Luke chapter 9 verses 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?’
There are times when preparing a sermon the ‘sheet of paper’ is empty after hours. There are times when words in the Gospel jumped from the page. The experiences of the past 7 to 14 days has raised questions in my mind about the sort of people, community, nation we want to be. It has not been, and indeed continues not to be a very edifying or a very encouraging time. More people are afraid. Reported racial abuse has risen according to some reports up to 400%. You need to know, that I am aware that I need to be careful about what I say and how I say it in the next few moments. But that is to get ahead of myself.
This very short exchange between the disciples and Jesus recorded by Luke seems to me to be ‘close to the bone’, dis-comforting, they create an sense of unease, vitriol even – but they seemed to speak to the present.
As we read it the scene is innocuous – ‘he (Jesus) set his face to go to Jerusalem.’ But innocuous it isn’t.
This story is a turning point in Luke’s account of the good news. This is Luke’s way of telling his readers that Jesus is about to embark on what will be the focal point, the heart of his task. If he has previously begun to expose the heart of the message of the realm of God, and he certainly has, then from here on to Jerusalem he is going to open it right up for people to see more clearly than ever. He has already shown how the breaking into the world of human beings of the realm of God brings about change. He has calmed the sea, ordered demons out of a poor man, quelled what is chaotic – all signs of the Kingdom and of things to come. Now he has made a deliberate decision – to go to Jerusalem there to confront the heart of Empire, Roman and Jewish, civic and religious, with the realm of God.
This is not simply a stroll with a good idea. Luke says this is a deliberate movement, ’he (Jesus) set his face to go to Jerusalem.’ Luke tell us that on the way Jesus sends messengers ahead into a Samaritan village through which he will pass. In itself this is unusual. Jews will do everything they can to avoid walking through a Samaritan village. Jesus deliberately walked that way. What they meet there is rejection.
But they shouldn’t have been be surprised about that. Because of a long and bitter dispute between them Samaritans and Jews didn’t ‘get on’. Their disagreement and separation extends further and deeper than some arguments in and between chapel and churches. It’s a dispute that divided the Jewish community that had festered for centuries. Luke tells us in a stark phrase beginning with a ‘but’ is that
‘… they did not receive him….’ Why? ‘… because his face was set to Jerusalem.’
From the same stock Jews and Samaritans were cousins who had a disagreement that went back tot eh two kingdoms of Israel in the North and Judah in the South. The Samaritans believe that their worship, based on the first 5 books of the Bible, is the true religion of the ancient Israelites. The different between hem was deepened at the time of the return from their Babylonian exile. They believe their true form of their religion was preserved by those who remained in the land of Israel during the Exile and that Judaism although related had been altered and amended by those Jews taken into captivity and brought back by those people who returned after the Exile.
Most importantly for our purposes today was the fact that the Samaritans believed that Mount Gerazim was the original Holy Place of Israel from the time Joshua conquered the land. Mount Gerazim was the location of the chosen place to worship God. But according to the Jews Jerusalem was the chosen place to worship God. The difference was visceral.
The stand-off between them was magnified after Exile. Asking themselves why was it God sent us into Exile, their answer was that we have not been faithful to God. Part of that unfaithfulness was that they had intermarried, thereby weakening their identity. That could be rectified in the future by marital purity. We can see this argument in Ezra. (Ezra chapter 9) This is very much shorthand. It was well meaning. It was about the sort of community they wanted to be now they had returned from Israel. Our reading from Ezra chapter 4 is quite clear the returnees would not allow their Samaritan sisters and brothers to help rebuild the Temple. One commentator says that:
‘… the Jerusalem elite treated their former sisters and brothers as “foreigners” and excluded them from their community.’
This age old, deeply embedded animosity was the reason for their inhospitality towards each other, their ’othering’ of each other. The old enmity surfaces because Jesus and the disciples were on their way to Jerusalem. hey were not made welcome in the Samaritan village. We feel the bitter difference, hatred even, and enough to kill!
‘Lord do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’
The knee jerk, the all too human and all too predictable reaction and solution to those who disagree with us or who are different from us simply erupts in the mindset of James and John. The truth is both the Jewish disciples and the Samaritans practice in-hospitableness – ‘hate not hope’. There is a good reason why hospitality is at the heart of gospel practice.
And in recent days we have witnessed brutally on the streets. In Orlando, the murder of over 50 people in a gay club. A clear act of homophobia and revenge it seems. Then later the same week Jo Cox – an MP, a wife, a mother, a human being – whose life had been devoted to working for justice, humanity and the care for refugees was gunned down and stabbed to death in a fit of hatred. Jo Cox was ‘othered’ in the most brutal of ways. We have seen 250 people liked in Baghdad, black people in america and the resulting haters enough to kill police officers Race crime in Britain has shot us since the referendum. ‘How long, O Lord, how long?’
But signs of hope sprang up across Wales, Britain and the world. People took to the streets to remember and honour the victims of Orlando and Jo Cox. That itself became a message of hope and not hate, a message that insists we are better than this.
