This is the tenth message in a series on the artifacts that symbolize the spiritual importance of events, gifts and people in our lives.
I came to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it were already kindled. I have a baptism with which to be baptized and what stress I am under
until it is completed. Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division (Luke 13:49-50).
Included in the objects that are artifacts of my life since Christ spoke his love to me is an unusual piece of art work. It is a ceramic tile, mounted on a piece of dark wood, and seemingly smoldering with smoky shades of gray, black, and persimmon that give the impression that fire could flare up any time. Engraved in cursive script on the tile is one word, “Passion.”
It was a birthday gift to me from an accountant and financial executive of one of my clients. She and I have worked together to incorporate a non-profit organization and have been devoted to its development and expansion ever since until today it is one of the largest enterprises with its kind of mission in the world.
She told me, “Passion is the word that best describes how you talk about Jesus and your approach to life and service. You put everything you have into what you do and it makes a difference.”
The gift and her words moved me with what Christ is doing in me. They touched the deepest and strongest current in my soul.
From earliest childhood memories I have searched, believed and acted with intensity that I could not explain and which has often been misunderstood. It is like I was born with an on-off switch, but no thermostat. I am either in or out or hot or cold about the challenges that confront me. I trusted no one, least of all myself. So I worked harder, hung on longer, and played it tougher than anyone else I knew, but I never was satisfied that it was enough. Many relationships have cracked under the pressure of my exacting expectations and I’ve regretfully discarded them in pride and judgment.
The lessons of age have taught me the necessity of compromise and acceptance of human frailty, but I cannot admit to liking those things. So for most of my life I focused on winning and doubted good intentions from anyone. Then, when I had exhausted all my reservoirs of strength of mind, body and relationship, when I least expected it and knew that I didn’t deserve it, Christ flooded the gaping hole that was me with love and invited me to trust him. The next morning, October 5, 1989, I awoke with two consuming desires that have never left me–to read the Word of God and to share it with others and I began to do exactly that.
It isn’t because I’ve mastered grace that I write about it. It is because I want it and need it and every word that I write is a field note on my search for it and my explorations of it with others. It is a journey. It took me a long time for the belief that God loved me to move from my head into my heart as the central truth of my life.
I still forget sometimes that “I’m my Beloved’s and He is mine” as the song goes. But with the knowledge that I am loved came the urging of the Spirit to be a lover. That does not come naturally to me, but it’s the work of the Holy Spirit to convert my heart from a rebel to a lover and it’s my work to give up and surrender so that he can take full control of my thoughts and actions.
Jesus Christ takes us as we are in the raw materials of personality and experience. For those who are willing to let him be their life, he makes something entirely new from them in the way that an artist takes some old industrial junk and makes a beautiful work of art from it. This is what Augustine was talking about when he wrote of God, “Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.” My passion is God-given but I used it for my own selfish ends when I exploited it for competition, argument and self-defense.
When Jesus touched my inflamed heart with love it began to heal with release and relief, one hard or raw place at a time as he went deeper into my life and character. In the healing, however, comes new life and a new fire for the warming and healing of others in the love of Christ.
Jesus’ love is ruthless in its tenderness and fiery in its passion for us to be at one with him. His words crackle and resonate with his consuming desire for what it took to save us: “I came to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it were already kindled. I have a baptism with which to be baptized and what stress I am under until it is completed. Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division” (Luke 13:49-50).
Jesus brought fire, not a down comforter or a rule book. He knew what he had to do. It wasn’t to make us feel better or behave more appropriately. It was to set the world ablaze with the passionate and fierce love of God described by Solomon in his Song.
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion as fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
If one offered for love
all the wealth of one’s house,
it would be utterly scorned.
(Sg. of Sgs. 8:6-7)
John the Baptist described the mission of Jesus the Christ: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 11-12).
These words aren’t soft, but they comfort me. Our Jesus is no compromiser, no recycler of used wine-skins (Matt. 9:17). He comes to us in our sins and complacency, but will not leave us that way given the chance. He does it with the thought that precedes our very existence in the mind and heart of the Father and the Son.
