A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, June 30th, 2019
Luke tells us that, ‘a village of Samaritans … did not receive him [Jesus], because his face was set towards Jerusalem … [and] 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?”’ (9:53, 54)
Well, that’ll teach them to reject the Prince of Peace – we’ll rain fire down upon them from heaven until they are totally consumed. As my late mother might have said, “Let that be a lesson to them,” though, of course, a bit late in the day to do any good.
What on earth possessed James and John, two of Jesus’s closest disciples, to say something like that? In fact, “possessed” is an appropriate word to describe their attitude and suggestion, for Luke tells us that Jesus, ‘turned and rebuked them,’ (9:55) much as he was known to “rebuke” demons or unclean spirits. What had got into Jesus’s disciples that they had so soon forgotten his teaching to, ‘love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you,’ and, ‘pray for those who abuse you.’ (6:27, 28)
Saint Paul would probably have described it in this way: James and John had got wrapped up in ‘the works of the flesh’ (5:19) when they should have been filled with ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ (5:22).
Just to be clear, though, when Paul talks about ‘flesh’ and ‘spirit’ he is not talking about our bodies versus our souls (as though you could separate the two); not talking material things as being inferior to spiritual things (as though you could separate them). No! Paul is talking about different attitudes, a different focus, different perspectives, which then lead to particular actions. And in this part of the, sometimes angry, letter he wrote to Christians in Galatia (somewhere in modern-day Turkey) Paul was addressing a long list of wrong attitudes and actions – ‘works of the flesh’ – that included enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions and factions.
So you can see why Paul might have said that Jesus’s disciples, John and James, were wrapped up in works of the flesh. They were completely caught up in all that was wrong in the relationship between Samaritans and Jews. There are differences of opinion about the history and identity of the Samaritans. Some say that they were descendants of Jews who were left behind in Palestine during the period of Jewish exile in Babylon. Whatever the case, there were differences, dissensions and difficulty in the relationship between Samaritans and Jews – people like James, John and Jesus.
A lot of the argument took place over the question of the proper location of the central place to worship God. Jews looked only to Jerusalem whilst Samaritans had their shrine at Gerizim: ‘our ancestors worshipped on this mountain but you [Jews] say that the place where people must worship is Jerusalem,’ said a Samaritan woman to Jesus when he asked for some water from a well. (John 4:20)
In fact, that’s exactly why this Samaritan village rejected Jesus when his messengers came to announce his arrival. Luke tells us, ‘but they did not receive him because his face was set towards Jerusalem.’ (9:53) You can just imagine how that went down with two good Jewish boys like James and John. It was the religious red rag to the bull. Not only do these people, these Samaritans, insist on worshipping in the wrong place, but now they have the cheek to reject our rabbi because he is doing the right thing. He is journeying to the only true place of worship: Jerusalem. These Samaritans need to be taught a lesson that they won’t forget in a hurry – so bring on the fire from heaven, that’s what we say … though maybe we should check with Jesus first.
Now all of this would be little more than a mildly interesting case study of religious differences in the ancient world if religious and social enmity, strife, and jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions and factions, were limited to Samaritan villages and Galatian churches of two thousand years ago. Such things, however, are all too apparent today, between cultures, between religions, and within religions themselves.
Think, for example, of today’s enmity and quarrels, between the USA and Iran, with its toxic historical mix of religion, empire and oil-fuelled economics. Think of the strife that continues today in the land that features in our Gospel reading; Jews, Muslims and Christians tugging back and forward over the land of Palestine and Israel. Look at the tensions and conflict between Hindu and Muslim, both within India, and between India and Pakistan. Consider the factions and anger that feature within the life of the world’s religions – between Sunni and Shia in Islam; between Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox within Christianity.
There are even rumours that such ‘works of the flesh’ as the jealousy, and anger, quarrels, dissensions and factions that exist within religions in general can also be found at a local level within some Christian Church congregations – though surely never within our own!
