Faith, Fire and Zeal, 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C), August 19, 2001

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Espirito Santo Parish, Fall River, MA
20th Sunday of OT, Year C
August 19, 2001
Jer 28:4-6,8-10; Heb 12:1-4; Lk 12:49-53

1) Last week, we focused on the faith of Abraham, the trust in God that made this old man capable of doing whatever God asked of him, packing up and moving to another land when he was well passed retirement age, believing that he would become a father at 99, his willingness to sacrifice his Son for God if that’s what God really wanted. This is why Abraham is the Father of Faith. This is the faith to which each of us is called.

2) Today, we focus on a particular aspect of this true faith in Jesus — zeal for the faith. The faith to which we’re called is a faith that helps us to put our sole treasure in God and the things of God. This faith always leads to love of God and real love of God always leads of faith. Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “I have come to light a fire on the earth and how I wish the blaze were ignited!” Jesus wants to ignite us with the fire of love, so that we might burn with zeal, with fervor for Him, who is the Truth and in whom we believe, and for others, for whom he himself continues to burn with love.

3) So often we can look at faith as the minimal obligations we need to fulfill in order not to go to Hell. Come to Mass. Don’t commit any mortal sins. Try not to set bad example. To be faithful, in this mindset, means not to betray God. Not to cheat on God. There’s some real good here. People who are faithful in this way are good people who gain our respect. And surely their efforts not to do evil and to remain faithful to Jesus’ words do please Jesus. But Jesus does want more, he wants the fire of love and zeal. The difference between this type of faithful Catholic and a Catholic on fire is the difference between a husband who is faithful to his wife and would never cheat on her and one who burns with love for his wife and is constantly trying to please her. The first man is a good man; the second man is a God-ly man, the type of man Jesus can make us and wants us to be. Jesus wants to enkindle in us the Flame given to us on the day of our baptism. He is the Light of the World and he wants to light our wicks so that we burn with his love. He can do this. He wants to do this. All we have to do is say yes to him.

4) And so this weekend we have to ask ourselves whether we really love God as he calls us to. Clearly all of us have some faith in God which brings us here. But is it the dry fidelity of a somebody who just wants to do the minimum and not be considered by him disloyal, or is it the burning love of the great saints? Do we love him enough to do more than the minimum? To strive toward the maximum? To put him first above all things. Do we love him like Abraham? If he asked us to leave everything right now to follow him to a foreign land, would we do it? To get rid of our property? Even to get rid of those persons we love most, as he was asked concerning Isaac His Son?

5) Jesus wants to set a fire on the earth. Fire has many characteristics. Fire warms. Fire purifies and refines. Fire transforms. Fire burns. The blaze Jesus came to ignite will do a little of all of these things. First, fire is meant to burn away anything that keeps us from God, so that we might put him first in all things. He wants to burn away everything we put in God’s place, whether it be work, money, family, property, sports. All of these things are good, but none is God and God always demands first place. Like Abraham, we’re called to love God and to trust in His all-loving, all-knowing Providence, even when he asks us to do things that we might find difficult. To trust him above our desire for retirement, above common sense, above our love for our children.

6) And this is NOT easy. If we’re tempted to think that it’s easy, it’s probably because we’re not yet aware that Jesus is asking us to burn away EVERYTHING that is keeping us from putting him first and being on fire with love for him. Lest we think it’s easy, Jesus describes right after he says he’s coming to light a fire on the earth, what it might entail. He says, “Don’t think I’ve come to establish peace on the earth; I have come for division. From now on, a household of five will be divided three against two and two against three; father will be split against son and mother against daughter, etc.” Jesus did not come to establish for us a “peaceful life” here on earth as typically we think of a peaceful life. “Nice family over here. Good job over here. Nice health over here. God and faith life over here.” Jesus came to reveal to us God and to make us to put God over here, here, here and here, to transform entirely all our relationships, so that at work, we’re serving God, at home, we’re serving God, at Church or at prayer we’re serving God, everywhere, we’re serving God.

