Today's gospel opens with "I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing! "
Is that a good thing or a bad thing? What is the first image that pops into your mind?
My guess is that it is one of destruction, particularly when you listen to the rest of the gospel about division. But look more closely.
Fire burns and destroys but it also purifies,cleanses, and refines. Fire is the symbol of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, tongues of flame. When Jesus says he has come to set the earth on fire, it is not to destroy, it is the fire of the Holy Spirit, and the mission of the Church to spread that fire to the ends of the earth.
It is no accident that he immediate goes from talking about fire to talking about Baptism. While his baptism will be crucifixion, ours will be with water and is precisely the moment when we are set on fire, receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, making us the adopted children of God.
When Jesus says he did not come to bring peace, he is not contradicting the opening of Luke's gospel that we sing every week, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will."
Real peace is not simply absence of conflict. How many families keep the peace, by simply ignoring problems, not talking about them. Real peace the peace of Christ, must be a peace grounded in the truth. This peace can often only be achieved, not by avoiding conflict, but by working through it. And working through conflict is almost always messy.
It is no accident that Jesus uses family images today. For most of us that is where it is the most difficult. Confronting the tough issues in our own family is often the hardest thing to do. Feelings get hurt, and deep wounds are inflicted. But just as fire is necessary to purify gold, so the fire of truth must purify us. Just as Jesus had to pass through the crucifixion to the resurrection, we must often in our closest relationships pass though conflict to get to real peace. True love may at times require conflict and division leading to unity and peace grounded in truth.
We will never truly be children of God, if we hide from the truth, avoid conflict. The Holy Spirit is the spirit of truth. Only in the truth can we find peace. Beginning with ourselves we must shine the light of the fire on our own hearts. And then in love share that light with others, even if it hurts, if all parties, are truly children of God, the division will only be temporary, and the conflict will lead to something better and stronger.