Proper 8 – 6th Sunday after Pentecost — 26 June 2016
Christ Church, Burlington – 10:00 am
BCP: 1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21 | Psalm 16:5-11 | Galatians 5:1,13-25 | Luke 9:51-62
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 Jesus turned and rebuked them.
I am not a biblical literalist. I hope that doesn’t offend any of you. If any of you are offended that I am not a biblical literalist, then let’s get a cup at coffee hour and talk.
But what I’m getting at by that, at least in regard to the Gospels, is just that I recognize that CNN was not following Jesus around with their cameras. Nor was any journalist following him around with a notebook. Nobody was taking cell phone videos. Jesus had followers – a lot of followers, not just the twelve – and they remembered stuff. (In those days you had to remember stuff, and so they did. We don’t have to so much any more because we have paper and computer files, and so we don’t have to remember anything!) (Anyway, that’s my excuse!) Well, at some point, many years later, it occurred to various of Jesus’ followers that they probably ought to write some of this stuff down. And so they did.
I will forbear going into a detailed history of the formation of the Gospel tradition (you will be relieved to hear!) – four single authors (mostly), each with a distinct character, but drawing on the Jesus tradition through their faith communities. There are some folks who apparently want to disparage Christianity and claim that we know nothing about Jesus of Nazareth and later generations just made all this stuff up. Well, you can believe that if you want. (You can also believe that climate change is just made up by The Liberals. But I digress.) On the other hand, one of the things about the Gospels that I find remarkable is that some of the traditional Jesus stories are actually quite embarrassing. If you’re going to just make up stories about your Lord and Master, and about the founding leaders of your Church, why would you make up embarrassing stories like this?
For example, in the Gospel today: Jesus and his followers are on their way up to Jerusalem. They are cutting through Samaritan territory (the hill country between Galilee and Judea), which is a little odd; the usual route was through the Jordan Valley – easier walking, and you avoided the Samaritans. Be that as it may: as you know, the Samaritans were sort of renegade heretical schismatic Israelites, and they and mainline Jews did not get along at all well. (Gee, that would never happen in our Church, would it?) Long story, for another time. Anyway, Jesus and his followers try to stop over in a Samaritan village, and when the folks there find that they are on their way to Jerusalem, they throw them out. In response to which James and John (the “sons of thunder,” you recall) say, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” And Jesus says, “Really? Really? (Actually the Gospel just says that Jesus rebuked them.)
It’s interesting how often the Gospels portray the leading disciples, particularly Peter, James, and John, as utter doofuses. I mean, by the time the Gospels are written, these guys are the great heroes, the saints, of the first generation! Simon Peter, for instance: the first disciple to recognize that Jesus is the Messiah, but also clueless about what “Messiah” really means, as seen in his protest about Jesus’ foreseeing of his own suffering and death. And it is Peter who pledges to Jesus that he will be faithful unto death, and then within hours he chickens out and denies his Lord. It was James and John who came to Jesus and asked for the highest seats in the Kingdom. (Matthew says it was their mother, but I think that’s just a cover-up; Mark lets the full embarrassment stand. [Mark 10:35-37; Matt 20:20-21]) And Jesus’ response – I think one of the most important things Jesus said, and yet for two thousand years mostly ignored by the Church: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and their great men exercise authority over them.. It shall not be so among you.” [Matt 20:25-26; Mark 10:42-43; cf. Luke 22:25-26.] (“Authority” – katexousia – power.)
“It shall not be so among you.” Except that for most of the past two thousand years, it pretty much has been so among us. Especially since Christianity was legalized by the Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century, and subsequently established as the state religion. A really mixed bag, that. I mean, it was nice that they weren’t going to burn us at the stake or throw us to the lions any more, but the price was pretty high. (And we took up our own burning at the stake when we had the chance.)
Human beings have a thing about power. We just can’t let it go. And by “power” here I don’t mean just the ability to do stuff that needs to be done, I mean our need to control. I think perhaps the thirst for power is the original sin. (No, the original sin was not about sex, no matter what the nuns said, and even the Christian tradition that the sin was Pride I think is a little weasely. In the Genesis story, what the serpent tempted Eve with was power – “You will be like God, knowing good and evil” – that is, having control of all things.)
Many in the Church seem to think their faith entitles them to power, and specifically political power. And here by “the Church” I mean Christian communities in the broadest sense, and especially their, our, leadership. Yes, I do have some specific groups in mind, and if you’ve been paying attention to recent American politics you may be able to guess who I mean and what some of the issues are, but I’m not going there today. It’s actually a pretty inclusive list, and sometimes we’re on it. (The main reason why our own church may not have tried to wield political power as much as some others is that it turns out we’ve just not been very good at it!) I don’t mean that we should sit quietly by in the face of the evils in the world and in our society, of which there are a great many. Absolutely quite the contrary! We are called to bear witness to the Kingdom of God, and must do so vigorously and faithfully. But bearing witness is not the same as exercising political power. And in the past – at least 1700 years, if not more, and continuing today, Christians, and other religious groups, have tried to enforce their beliefs, with the civil law or court rulings, sometimes with the sword (or perhaps fire from heaven!). Funny how that always ends up being not about God’s Kingdom but about our own power.
Jesus says, “It shall not be so among you!” And he goes on, “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” [Mark 10:43-45; Matt 20:26-28; cf. Luke 22:26-27]