7) Jesus explicitly stated that did not come to establish the peace that the world wants, a simple cosmetic “concord,” because he knew that some would always reject the truth and hence reject us. Faith doesn’t itself divide, but rather the rejection of faith divides. We see this in our homes, when couples fight because the husband doesn’t want to come to Mass. It happens at work, when a boss starts to insist that you put work before God and work rather than come to Mass. It happens at school, when people try to get you to do something immoral and make fun of you when you don’t. It’s always been that way. It was for Jeremiah in the first reading, when they rejected Him and tried to kill him in a cistern. It happened that way for Christ, when they rejected him and killed him on a Cross. It happened that way with the apostles, who were killed in all types of ways by those who rejected the message they bore. Really living the faith with fire and commitment will bring division, not because we want to divide from others, but because others will reject what we stand for. We see this in the world all the time. There are two options to take in response to this. One is the way many people in the world go. “I’ll compromise my faith,” they say, “or at least downplay it.” I won’t make an issue out of it. The other is the way of the saints. I’ll live it, I’ll be faithful and loving of God and put him first, come what may. With great trust in God, I’ll do whatever I know he’s asking, even if I personally have to suffer.

8 ) Once we allow the fire of Christ to burn away even our fear of suffering, pain and death, the next thing that that fire brings is passion. Christ wants us to be passionate for the faith, for him, for others, in love. There’s a reason why the pure, loving heart of the Blessed Mother in this statue of Our Lady of Fatima has a flame on it, because it’s burning with love. Her heart, which was pure from the first moment of her conception, burns out of love for God and for us. She wasn’t merely faithful, in the sense that she didn’t commit any mortal sins. She was zealous for the faith, and loved God and those God loves above all things. She was willing to do anything for God. Zeal always leads to risk-taking for the faith, to sacrificing of yourself for the faith, to trying to do the maximum rather than the minimum.

9) Zeal is what makes saints. In the second reading today from the Letter to the Hebrews, we read about the reality that “surrounded by a cloud of witnesses.” This cloud of witnesses are the saints, who have gone before us and who are still alive around us. This cloud of saints inspires us to leave behind every encumbrance of sin and persevere in running the race which lies ahead. The whole image is one of a sports competition in a stadium. Our biggest fans are the saints in the stands. We’re running the race in time and our eyes are fixed on the finish line who is Christ. Life is this race toward Christ. We’re called to run, so as to win. The finish line doesn’t come to us. The Christian life is not a couch potatoe limo ride through life. It’s not even a walk. It’s a race. And time is running out. Only so much time to love, to build up God’s kingdom. Like any athlete who desires to win anything, it means constantly trying to improve, getting up when we fall, hungering so much for the finish line that we don’t give up. It requires sacrifices, much like those of an athlete, enduring the Cross, enduring those sacrifices, heedless of the shame. It’s amazing to watch athletes train, because they care about the prize. Christians are called to do the same. Because our prize is one that’s really worth it. They strive for a Super Bowl Ring or a Stanley’s Cup or a Metal or a wreath around their head. But all of these things will perish. We strive, rather, for the Cup of Christ and an imperishable wreath, one that will never fade away. And if we don’t care about it, and don’t work to try to achieve with all of the great talent, we’d be akin to an athlete with all the talent in the world who just didn’t care. We’d be a loser, in more ways than one.

10) We are called to be saints. Mother Teresa didn’t just sit in a convent, letting students come to her. Rather, out of love, out of zeal, out of an inward flame of love, she decided to go into one of the biggest sewers in the world to care for the sick and the dying. She ran the race until 87. We’re called, each of us, to run that race as well. To put God first. To be on fire for him, as he is for us. To be joyous and enthusiastic about the faith. Do people realize how awesome God is? The great thing about our young people going to Steubenville East a couple of weeks ago is that they return with some fire, because they’re on fire for the faith there. The great thing about the Charismatic prayer night on Wednesdays is that they’re on fire there. They’re there, not because they have to, but because they want to praise the Lord.

11) Christ wants to light us on fire. He wants us to light us like a torch so that we might carry that torch throughout life, lighting up the world. On the day of our baptism, we received the Light of Christ and were instructed to keep that torch burning brightly until the return of Christ Jesus. How are we doing? Would others be able to say that we carry that light of Christ, the light of the joy of the Resurrection, no matter how much darkness there is, no matter how much suffering?

12) The Holy Spirit has been sent into our hearts at Confirmation to help us be ignited. And so we finish by praying to our patron: Come, Holy Spirit, Fill the Hearts of Your Faithful and kindle in us the fire of your love!

Praised be Jesus Christ!