There is already too much division in the world, so when Jesus starts talking about bringing fire to the earth and division and then calls me out for not knowing how to interpret the present time, I get a little put off. I get to thinking I have enough people haranguing and judging me for my beliefs. I already feel hopeless and helpless in the face of institutional sin and the brokenness of a world that separates families, glorifies violence, perpetuates systems of injustice, and judges me based on my skin color, education, and social class. I want a Jesus who loves and accepts me for who I am, not one who tells me I am not doing enough for the world. I want a Jesus who celebrates me, not chides me. I want a Prince of Peace Jesus—a uniter, not a divider—a Jesus who calms everyone down, smoothes things over, makes things a little easier, and brings a perspective of hope and comfort especially when I am wrestling with the darkness and brokenness of the world. I want a Jesus made in my image instead of the other way around.
If I am being truly honest about Jesus, I know he is not all warm fuzzies. He is challenging and honest, intentional about pointing out the faults and fallacies of the world—that’s what lands him on the cross. He says things that make me uncomfortable but those things are less about judging and condemning me and more about leading me along paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Sometimes those paths are paths I would rather avoid—they are unknown and feel threatening to my safe and comfortable life—but they are often the paths that force me out of myself, out of my self-focused, self-centered, self-seeking lifestyle and into the life of grace that requires sacrifice and suffering in order to find a better way of being.
In the third written installment of C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lewis tells the story of Eustace, a cousin to the Pevensies. Eustace is a sour, doleful boy who does not like adventure and thinks little of his cousins and their make-believe Narnia. Even when he is pulled through a painting and lands in the Narnian sea, he remains selfish and self-centered, concerned only with his own needs, and his meanness and rude demeanor ostracize him from his cousins and the Narnians who have come to his rescue. Eustace wants his creature comforts and security—his soft bed, plenteous food, solid ground, and to be surrounded by those who give him whatever he desires. He is not pleased as to his circumstances—trapped aboard a boat in the middle of unknown waters, sailing to unknown lands. And instead of trying to make the best of it, he makes life miserable for everyone including himself.
It is not until after a great storm in which the ship finds itself in unchartered waters and anchors in the bay of an unchartered island that Eustace will find opportunity for transformation. But it is not an easy transformation. Eustace puts ashore with the rest of the company but when he hears of all the hard work being planned to ready the ship for its continued adventure, decides to slink off and find a good napping spot rather than assist in the repairs. He ends up getting lost and finds himself in a strange valley occupied by an old dragon who ends up taking his last smoky breath before dying right in front of Eustace. To escape the elements and find a place to sleep, Eustace climbs into the dragon’s lair where he discovers the dragon’s hoard of gold and diamonds and jewels and other finery. He slips a diamond encrusted gold bracelet on his arm, stuffs his pockets with more diamonds and falls asleep with greedy thoughts in his heart and head.
Sometime in the middle of the night, he is awakened by a sharp pain in his left arm. As he investigates what is causing the pain, he discovers, to his horror, that he, himself, has become a dragon. At first he is delighted by his new power and opportunity to avenge himself but then he realizes how desperately lonely he feels being a dragon and not a boy anymore. Those he had thought of as fiends—his cousins and the other Narnians—he realizes had only ever wanted to be his friends and now he wants to be their friends more than anything else. In his desperation and despair, he flies back to the beach where the others are searching for him and finally gets them to realize that he, Eustace, is now a dragon. As a dragon, he demonstrates a change in attitude and kindness toward the others. He begins to help with the repairs of the ship and in finding food. He takes people for rides on his back and when it is cold and rainy at night, lights the fire and lets the others lean against him to warm themselves from the fire kindled in his belly.
Though this enchanted Eustace is much more helpful and agreeable, it is not long before everyone, including Eustace realizes the logistical challenges of transporting a dragon on a ship. It is at this point that Eustace realizes what a nuisance he has been since the day he fell through the painting and that now he is even a greater nuisance still. This knowledge eats into his mind like the bracelet that has been biting into his foreleg—a terrible reminder of his greed and selfishness. He wants nothing more than to rid himself of his dragonish appearance and behavior but he does not know how. And, in the night, as he is wondering what is to become of him, Aslan appears. Mind you, he doesn’t know it is Aslan—only a huge and fierce lion coming toward him and though there is no moon that night, the lion shines in the darkness as if moonlight were all around him. And Eustace, the dragon, was terribly afraid—not of being eaten, simply of it, of the divine drawing near; though he does not know it is the divine, only something great and powerful.