So what’s to be done about it? Well, first, as Jesus makes clear to James and John, and in no uncertain terms, we’re not supposed to just give in to such things. Disagreement with someone, even concerning things you hold dear, including issues of faith, are not the occasion for, and do not give us permission to indulge in, what Paul calls, ‘works of the flesh’, such as enmity, strife and jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions and factions. As far as these things are concerned, ‘Just say, “No!”.’
The problem with that, though, is that experience shows that campaigns for public good based solely on “just say no” … don’t work, or do so only in a limited way. Despite being told not to do these things, people go on doing them anyway. There is something in us that pushes us in the direction of wrong doing, and no amount of being told not to do it succeeds in stopping us. As St Paul said elsewhere, ‘I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate … now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.’ (Romans 7:15, 20)
So, we are not going to be perfect, but we could do better, and we will be helped to do so if there something positive to accompany the negative message of “just say no”. And so, in addition to what Paul warning about ‘works’ of the flesh, he also commends their positive counterpart; what he calls, ‘fruit of the Spirit’; things that James and John could have done with have a good dose of; qualities that would also benefit us, guarding us against enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions and factions.
‘By contrast,’ writes Paul, ‘the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. There is no law against such things.’ (5:22) Imagine how different the situation would have been had James and John been filled by these qualities.
Not been given the answer you want? Be patient. Disagree on the best way and the best place to worship? Be generous about the views and arguments of others. Someone does or says something that really riles you up? You could ‘command fire’ from heaven to fall upon them, as James and John propose, under the illusion that they or we can command anything from heaven, command God, rather than humbly request it. On the other hand, if you are filled with God’s Spirit so as to overflow with peace and self-control, then, James and John, you will respond in a more Jesus-like way.
There is a phrase that appears twice in today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel and once in our reading from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. That phrase is, “the kingdom of God”. In Luke, as Jesus, along with James, John and the other disciples continues along his way, leaving behind the village that rejected him, there’s conversation about priorities in living the Christian life, and in what’s involved in following Jesus. Jesus says that the primary task of his followers is to, ‘proclaim the kingdom of God,’ (9:60) and that you need to keep focused on him if you are to be ‘fit for the kingdom of God.’ (9:62) Then, in his Letter to the Galatians, Paul warns them that those who practice these ‘works of the flesh’ ‘will not inherit the kingdom of God.’ (5:21)
Now, the phrase, ‘the kingdom of God’ is not so much intended to describe a geographical location, like Gerizim or Jerusalem. It’s less to be understood as the place where God is to be found than as being about God’s rule or God’s action. Where people are acting in particular ways … there is the kingdom of God for all to see. There’s a negative way of describing this in terms of what it is not. So, talking about enmity, strife, dissensions and the like, Paul says, ‘those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.’ (5:21)
But then he says, ‘by contrast’ (5:22), ‘the fruit of the Spirit is these things.’ ‘Works of the flesh’ are not in the kingdom of God, so, ‘by contrast’, ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – is of the kingdom of God. This is the way that God works, not through enmity, jealousy, anger, and the rest, but through such things as love, joy and peace.
So any society, any religion, any Christian congregation, such as ours; any person, such as you and me, will benefit from putting the focus as much or more upon what we should be doing, as upon the things we should avoid. When, as individuals or as a congregation, we are confronted with situations and choices in life, it’s useful to remember what we should not do, and it’s vital to remember what we should do.
Imagine what our country would look like if we tried to build its life, its structures and its institutions, upon the basis of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Imagine if these ‘fruit of the Spirit’ were the consciously and explicitly chosen values characterising the life of our church; its meetings and its ministries.
‘The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. There is no law against such things,’ writes Saint Paul. (5:22, 23) In fact, practise these and we’ll be building the kingdom on God, in our land, in our church and into our lives.
So, may God give us the wisdom and strength to do just that. Amen.