Pentecost 6 C: God’s Alternative

Luke 9:51-62

Dear Partner in Preaching,

As is true of all texts, there are any number of interpretive directions in which you can go this week. Having said that, however, one simply jumped off the page for me and demanded my attention: why is it that when the James and John meet resistance to Jesus’ mission, their first instinct is to call down fire from heaven that will consume those they see as opponents?

Let’s set the scene for a moment before trying to answer this question. Chapter nine is a pivotal chapter in Luke’s story about Jesus. It is, in a variety of ways, the hinge of the story, as it provides the pivot point between Jesus’ mission of teaching and preaching in Galilee and his journey to Jerusalem and the cross. Actually, we need to go back a few verses to put those appointed for today in context. In chapter eight and the beginning of chapter nine, Jesus has calmed a storm, cast out demons, healed an ailing woman, restored a girl to life, and fed the multitudes. In short, he has been overturning the powers that oppress humanity in all forms. Some of this we’ve seen over the last few weeks in the lectionary passages we’ve been considering, but it helps to be reminded of the breadth of Jesus’ miracles.

All of this is followed by Peter’s confession that Jesus is the messiah and Jesus’ expansion of Peter’s understanding of what “messiah” means. From there Luke takes us to the transfiguration, when Peter, James, and John are urged to listen to Jesus, and then describes several more miracles. Our verses follow and begin with the significant, even ominous words, “and he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” This is Luke’s signal to us that the heart of Jesus’ mission is about to commence, that all that has come before has been only the opening move to reveal God’s kingdom, and that now Jesus is about to inaugurate it most fully.

On the way to Jerusalem, they approach a Samaritan village that will not receive Jesus. The passage tells us it’s because he has set his face for Jerusalem, though what exactly that means – they know he will not linger, they sense and do not agree with his purpose – is unclear. Whatever the precise reasons are, it comes as a rejection, and that angers James and John, who immediately want to destroy the Samaritans.

And this is where I get stuck. Why is it that when folks resist our sense of the way we think things should be, we first view them as opponents and then want to remove or even destroy them?

It’s hard to explain, but it seems to be at the center of what it means to be human. I’m fond of saying that “original insecurity comes before original sin,” as I think our existence as mortal, finite, vulnerable beings often scares us into thinking that peace and security come from control. This world is chaotic and dangerous, and there is much of which we are legitimately afraid. Too often, in response to these fears and insecurities we believe that in order to be safe and prosper we need to control whatever and whomever is around us. And, like children who have never quite grown up, when things don’t go our way, we howl with outrage and fear. Not always, of course, but enough to do serious damage to ourselves and others.

This becomes all the easier when those who are not “cooperating” with us – that is, don’t see things the way we do or do what we want – are different from us. Our tendency to label someone as “other” – whether in terms of their race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc. – confers a sinister permission to treat them differently, even to regard them as less than human, or at least less human than we are.

In recent months, we’ve seen too much evidence of this penchant. The Orlando shooting was a stark example of what happens when this kind of fear and insecurity-driven hatred is combined with readily available military-grade weapons. In that case it appears it was sexual orientation and ethnicity that made people “other” in the mind of the aggressor. A year ago in Charleston it was skin color. Nor is this penchant evidenced only in horrific shootings. We see this same tendency to label, exclude, and even remove or destroy in some of the fear-driven political rallies of this election season and in the call to exclude those who are different from us.

And we see it in James and John’s reaction to the rejection by the Samaritans, as when they feel rebuffed by people they have long believed were less human, or at least less religiously devout, they are ready, even eager, to call fire down from heaven to consume them.

Jesus rebukes them. We expect that, but probably shouldn’t, as religious leaders sometimes fall prey to the temptation to believe that because God has called them to a significant mission they are exempt from normal standards of human conduct, somehow placed “above the law” by God. But Jesus rebukes them. Indeed, his whole life and mission are a rebuke of this tendency to solve problems by violence, to define people as different, and to assume that some are in while others are out.

Think about it: Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem. There he will be falsely accused, unjustly tried, cruelly treated, and brutally executed. Of all the evangelists, Luke in particular stresses Jesus’ profound innocence and the rank injustice of what happens to him. Which means that Jesus’ response to the chaos, limitation, and vulnerability of this world is not to deny it or try to control it or defeat it, but rather to embrace it…even to the point of death.

And in response to this One who does not deny or control, who does not wreak down violence or vengeance upon his enemies, who does not need to take matters into his own hands but relies on God to the end – in response to all this, God raises Jesus from the dead, showing us that there is another way. We do not need to return hate for hate, we do not need to resort to violence out of fear, we do not need to control those around us to flourish.

So what if, Dear Partner, Jesus’ cross and resurrection are less about “forgiveness of sin” in some abstract sense and more about God’s promise to enter into our chaos and fear, stand with us through all that frightens us, remind us that God will not abandon us, and bring us to life on the other side. The antidote to fear, Jesus shows us, isn’t power or weapons or security, it’s courage, compassion, and trust.

James and John, though urged on the mountain of transfiguration to listen to Jesus, have ignored his mission and ministry and so want immediately to resort to violence. And maybe that’s what creates the sense of urgency that permeates the latter verses of our passage. Recognizing that James and John and the rest have failed to hear his message of love, grace, and forgiveness, Jesus stops talking, sets his face to Jerusalem, and will not let anyone or anything slow him down from getting there in order to show in his own body God’s alternative to the way of the world and God’s validation of love over hate and acceptance over exclusion.

I think we need to be reminded of that once again, Dear Partner, that the antidote to fear is courage, compassion, and trust. And that when we fail to listen, God is still showing us an alternative in Jesus, still forgiving us for Jesus’ sake, and still promising to use us to care for our neighbor when we yield to God’s irresistible love. Thank you for announcing that message. We have never needed to hear it more.

Yours in Christ,