Aslan tells Eustace to follow him, which Eustace does. He takes him to the top of a mountain where there is a garden and in the midst of the garden a bubbling well, only it is much larger like a very big, round bath with marble steps going down into the water. The water is clear and inviting and Eustace feels that if only he could get his swollen left leg into the water, he could bathe it and make it feel better. But before he can act, the lion tells him he must first undress. Eustace is about to protest that he hasn’t any clothes on when he remembers that dragons are scaly like snakes and snakes can shed their skins. So, maybe, dragons can shed their skins as well. He starts scratching and his scales begin to come off and pretty soon he is able to peel his whole skin off like a banana. But when he steps out of it, he realizes that there is another hard and scaly skin under the one he has just gotten rid of so he must start all over and do it again. A third time he attempts to get rid of his scales and again finds more scaliness underneath.
It is at this point that Aslan steps in and tells Eustace that he must do it for him. Eustace is terrified of the lion’s claws but is desperate and agrees. The very first tear is so deep that Eustace thought it went straight into his heart and the pulling off of his skin hurt worse than anything he had ever known. But, at the same time, there was a sort of pleasure in having that old skin ripped away—the hard, scaly, body of the dragon Eustace had once been. Once it was gone, Eustace was smooth and soft and Aslan scooped him up and threw him in the water and all the pain was gone and Eustace discovered he had been turned into a boy again. And when he came out of the water, Aslan dressed him in new clothes—his transformation complete though not ended. Great was the rejoicing when Eustace rejoined his cousins and the Narnians and though he was better, he was not perfect. Every so often he would slip back into the sullen Eustace of old, but Eustace began to be a different boy. As Lewis describes it, “The cure had begun.”
I think that is the baptism by which we are to be baptized that Jesus alludes to. It is not simply one of water or even one of fire. And though we may find that it causes division, it is also a unifying one—one in which our divisions are placed aside as we all long for Jesus and come to his table as one—Republican and Democrat, black and white, Alabama and Auburn fan alike. Baptism is not about being purified so that we never stumble nor is it about simply living the good life that we think Jesus envisions. It is about sacrifice. It is about dying to self, our selfishness and greed—the things that make us dragons—in order to rise into new life. That is the promise of the good news—not that we reshape Jesus into our own image but that he reshapes us. To live a holy and righteous life, we must die to those things that drive our self-seeking and self-centered lifestyles and behaviors.
This morning we will renew our baptismal covenant as we witness and make promises to those we will baptize. It is in the renewal of that covenant that we are reminded of the life we have chosen as Christians, as Jesus followers. The life that Christ has called us to live and interpret in this present time. None of us will ever agree as to how we should live out that Covenant. Instead we will disagree and bicker over those beliefs. We will claim we have the answers and that others do not. We will be tempted to belittle and judge others for approaching life and faith from differing perspectives and points-of-view. Our divisions will not cease, but nor must they rule over us and define us. Instead in division we are challenged to understand the other; we are encouraged to find ways to compromise and move forward instead of being stuck in circular loops that limit our growth and desire for reconciliation. Division creates opportunity for renewal, for new ways of thinking for new ways of being with one another. Jesus’s desire to bring fire to the earth, to bring division, to baptize with a baptism which he desires to baptize us with is not about our destruction, judgment, or condemnation but about opportunity for renewal and righteousness. We cannot know that until we have allowed ourselves to be transformed. New life requires holy death; that is the baptism by which we are baptized, that is the fire that Jesus kindles, that is the division which brings us unity.
10 Pentecost Proper 15: Jeremiah 23:23-29; Psalm 82; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56
Church of the Ascension – Episcopal, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, August 18, 2019
Rev. Candice B. Frazer