genuine spiritual transformation—and most of us can see that’s true just by looking around at our friends and neighbours. They’re hungry for life-changing food—but, by and large, they no longer expect to be fed in church.
I think that’s because (quite reasonably) spiritual seekers associate Christianity with the way “we” have always done things. They think Christian faith is too tired, too status quo, to have anything to offer them. And our historic hand-in-glove cooperation with colonialism hasn’t helped, either. People’s perceptions of what Christianity is have been formed by what church-going people are seen to be and do. And if we are perceived as being people who live comfortably with the status quo values of our society …
Well, in that case, we are a long way from the kind of Christianity described in today’s two scripture readings.
In the gospel lesson, Jesus says he wants to take a flame-thrower to planet earth! He tells us that his mission will be seriously divisive, even breaking apart families as people find themselves on opposing sides of fundamental issues.
And in the letter to the Hebrews, the exercise of faith is depicted as something over which kingdoms rise and fall—and for which people have been tortured, mocked, flogged, chained, imprisoned, stoned, sawn in two, and killed by the sword.
“They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented,” it says in verse 37. And then the author concludes: “Of [them] the world was not worthy.” (Heb. 11:37b-38)
It seems to me that one of the reasons we have rendered Christianity safe and innocuous is that there has been a major change in the way we think about what faith is. We mostly talk about it as being something you have. We ask: “Do you have faith?” Or we say: “She’s got a lot of faith.” Or: “You need to have a little faith” … as if we could purchase it by the kilogram.
Those sorts of statements make faith sound like a possession—like something you own. And there are lots of things that our society has decided it can tolerate people possessing. Perhaps we’ve begun to think of faith as being a bit like an illicit drug: the possession of small amounts for private use won’t get you into much trouble—just don’t start trafficking it!
Somehow, I don’t think either Jesus or the writer of the Book of Hebrews was thinking of faith as something you simply possess for private consumption. Faith is not something you do while keeping your head down and letting the rest of the world go on about its business. No. Faith is not a thing that can be possessed. It is something you do, or something you exercise. Faith is something active that affects those around you.
Perhaps we could compare it to power. There is no such thing as simply possessing power without ever exercising it, and without anyone else being affected by it. Power only exists in the exercising of it—in putting it into practice. Faith is like that, too. Faith only exists as it is exercised and as it shapes what you do.
That’s why I think it is a mistake to completely equate faith with belief. You can have a belief that has no consequences. I can believe that Noah’s ark was 450 feet long, but that won’t make any difference to how I live when I wake up tomorrow morning.
Faith is more like trust; it is belief that steps up to the plate—that commits itself to action. If we say that we trust God’s foolishness will prove wiser than the wisdom of the world, we are exercising an active choice and backing one side over the other. We are committing ourselves to living by one and rejecting the other. And once we start to do that, the sparks begin to fly and the fires begin to break out.
If we say that we are willing to trust God’s radical hospitality over the world’s self-protectionism, then we’re taking a risk. If we reject the wisdom of the world that says that our country should not accept any more refugees; if, instead, we trust that those who offer welcome will be vindicated by God; then, not only will we find ourselves on the unpopular side of the opinion polls, but we may also find ourselves breaking the law and facing arrest and public vilification.
But that’s what faith is! To say that we believe that something should be done—but that we’re not willing to do it unless it is popular, or at least legal … this is not the exercise of faith. It is the exercise of compliance.
Jesus was in no doubt that his own radical faith in God was going to plunge him into a baptism of fire. And he was also quite clear about the stress and anxiety that he was going to have to endure as he approached it.
And mark this: Jesus was under no illusions about faith making the world a nicer place. He said: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three.” (Luke 12:51-52)
Now, that doesn’t sound at all inviting, does it? You might reasonably ask, “Where is the good news?” Well, both readings point to the answer.
Jesus speaks of a baptism of fire, but a baptism is not only something you are plunged into. It is also something from which you emerge. You come out of it with a new identity and a new life filled with the Spirit of God. The baptism of fire is the birthplace of new life. And in our first reading—from the Letter to the Hebrews—the first line speaks about God’s people exercising faith by passing through the Red Sea to freedom. The Israelites were trapped between an advancing army and a seemingly uncrossable body of water! This was not a comfortable situation to be in—but it was a situation which demanded a choice. On the one hand was the only easy way out—a compliant return to slavery. On the other hand was Moses, saying, “Don’t worry, the sea waters will part for us. Have faith!”
Some choice! However, the way to freedom and life was opened to those who were willing to trust: “By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land.” (Heb. 11:29)
The good news is that we are not called to face the fire—or wade through the water—for no good reason. We are not asked to take risks of faith just to be daredevils. No. We are called to face the fire because that’s what lies between us and the coming of God’s Kingdom on earth. We stride into the sea because there is no way around it.
As the writer to the Hebrews says, if we keep our eyes on Jesus and follow his lead, the vision of the joy to come will give us the perseverance required to push on through whatever threatens to engulf us. And you know, that vision of a world where love and justice finally reign, and all things are made one in God … Well, that is the promise of the only life that is ultimately worth living—and the only life worth dying for! Amen.
* For up-to-date news on this subject, one excellent resource can be found on The Voice of the Martyrs website: https://www.prisoneralert.com/prisoners