Holding Together Both the Fire and the Cloud


Readings for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Year C)

Jeremiah 23:23-29

Psalm 82

Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2

Luke 12:49-56

This sermon was preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael CA on August 14, 2016.

As I have pointed out in the past, this wonderful parish boasts one particular characteristic that I have not seen in any other Episcopal church in this diocese or beyond. Along with the Book of Common Prayer and the Hymnal, your pew shelves hold the Holy Bible, which you actually use during the service. So that means we get to do some Bible Study this morning and we get to look at what the lectionary leaves out. So I invite you to open your Bibles to Luke 12:51.

In Luke 12:51, Jesus asks a curious question: “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth?” The question is curious because most of us would probably think the answer is obviously, yes! Jesus is after all the Prince of Peace (Is 9:6) and in the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you” (14:27). But in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “No, that’s not what I’m about. I’m about bringing division, division within the family, division between father and son, mother and daughter.” How do we make sense of this division and divisiveness that Jesus brings? Does Jesus really want us to be divided against one another, against members of our own family?

A few months ago, I married a beautiful and intelligent woman who has a PhD in Jewish Culture and History. And the two of us are not always of one mind when it comes to our understanding of God and Jesus. And neither am I of one mind with my parents and my friends. Our disagreements can sometimes feel very difficult and divisive, which is why religion is sometimes not allowed to be discussed at certain dinner tables because the subject often stirs up too much uncomfortable conflict. I’ll admit that in my family, Jesus causes division.

Also, one does not need to study church history very long to realize that conflict and division have been hallmarks of Christianity. The Judaism of Jesus’s day divided, in many ways because of Jesus, into Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity and then Christianity divided into its various denominations, which have not always been at peace with one another. When it comes to beliefs about Jesus and God, there is certainly a variety of persuasions that conflict and clash. Jesus knows this. He knows that his presence will arouse a host of different understandings of God that will not always harmonize. In fact, Jesus uses two images in the Gospel reading this morning that are each emblematic of different understandings of God that have conflicted and developed over and against each other throughout the centuries. He uses the image of the fire and the cloud.


In Luke 12:49, Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” Now the image of fire is ubiquitous throughout Scripture. In fact, it is mentioned in all three of our readings this morning. It is also the image used by one of my favorite 14th century English mystics Richard Rolle of Hampole to describe his bodily experience of God. In his most famous mystical treatise called The Fire of Love, Richard writes, “When a [person] is perfectly converted to Christ, he…feels a warmth most sweet, burning like a fire. He is filled with wonderful sweetness, and glories in jubilant song.”[1] Rolle experienced God as one who tasted sweet, who felt warm like a fire and who sounded like a melodious song. Many other Christians have experienced and understood God in similar ways, as a divine fire that can be physically felt. These Christians are generally part of what is called the kataphatic tradition, which emphasizes the imminence of God, who can be imagined in our minds and felt in our bodies. However, there is another tradition that is quite different, a tradition that is often associated with the image of the cloud.

In Luke 12:54, Jesus said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens…You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” Jesus uses the analogy of the cloud rising to describe the arrival of God’s kingdom, which his listeners and interlocutors fail to see. Jesus is often trying to get both the physically and spiritually blind to open their eyes, to see the God who is standing in right front of them. It is no coincidence that the most common healing miracle that Jesus performs in the Gospels is opening of the eyes of the blind.[2] Our vision is clouded; as Paul says, “We see through a glass darkly” (1 Cor 13:12).

