June 30, 2019
We’ve all felt it. The rise in our gut when someone rejects our most cherished beliefs.
We recognize the need to justify our views, prove we are right, defend our faith. But we don’t stop there. We also have the impulse to attack -- to show how that person is wrong, misguided, even unfaithful. If we have structural or institutional power, we may move to shut them down and “command fire to come down from heaven and consumer them” figuratively if not literally. If we have military or political power, we may use it to harm and punish. We saw the violence of this zeal two weeks ago from Saul in Acts 9.
It’s no surprise, then, that James and John seem eager to punish the Samaritans for their refusal to receive Jesus. They appear pretty confident, offering to command fire to come down and consume these knuckle-headed villagers. And certainly, there was precedence (2 Kings 1: 10-12) for calling down fire. Add to that their previous argument about who is the greatest (verse 46), maybe James and John are simply eager to project their own authority.
Cycles of reactivity
These responses will sound familiar to contemporary audiences. In the church and the world, we see similar reactivity to disagreement or perceived slight. It is timely to focus on these few verses (verses 54-56) as Jesus checks the reactive and violent impulses of his committed disciples.
Lest we distance ourselves from this kind of reactivity, invite congregants to revisit their FB feed or Twitter exchanges exclaiming against other viewpoints or heralding their own. As a preacher, you likely have examples from your own examination of conscience: We may be quick to “like” a political opponent getting what’s coming to them. Our outrage at others’ ignorance or hard-heartedness is proudly proclaimed. We may aggressively police the doctrinal purity of other congregations in our own communions (again, re-visit Acts 9).
You will know relevant examples from your own context. You will have to resist the very temptation described here, that is, to ascribe these violent tendencies only to those on “the other side.” It is easy to see these baser impulses in those whom we already judge as wrong. Instead, help your congregation see the insidious nature of these impulses in ourselves and our own worldview. Otherwise, the finger-pointing will continue.
Triumphalism is a powerful and dangerous drug, closely tied to self-righteousness. It feels so good to be right! To win! To know that God is on our side! Yay us! Boo everyone else! Endorphins pump through our bodies, creating a high we want to sustain.
Our Christian history demonstrates that triumphalism is our besetting sin. It is a subtle and short step from rejoicing in the good news of Jesus Christ to attacking those who will not share in it. Our history shows that when we have the power to harm others we consider outside our circle of triumph, we are likely to use it. And Jesus will have none of it.
Jesus’ answer is to rebuke his disciples and then instruct them to get on with the work of the gospel. “They went on to another village.” Jesus won’t let James and John stop to argue or entrench themselves there. This isn’t a contest to see who wins. Jesus says: move on! He will give this instruction again in the next chapter.
Next, Jesus details further demands upon his followers. When his disciples want to finger-point, Jesus instead requires them to examine their own life commitments, calling all who follow him to order their priorities so that their lives are radically free to follow him (verses 57-62).
As a preacher, you can offer this very practical pivot as a strategy for today: when we are tempted to focus on how right we are and how wrong others are, pause and pay attention to this impulse as a red flag. The impulse to attack tells us that, according to Jesus, we must do a full 180-degree pivot, turning our gaze from “the other” to examining ourselves instead. We must ask: To what am I attached today that keeps me from following Jesus fully and freely?
Amy G. Oden is Visiting Professor of Early Church History and Spirituality at Saint Paul School of Theology. Her work brings ancient voices into conversation about faith and life today. Her most recent book is Right Here, Right Now: The Practice of Christian Mindfulness(Abingdon Press, (2017).