I came to cast a fire on the earth

There is no question that Pentecost is a “wondrous and challenging feast”, which should put “to the lie a lazy, sleepy, hidden, and tepid Christian life”. I quote from a Meditation on the Feast of Pentecost by Msgr. Charles Pope of the Archdiocese of Washington. But the Monsignor then sharpens the stick with which he means to prod the lazy, sleepy Christian by invoking Jesus’ dramatic statement in Luke 12:49: “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled!” Pope comments: ”This is a feast about fire, about a transformative, refining, and purifying fire that the Lord wants to kindle in us and in this world.” In general post-biblical terms that may be right, but it gains its contemporary relevance at the expense of a narrative-historical understanding of the passage.

There is certainly an important link between baptism and fire in Luke’s writings. John the Baptist tells Israel that the Christ will baptize “with the Holy Spirit and with fire”, but this appears not to have been the fire of Pentecost: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Lk. 3:17). John depicts Jesus as the one who will judge Israel, gathering the righteous into a new community but destroying the unrighteous by “fire”.

When Jesus tells his followers that he “came to cast fire on the land” (rather than the “earth”), he is also speaking of a fire of judgment on the land of Israel, which will come eventually in the form of military invasion and the destruction of Jerusalem: “when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near” (Lk. 21:20).

How this relates to his imminent “baptism” of suffering is not entirely clear, but presumably he understands his own death as being directly implicated in the catastrophe coming upon Israel. He does not bring peace to the land but division—and as Matthew has it, a sword (Matt. 10:34). The image of households divided (Lk. 12:52-53) comes from Micah 7:5-6, where it is a sign of the moral disintegration of Jewish society that will lead the Lord to strike Jerusalem “with a grievous blow, making you desolate because of your sins” (Mic. 6:13).

Pentecost, of course, was also a “baptism” (cf. Acts 1:5), when the Spirit descended on the gathered disciples in “tongues as of fire” (2:4). But if we now wish to assert a connection between this and the argument in Luke about the Spirit, baptism, and fire, we have a choice to make. Do we attempt to assimilate the judgment theme into our understanding of Pentecost as primarily the founding moment of the church, as Msgr. Pope does? Or do we consider the possibility that the prior judgment theme quite radically subverts our general understanding of Pentecost as a matter of ecclesiology rather than eschatology?

What I would highlight at this point is that when Peter stands up to interpret what has happened, he quotes from Joel’s vision of a day when the Spirit of prophecy will be poured out indiscriminately on the people of Israel in advance of a great and terrible day of judgment against Israel, when only those who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved (Acts 2:21). It seems to me that Pentecost is actually much more about judgment on Israel than about the founding of the church as a vigorous charismatic community. The latter theme is not irrelevant, but at this point in the story, as Luke tells it, the thought of judgment is very much in the foreground.

Andrew -

It seems to me that Pentecost is actually much more about judgment on Israel than about the founding of the church as a vigorous charismatic community.

I might suggest reading Roger Stronstad's book, The Charismatic Theology of St Luke. He does well in showing the parallel between the Spirit-initiation of the church in the early chapters of Acts and that of Christ's Spirit-initiation in the early chapters of Luke's Gospel. The parallels make me think that Luke is trying to emphasise the reality of a charismatic, Spirit-empowered community.

Scott, I would agree with that. But charismatic and Spirit-empowered for what purpose? Jesus was given the Spirit at his baptism for a specific eschatological purpose. Similarly, I would argue that as far as the story in Acts 2 goes—which is certainly not the whole story—the disciples of Jesus become a charismatic and Spirit-empowered community in order to continue the witness of Jesus to the coming kingdom of God. The simple existence of a Christlike or messianic community as evidence that YHWH was transforming things is, of course, part of that. But Peter’s speech, to my mind, places the emphasis firmly on the coming judgment on a crooked generation, from which only those who called on the name of the Lord would saved. It is obviously significant, too, that Jews from many nations get to hear the proclamation of the impending intervention of YHWH in their own languages. The disciples are a prophetic community not only to Jerusalem but to the diaspora, beyond Judea and Samaria, to the ends of the earth.