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Like Jesus, another English Mystic of the 14th century used the image of a cloud to describe how we fail to see the God who is right in front of us. This mystic is often referred to as the Cloud author because, in his most famous text, he explained that between God and us, there is what he called a “Cloud of Unknowing” that obscures our vision of God. We cannot penetrate this cloud with any rational thought or theological insight or rigorous study. The only we can penetrate and see through the Cloud of Unknowing is by shooting through it arrows of love (“humble impulses of love”). The Cloud author is very skeptical and suspicious of any physical experiences of God like those described by Richard Rolle. He instead encourages a kind of prayer that does not try to access God through the mind or body, but purely through the heart; through faith expressing itself in love. The author of Hebrews also uses the image of the cloud to describe the many saints in Scripture who embodied this faith expressing itself in love: “the great cloud of witnesses.” We can indeed learn a great deal from the cloud of saints and mystics who have experienced God through a love which comes purely from the heart, unadulterated by the many trappings and distractions of the mind and body. These mystics who experience God as one beyond the cloud are generally part of what is called the apophatic tradition, which emphasizes the transcendence and incomprehensibility of God.

These two major traditions invite us to ask ourselves, “How do we experience God? Do we experience God with our bodily senses as a fiery warmth and melodious song? Or do we experience God as on the other side of a ‘Cloud of Unknowing,’ beyond anything we can grasp with our minds or bodies, but accessible only through love?” Historically, those who have experienced God as one beyond the cloud have been at loggerheads with those who have experienced God as fire. So in Jesus’s teaching about the division he will bring, he uses two images that are each associated with Christian traditions (the apophatic and the kataphatic) which have been, in many ways, divisive and divided against each other. So we return to our initial question: How do we make sense of this division and divisiveness? Does Jesus really want us to be divided against one another, divided against our own fellow believers, fellow members of the family of God who may experience and understand God differently? One might say yes if we were to stop reading where the lectionary selection ends. But fortunately, we all have Bibles so we get to read on.

I invite you to look at Luke 12: 57 (which is not part of today’s official Gospel), in which Jesus says, “Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? Thus, when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you in prison. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” I imagine the organizers of the lectionary kept this part out because it sounds pretty harsh and unforgiving. However, in these words I hear Jesus acknowledging the inevitability of disagreement and divisiveness and then strongly urging his listeners to work through their differences: make an effort to settle the case or as the NIV says, “Try hard to be reconciled.”

There’s another English mystic, Julian of Norwich who makes an effort to settle the case and to reconcile the differences between conflicting understandings of God. As she endured a life-threatening illness, Julian of Norwich received 16 different visions of God, some fiery and some cloudy. It took her about 20 years to make sense of them and reconcile the apparent contradictions, but she was committed to working through the many different representations of God. To me, Julian embodies the Anglican Via Media (the “middle road”) not so much by compromising, but by holding together both the fiery kataphatic understanding of God and the cloudy apophatic understanding, honoring them both and acknowledging their differences and apparent contradictions. In Julian of Norwich, the fire and the cloud can be held as one. The God who appeared to the ancient Israelites as a cloud by day is the same God who appeared as a pillar of fire by night. Although there will be divisions among us because of Jesus, Julian of Norwich serves as a model of one who worked to reconcile different understandings of God.

At my wedding, we had an Episcopal priest officiate, a Jewish Studies professor preach the homily, a Roman Catholic offer a reading and a Jungian offer a meditation. Each held very different understandings about God that conflicted. But as we gathered on the prayer labyrinth in a cathedral called Grace, we were all held by that same divine Grace that I believe Julian of Norwich experienced as she worked to understand her different visions and strived to hold together both the fire and the cloud.

Julian’s writings have helped me hold together divisions ever since I was introduced to her in my college Brit lit class 15 years ago on the same day that our whole nation witnessed the cloud of fire and smoke envelop Manhattan in a national tragedy that reflected the world’s failure to peacefully hold together different understandings of God. In the midst of our most painful divisions, Julian of Norwich offers us hope for reconciliation by describing and revealing God as a kind Mother who hold us all lovingly, assuring us again and again that “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well,” words that I pray may give us courage and hope to settle our cases, to reconcile our differences, to hold together both the fire and the cloud, and to trust in the Divine Grace that holds it all. Amen.


[1] Richard Rolle, The Fire of Love, Chapter 19, translated and introduced by Clifton Wolters (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), 107.

[2]  Ben Witherington points out that healing the blind is the most common miracle performed by Jesus in the Gospels. B. Witherington, John’s Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: Lutterworth, 1995), 180.


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