Sermon - Third Sunday After Pentecost (6/30/2019)
1 Kgs. 19:15-16, 19-21; Ps. 16; Gal. 5:1, 13-25; Lk. 9:51-62
“When the days drew near for [Jesus] to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Our reading today is the first major turning point in Luke’s gospel. Until now Jesus has been mostly in Galilee, announcing the arrival of the kingdom of God – in words, but mostly in his actions – sight to the blind, release for the captives, good news for the poor. But now Jesus begins his final trip to Jerusalem for Passover, and our gospel readings from now until Thanksgiving will come from the story of this voyage to Jerusalem, with Jesus teaching his disciples along the way, in many of the most memorable sayings and parables of Jesus.
But today the journey is beginning, and the direct route from Galilee to Jerusalem goes through Samaria. In the first century, Samaritans mostly accepted the Law of Moses, but they didn’t believe in the temple in Jerusalem or any of the hocus pocus that, in their opinion, went on there. Full-fledged Jews, from which Jesus and his followers were drawn, tended to look down on Samaritans as hillbillies or heretics or both. And when a Samaritan village heard that a Jewish rabbi with his entourage were on their way to visit the temple in Jerusalem for Passover and looking for a place to stay overnight, their response was immediate: Sorry, no room at the inn, not for you folks. We aren’t interested in some patronizing lecture from your rabbi about how God only lives in the temple. Find someplace else.
Misunderstanding and prejudice have been around for a long time, haven’t they? But the apostles James and John fall right into the usual trap. They are so offended that this Samaritan village doesn’t want to receive Jesus, has rejected Jesus, and this confirms for them that, just as they have always thought, the Samaritans are godforsaken and wicked. So they ask Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”
Now James and John, together with Peter, had just been with Jesus on the mountain of the Transfiguration, where Jesus had spoken with Moses and the prophet Elijah – and Elijah, who appears at the beginning of the first reading today, was very famous for calling down fire from heaven on the opponents of God. Elijah would find people who were worshipping idols, and zap! Lightning bolts from heaven consumed them.
So maybe James and John were inspired by seeing Jesus talking with Elijah on the mountain, and they thought – wow, wouldn’t it be great to have the power to call down fire from heaven to destroy the enemies of God, just like Elijah did? And here are some enemies of God, who have just rejected Jesus, and who are dirty Samaritans to boot! Shall we call down fire from heaven to consume them? James and John ask.
Jesus, of course, rebukes them, and they simply go on to another village. And of course Jesus rebukes them. In the King James version of the Bible, there is actually an extra verse which reports what Jesus said: “But he turned and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” Now, the scholars who study such things have found a lot more ancient manuscripts of the Bible than the translators of the King James Version knew about. Their consensus is that, unfortunately, that quote from Jesus was not in the original version of Luke’s gospel. Some copyist seems to have added the quote somewhere along the line, which is why the quote isn’t included in more modern translations. But I would imagine Jesus said something like the King James version when he rebuked James and John. The gospels quote Jesus saying things like this all the time. “The Son of Man did not come to condemn the world, but to save it.” “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” Whatever the prophet Elijah may have done, we know Jesus never called down fire from heaven to kill a bunch of people. And it’s Jesus, not Elijah, who is God made flesh. It is Jesus who shows us in human form what the true nature of God is like. But, as Jesus is just starting out on his final journey to Jerusalem, it seems James and John haven’t gotten the message just yet.
There’s a curious little episode in the book of Acts, just a few verses long, described only in passing. Several years after Easter, the apostles receive word that there is a village of Samaritans that have been baptized but only in the name of Jesus, and so they have not yet received the Holy Spirit. And the apostles decide to send John – the same John from our gospel reading – and Peter to Samaria, where they met the Samaritans “and prayed for them … and laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 8:15, 17)
And I wonder if John, at least, noticed the irony. That here he was, years later, finally getting his chance to call down fire from heaven on a village of Samaritans. But this time, not to destroy them, but to bring them into the full experience of the presence of God and the communion of the followers of Jesus. I wonder if John, at least, noticed how much he had been changed in just a few short years. From thinking that serving God meant calling down wrath on sinners, to acting in service to God to reconcile and bring together people who had been separated.
How does that happen? How does someone like John – or any of us, really – how does someone go from living in fear of the wrath of God, just waiting for the thunderbolt from heaven to come and zap you for the thing you just did (or thought), full of anxiety that in the end God is going to send you into the fire forever. How do you come to discover that God is love, that God delights in everything God has made, even you, that – as Paul says in the second reading today – Christ has set us free for freedom, for serving others, giving us the power to live in “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control,” not as commandments but as a gift that we get to experience. How does that happen?
For James and John and the other apostles, the gospels are clear about what changed them: it is what happened when they went to Jerusalem with Jesus, where they ate and drank with Jesus and promised to follow him forever – and then promptly abandoned and betrayed him, just as he had said. Where Jesus remained faithful to the end, showing God’s mercy and compassion and willingness to endure suffering and even death for us, rising to new life and appearing with grace and forgiveness and a call to serve others as he did, not with fear but with love. Where God sent the Holy Spirit to teach them and empower them to live and to love as Jesus did.
You know, God works in many ways. Even the prophet Elijah, as it happens, eventually realized that his zeal for smiting God’s enemies wasn’t working. It made everyone else angry, and it left him feeling empty, alone, and depressed. Finally, in despair, unable to eat, asking himself if all the zapping he had done was really a service to God or not –he flees to the desert, to the mountain where God once spoke to Moses, to see if God would speak again and tell him where he had gone wrong. This is where, famously, there was an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake; where there was a mighty wind, but God was not in the mighty wind. Instead God was a small, still voice, telling Elijah what we heard at the beginning of the first reading today: Anoint others to share in God’s work, pass your mantle on to another who will succeed you. Don’t take it upon yourself to spread God’s wrath, but instead take some opportunities to share God’s blessings with the people God is pointing out to you.
Elijah was converted in his crisis of faith, because he found God not in power or anger, but in stillness and compassion. For the first disciples of Jesus, following Jesus to Jerusalem taught them what God is really like. In the beginning, those who signed up to follow Jesus, like James and John, really had no idea what they were getting themselves into. Others declined to follow Jesus for entirely reasonable and virtuous reasons – duties to family and to honor their parents – and Jesus warned them they would miss out on the experience, at least the first time around. But even then, God never gives up on us, just as Jesus didn’t give up on the Samaritan village that didn’t want to receive him. When the followers of Jesus have learned – finally – how to live and love like God just as Jesus did, they will come back to share the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is what happens when we follow Jesus – we learn that much of what we thought serves God is in fact not the way of Jesus, but that if we allow the way of Jesus to change our minds and change our hearts, we can actually come to know God’s love for us and to share that love with others.