by Chris Jacobsen
“Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Luke 9:54b
As I prepared a couple of weeks ago for an Ash Wednesday sermon, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Had I never read this passage before? I don’t remember James and John voicing such an idea to Jesus in relation to the Samaritans, yet here it was, in plain text. As Jesus shifts his ministry towards a journey to Jerusalem, to the cross, he sends out disciples ahead of him to the towns and communities he plans to visit along the way.
Among the places his representatives are sent: Samaria. The despised northern cousins of the Jews, whose worship is not quite pure enough to be considered orthodox, whose lineage is not quite pure enough to be considered orthodox. The enmity goes both ways! When Jesus’s representatives come to Samaria, they are rejected, because the Samaritans don’t want anything to do with those who are focused on Jerusalem.
James and John, fresh off the mountain of Transfiguration, have a brilliant idea! Given their close encounter with the divine, they know exactly what to do with those who would oppose God (or at least their understanding of God). Let’s summon fire from heaven to burn those heathens to a crisp!
What James and John represent is the part of me that looks down on others for their foolish beliefs—which really means the beliefs that are different from my own. In my weaker moments, I dream of what life in the church would be like if other folks would come around to my way of thinking. Then there would be peace! I wouldn’t have to worry anymore about the schisms that threaten to unravel the denomination that I have loved my whole life long. I could gather with like-minded individuals who understand the true nature of the mission of the church, and get on with doing God’s work. I wouldn’t have to waste my time considering someone else’s mistaken point of view!
To this ideal world I have created for myself, Jesus speaks a clear message: NO! Jesus rebukes James and John, and then goes on to tell a story about a Samaritan who shows the world what it means to be neighborly. They are expected to learn from a vile Samaritan?! Later, Jesus tells a parable about a fig tree that isn’t bearing fruit. The owner of the tree wants to cut it down, but his gardener urges him to wait. Give the tree more time. Give it more attention. Give it a chance to grow! And if, after another season, it still doesn’t bear fruit, then you can cut it down.
The message from Jesus seems to be one of patience and care for the other. Of course, in Luke’s second volume, Acts of the Apostles, the Samaritans are early adopters of this new gospel, but that gospel requires growth and change for Jew and Samaritan alike! No one abandons their position to come over to the other. A new way is needed for the two to come together. But if James and John had their way, the Samaritans would never have had that chance.
I’m a preacher by day, which means that I run the risk of being preachy at times. But I can’t help but think that a lack of understanding and a lack of love is contributing to significant spiritual malaise, both in the church and in the rest of the USA. Parties and factions have drawn battle lines in the sand, and while we are not quite using the extreme language of praying to heaven for the other side to be set on fire, it feels an awful lot like we’ve decided that we’ve given the fig tree in the other garden enough time to bear fruit. Now we’re prepared to cut it down, break away from it, and finally realize the peace that we idealize. We’ve given up hope in a third way. Schism is the only option, a foregone conclusion.
My heart is heavy, and my disappointment is great, because I believe the Holy Spirit may be guiding us into some new thing, that God might actually want to teach us something through those we believe to be so wrong. Perhaps I’m far too optimistic, but I don’t think it is that much of a stretch to consider Jesus telling the parable of the good New York Yankee, or the good liberal, or the good traditionalist, or the good <insert name of group you disagree with here>.
I’m looking forward to what God is going to reveal to me about God’s reign through the ministry of those I disagree with. And I will mourn deeply, for a very long time, if I lose that opportunity.
Chris Jacobsen is a pastor at Abundant Life Reformed Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey. He, his wife Sarah, and kids Henry and Holland are all hoping for a Mets World Series win this year. Those who hope otherwise are just wrong (especially Yankees fans).