The Word Embodied

Disturbing Faith

“I have come to set the earth on fire,
and how I wish it were already blazing! ” (Lk 12:49)

I once received a letter from a young seminarian who told of his desire to live the gospel wholeheartedly. The main barrier, he confessed, was the advice from a few elders warning him that he should not get carried away.

It reminded me of the time when, as a young Jesuit, I read the gospels seriously for the first time. There was a passion and intensity to them that could set one on fire. What a powerful vision, what a wondrous revolution the gospels heralded.

I, too, heard the advice of prudent minds. “Don't get carried away. We don't want you going off the deep end.” That was only the first time I received counsel which, though offered in charity, seemed to tame something unleashed in me whenever I read the gospels. After all, one did not want to burn out, much less cause trouble.

But that's what the gospels do. They start fires in us. They cause trouble.

The gospels are a pain in the neck of prudent heads and moderate minds. They are surely a greater threat to worldly or church authority than Jeremiah was to those princes who wanted him put to death for demoralizing the army and people.

They threw Jeremiah in a cistern, where he became the proverbial “stick-in-the-mud.” Jesus we just stick on a wall. We paint him pious, nice, and pretty, surely not a troublemaker or a firebrand.

Or was he? “I have come to light a fire on the earth. How I wish the blaze were ignited … Do you think I have come to establish peace on the earth? The contrary is true; I have come for division.”

Now, of course, we know that this is not the whole story. After all, he was called the Prince of Peace, and he promised a peace that “the world cannot give.”

As for causing division, why would his priestly prayer ask that we might be completely one in him and each other? Moreover, the Gospels readily provide a litany of love.

The problem is, I believe, that the love and unity Christ offers are at odds with the counterfeits we coin. If Christ's peace takes hold of us, it brings an interior freedom that makes us dangerous and divisive, especially if we cannot be bought off or intimidated.

His unity is repugnant to any person or culture that demands moral accommodation as its cost. His love is obnoxious to anyone who thinks charity begins at home. His peace does not come cheap.

In fact, in this matter of following Christ, even households can be divided if the price of unity is deception. Brothers and sisters, whether in blood or in community of faith, can find themselves in opposition.

The command of love stokes the fire of conflict—both with others and within our hearts—over money, territory, family, and tribe. Love in itself, much more strong and abiding than a spark of quick passion, is a refining blaze of covenant and fidelity.

Peace and unity will come, not by dousing the fire of faith or declaring a false truce with evil, but by focusing our attention on the one who kindled love in the first place.

“Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, who inspires. … Remember him. Do not grow despondent or abandon the struggle.”


John Kavanaugh, SJ

Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.

**From Saint Louis University

Kristin Clauson