A message given by Rev. Scott Summerville
Sunday, July 1, 2007
When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.
This passage from the gospel of Luke is odd. Jesus did not go around destroying people who opposed him or who refused to listen to him. He might shake the dust off his feet and move on, but we have no record of violence directed by Jesus at any opponent. The teaching of Jesus was consistently a teaching of nonviolence.
We assume that James and John, two of the very first and foremost apostles, knew this. But here we are in the late stages of Jesus’ ministry as he sets his face for the final journey to Jerusalem, and even now his closest followers do not understand him.
In order to understand why James and John could even entertain the idea of Jesus calling down fire on this village in Samaria, we need to remember that Jesus was seen in his time as a prophet of Israel. Prophets of Israel were sometimes extremely violent. Calling down fire from heaven was standard operating procedure for at least one of the major prophets, Elijah.
When King Ahazi’ah was gravely ill, he sent messengers to Elijah asking him to come to the palace, so that the prophet might tell the king whether he would live or die. The following is the account from the first chapter of II Kings concerning how the prophet Elijah received the messengers of King Ahaziah:
II Kings 1:
9: Then the king sent to him a captain of fifty men with his fifty. He went up to Eli’jah, who was sitting on the top of a hill, and said to him, “O man of God, the king says, `Come down.'” 10: But Eli’jah answered the captain of fifty, “If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty.” Then fire came down from heaven, and consumed him and his fifty.
11: Again the king sent to him another captain of fifty men with his fifty. And he went up and said to him, “O man of God, this is the king’s order, `Come down quickly!'” 12: But Eli’jah answered them, “If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty.” Then the fire of God came down from heaven and consumed him and his fifty.
13: Again the king sent the captain of a third fifty with his fifty. And the third captain of fifty went up, and came and fell on his knees before Eli’jah, and entreated him, “O man of God, I pray you, let my life, and the life of these fifty servants of yours, be precious in your sight.
14: Lo, fire came down from heaven, and consumed the two former captains of fifty men with their fifties; but now let my life be precious in your sight.” 15: Then the angel of the LORD said to Eli’jah, “Go down with him; do not be afraid of him.” So he arose and went down with him to the king…
So one hundred and two innocent men died just to get the prophet to come to the palace! Of course James and John and all the Jews would have known this story from childhood. Jesus was often associated with the prophet Elijah, so it is not entirely strange that James and John might be indignant that certain people were not welcoming Jesus and would ask him, “Shall we zap them with fire?”
If God rained down fire in Elijah’s day, why not do it in Jesus’ day? When Luke tells us the story, he is making a point about the nature of Jesus and his ministry. Some of the most ancient manuscripts of the gospel of Luke have an additional sentence. Instead of ending with the words Jesus turned and rebuked them, they add: and he said, “You do not know what the manner of spirit you are of, for the Son of Man came not to destroy men’s lives but to save them.”
In our violent age; in our age when religion and violence often walk hand in hand, these ancient stories take on new meaning. Car bombs are found in central London; a truck plows into an airport and bursts into flames; we assume that the persons involved have a religious motivation.
How do we respond to violence?
How do we respond to those who do not share our philosophy, our theology, our political viewpoint?
These are not just interesting questions for students of the Bible. These are questions that go to the heart of the world we live in and what it means to be a religious person in the world today, and what it means to be a Christian in the world today.
These ancient words, “Lord, do you wish for us to bid fire come down from heaven and destroy them?” come to us now in our age of religiously motivated violence and wars fed by religious hatred.
Jesus turned to James and John when their thoughts turned to violence and he rebuked them.
I saw recently on television some video footage that was taken in one of America’s mega-churches. There was a large auditorium and in the front was a wide open stage with a modernistic clear plastic pulpit, and there were enormous projection screens behind the preacher. There was no communion table and no cross.
On one of the screens was a massive rippling American flag. On the other screen were images of fighter jets screeching past. And this was a church, a Christian church.
This is an extreme case of what has become all too common in American religious life:
blurring the distinction between the church and the nation,
an uncritical acceptance of violence and war,
and blending political parties with religious ideology.
This has been bad for the country, bad for our democracy, and harmful to the church and its long-term integrity.
I have shared with you on other occasions that I am the son of a World War II veteran. Some people noticed two weeks ago, when we were playing ball after church, that I carry my basketballs in the green army duffel bag which bears the stenciled name of my father. It is the same duffel bag that he carried to France and to the Philippines in the Second World War.
I have also shared with you that prior to the rise of Hitler and the dangers of Nazism my father was a pacifist. He came reluctantly to what I would call a qualified pacifism. He could not be an absolute pacifist, even though he had great respect for pacifists; he saw that the teachings of Jesus make it very difficult for Christians to justify participation in war of any kind. But he came to see that certain evils are so great as to allow people of faith and conscience to participate in the tragedy of armed conflict.
After the Second World War and throughout the remainder of his life he had an instinctive aversion to war and an awareness of how easily human beings can be seduced into embracing war and violence, how violence can be romanticized from a distance.
He was one of the many whose military experience gave them a sense of what real violence is and why it must always be a last and tragic resort.
It is true that many of the things which are most precious to all of us:
freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, freedom to pursue happiness each in our own way – these precious freedoms have been secured and defended with blood. That is something we must acknowledge with solemn gratefulness.
It is also true that there are violent people in this world; there are those who would destroy life on a massive scale in the name of God if given the opportunity.
This presents Christians with vexing moral dilemmas. In this age, how do we live out our nonviolent creed?
How do we be faithful followers of Jesus, who faced injustice and violence in his own time and chose not to take up the sword?
These are large questions for which there are no simple answers.
The path of violence: violent action, violent speech, violent thought – is so easy and instinctive – Lord shall we bid fire come down from heaven and destroy them? Calling down fire on our enemies feels so good!
Jesus turned and rebuked his disciples for taking the violent path.
We need to ask whether Jesus rebukes us now.
Have we allowed the violent spirit of our age to take root within us?
Have we done enough as individuals to foster peace wherever we have personal influence?
Have we done enough as a church to proclaim the gospel of peace?
Have we done enough to teach the principles and methods of peace that people can apply directly in daily life?
For myself I confess the answer to these questions is no – we have not done enough.
But this is a good day to make a new commitment to use the freedoms we have in this nation and the message of Christ is ours to shape our lives and influence our world in the direction of peace.
Shalom, salaam, grace and peace to you.