On the night before his own people rejected him and the greatest human power in the world cruelly executed him, Jesus prayed to the Father that love would have its way so there would be no distance between God and us. Jesus most definitely prayed for you and me on that night.
- I ask not only on behalf of these, but on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one. I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. Righteous Father, the world does not know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17:20-26).
This is the truth of it– Jesus, the Son of God, holy and righteous, Creator and Lord of the universe, who was before the world and who exists outside of time, is “crazy about you” to borrow a popular phrase about mad, passionate love. Jesus loves us so much that he would rather die than live in a universe without you and me. He is “God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:3-5).
In the dark aftermath of love’s ultimate sacrifice, the Father blazed his light once more into the world igniting new life into the Son and all those of us who accepted his death as forgiveness for our sins (Rom. 6:4).
What do we do in response to this? How do we live if we are loved like this? The great 16th Century Christian writer, Francois Fenelon asked this piercing question: “To just read the Bible, attend church, and avoid “big” sins–is this the passionate, wholehearted love for God? Surely not!
The most intense spiritual disappointment that I have ever experienced is encountering men and women who treat the community of faith like an exclusive social club. Just pay your dues, show up and look good. The most pious thoughts that they have amount to no more than a program of managed discomfort and white-knuckled compliance for appearance sake. They spend more time trying to discern the right and wrong paths for themselves and scrutinizing who is on those paths than seeking presence and guidance of the One who loves them best and most. It is as if to be loved unconditionally minimizes their importance and devalues their efforts and their suffering.
Jesus famously said of such “believers, “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm and neither cold or hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:15). Half-measures are not for our passionate Jesus. It is all or nothing with him.
In the midst of my disappointment with smug, resistant believers who prefer their security to the risk of action to reach out and share their hearts and their wallets for the sake of Christ, I came across these achingly poignant words of the Apostle Paul: “We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. In return, I speak to you as to children–open wide your hearts also” (2 Cor. 6:11-12).
“Yes,” I thought, “it is devastating to open up heart and soul and find out that the object of your affection holds out on you, out of fear, out of pride, out of judgment. The “carrot and stick” approach may work in training donkeys, but it is a poor guide for human relationships. Because we are imperfect, because we are incapable of satisfying our own inadequacies, we come to expect the stick and wield it on others. Left to ourselves we have no other standard than comparison and no other means of meeting that standard than competition and hard and fruitless labor.
The world is a finite place without its Creator and though we aspire to his power, we have no other claim to it but his love. If we do not know and cannot accept the love of the Father and Jesus Christ, who the Father sent for us, then we have no hope beyond the here and now (John 17:3).
My friend, who gave me the “Passion” plaque, spoke to me one day of an old wound, self-inflicted in part. She had forgiven and received forgiveness from the other party, but I could tell from the sadness that lingered that she had not forgiven herself. “Do you believe that God has forgiven you,” I asked her.
“Ye-e-s-s,” she drew the word out slowly.
What I said next was born of the ruthless passion ignited by Jesus’ life given in love to reconcile us to God. “God has forgiven you, so, why do you hold a higher standard for yourself than God’s love? Think about it.”
The “Passion’ plaque was given because of conversations like that one and the long, tense afternoons of work when I pull the little New Testament with Psalms out of my pocket to read a word to the weary.
Passion must have a purpose or it is merely selfishness. Jesus’ passion was to seek out and save the lost (Luke 19:10). My passion is to tell about it to those who have been waiting a long time to hear words of love and hope. Being a lawyer pays the bills, but more importantly it puts me with embattled, injured people who need to hear about that love or, more importantly, experience it in care for their needs. “Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers” (Jer. 20:13).
My friend’s passion is to volunteer with local charities and to send “care” packages with home-baked goods and encouraging notes and cards to college students all over the United States in the stressful times just before finals.
It doesn’t have to be words, you know. Actions speak the truth of the Gospel much more effectively than words. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.”
What is your passion, the overwhelming power to which you give yourself? It is a terrible thing if you don’t have one. It is far worse if it is anything other than the God who loves you.
Under the mercy of Christ,