The experience of the past weeks has raised real questions in my mind about the sort of people, community, nation we really want to be. If, as I believe, words, language, images shape us, then many of the words I have read, and the images I’ve seen appear deliberately to have set out to create and shape an atmosphere in which fear and loathing dominate the public debate. They are words and images that quite frankly reinforce, and even encourage some in inherent racism and hate at the heart of an argument. Such words and images have been couched in terms of innuendo, and some would say deceit and some quite frankly lies. And how God must weep.
‘And Jesus rebuked them,’ with a rebuke that was not just a gentle, distancing tut tut, please don’t do that! iI is almost a ‘get behind me Satan’ sort of rebuke.
The habit of ‘othering’ people, alienating, dehumanising people is closer to reaction of James and John about commanding ‘… fire to come down from heaven and consume them,’
That is so far removed from the ‘Jesus Way’ of the liberating, accepting, welcoming, and the warmly embracing community that reflects the realm of God. And anything that dies the Kingdom of God will not do, will not satisfy, will not create a community in which people flourish.
I am drawn to the grace and hope filled words of Brendan Cox sounded like sheer poetry in the midst of shouting and wailing. He believed that his wife had been murdered because of her political views.
I think she died because of them and she would want to stand up for those in debt as much as she did in life.
She championed the rights of immigrants and was particularly vocal about Syrian child refugees.
Before her death Jo became increasingly worried that politics was getting extreme, that things were turning too ‘tribal and unthinking’ She was very worried that the language was coarsening and poe were driven to take more extremes positions.
In the days following her murder Bendan Cox said he was grateful for the outpouring of live from around the world and that he ada even heard that a school in a refugee camp had been named after his late wife.
She’d want to bring people together, bring more compassion for each other, to dial down the rhetoric, hatred and bring communities together.
She (Jo) was a ball of energy who had come to symbolise something much bigger in our country and our world that is under threat through her commitment to tolerance and uncompromising stance against extremism.
Then he said something quite remarkable.
It was an act of terror designed to advance hatred towards others. What a beautiful irony it is that an act designed to advance hatred has in fact degenerated such an outpouring of love.
She met the world with love.
His words, his demeanour really has felt like an oasis of hope in the midst of a bitter debate and hate that has been generated. Brendan and Jo are more on the side of God and Jesus than many of our so-called, self publicising wannabe leaders an those amongst us who exclude and vilify.
And maybe that’s the real change that’s needed. Maybe that’s the real challenge for the future. Maybe we see our future relationship building in this tragedy reflected through the eyes and words of Brendon and Jo Cox. How the language and the imagery we use, shaped by integrity can build and enhance and open us to the wholeness of the sort of love and concern and care for each other of which God both dreams and gifts us to create that sort of community.
Rather than tolerate language and imagery of fear that plays to peoples’ worst instincts and prejudices with Jesus we say no. With Jesus we challenge images and words wherever they have their origin, that ‘other’ people, and create barriers, hatred, racism and sexism, those words and images that lead to divisions and the brutality, that in turn too often leaves families out in the cold tents, hungry tired and fearful.
Jesus was saying to James and John that way of violence, whether by deed or in word, is not is not the way of the realm of God. That is not what the Kingdom, the Realm of God is about. That is not how to enable people to experience the dream of God. It never was and it never will be. That is not the way to show neighbours that ‘the fingerprint of God is on their souls’ that they matter, and are loved and welcomed.
Shortly Luke will show us that God in Jesus offers a way to create true community – in which words and images that depict passion and compassion, inclusion and embrace replace words and pictures that create fear in others or of others – even ‘Father forgive them …’
One commentator wrote :
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.
The evidence we are witnessing of this is concerning – and it must be called for what it is – counter to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Our society and our community can only be builded around compassion not hate, co-operation not competition, around ‘enough is enough’ rather than rampant consumerism, around peace making rather than militarism, around caring rather than selfishness. If we want to understand how to live together then look carefully at the life of Jesus who opens us God’s way that is sometimes is not cheap and often more costly.
Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem. He will be falsely accused, unjustly tried, cruelly treated, and brutally executed. Luke stresses Jesus’ profound innocence and the sheer injustice of what happens to him. 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 smother it with divine love and compassion … even to the point of his own death.
And in response to this One who does not deny or control, who does not want to call 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 hate cannot smother hope.
‘Jesus’ cross and resurrection are less about “forgiveness of sin” 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 that we this provide security – it’s courage, compassion, and trust.’
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 rejection and inclusion over exclusion. Jesus ‘met the world with love.’
When we of all people fail to listen, God holds before us an image of a cross and empty tomb and words that match. ‘Duw cariad yw’ – ‘Car Di.’ ‘God is love – You, love’. Go! Care for the neighbour God has given you the person, the family God has sent you. Love them don’t hate them.
‘For our world to change, for real transformation to happen, for life to be the abundant, beautiful, joyful experience that God created it to be, we must embrace, proclaim and live what is good, what is creative and what is healing. This is a central and persistent call of the Gospel.’
‘My sister would want her murder to mobilise people to get on with things, to try to make a positive difference in whatever way we can, to come together and unite against hate and division and to fight instead for inclusion, love and unity. In Jo’s honour, and on behalf of her grieving family, I urge you please do so.’
In honour of the name of Christ, Christ urges us please do so.
It is what love demands. Meet the world with love.