Last week I began by asking you a question of how do you deal with your problems. The context was the demon possessed man who was deemed too difficult to deal with so they dealt with their problem by putting him in shackles and then sent him off into the tombs to live. Out of sight out of mind. Today a different question is put to us – how do we deal with problem makers. When Jesus was confronted with rejection, his disciples, James and John, wanted to deal with the problem maker in their unique way – “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But Jesus did not agree with their solution and turned and rebuked them.
Jesus rejects retaliation or violence as a response to problem makers and calls on us to do likewise. And in this reading we can see the real problem when we become judge, jury and executioner. The problem – when Jesus arrived the people did not welcome him. James and John’s response – let’s command fire to come down from heaven and destroy them. This is always the problem with human response by responding with retaliation.
How can you compare being not accepted with having fire coming down from heaven and destroying you. Jesus deals with this in the Sermon on the Mount when he says – “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell … if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. Because it doesn’t usually end up being one eye for one eye. Even if retaliation could be meted out equally it doesn’t solve the problem. You hit me – I hit you back: It doesn’t stop there. As we find in war situations – that’s only the beginning. You come in with soldiers – we’ll come in with tanks. You see it in sport so often. A footy player roughly tackles his opposition player. He retaliates – and next moment every player on the field runs over and gets involved. That’s human nature – that’s what James and John example.
Again, we see in Paul’s writings concerning retaliation and warning against human retaliation: In Roman’s 12 he writes: Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Paul knows that God’s wrath is justice and not revenge. How amazing it would be if this is what the church was known for? Being at peace with everyone. If our enemy is hungry, feed him and give him drink for his thirst. It’s interesting that Paul doesn’t say – you shouldn’t have enemies. I guess that’s something that is part of our fallen world – but we don’t have to live as enemies but live in peace and love. As Jesus said before his arrest – a new Commandment I give to you – love one another as I have loved you and by this everyone will know that you are my disciples. And that’s exactly what Paul said today – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
That’s how we end wars and fighting and “devouring one another” – through love. And that’s not the end of it, Paul says.
When we move away from the standard of love it is replaced by destructive behaviour such as – fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. Love was put in place by God to give us protection. God has given us love as a means to control our evil and destructive behaviours. And we’re not talking about the airy fairy love that we hear in our pop songs or the Hollywood image of love. No, this is a serious and deep life changing love that we are called to example: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Note that Paul refers to them as the fruit of the Spirit – not fruits of the Spirit. We don’t choose one of them – they are all part of the life of a growing Christian.
Just like fruit continues to grow and ripen so too these are to continue to grow in us but once a fruit drops from the tree – the source and energizer of love – it begins to decay and rot. And so too we are to continue to remain in Christ because our human nature will want to continue to move us back to those destructive behaviours that Paul listed. And we saw that in James and John and their response that didn’t show love or joy. It didn’t show peace or patience in those who rejected them. It didn’t show kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness – and certainly not self-control.
Love is hard work. Just look at love at work: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. Again, James and John did not show that to those who rejected Jesus. Love shows itself in ways that go way beyond human behaviour. As Paul says – God demonstrates his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. As Jesus exampled on the cross to those crucifying him – forgive them Father for they know not what they are doing. So different to Zechariah’s dying words in the Old Testament – Zechariah’s last words as he died were, “May the Lord see what they are doing and avenge my death!”
We don’t want to go back to that thought of thinking. Jesus has freed us from that desire for comeuppance.
And thankfully Christ has freed us from receiving our comeuppance – what we deserve. As Paul says – For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. As Jesus went to the cross he called on his disciples, you and me to pick up our cross and follow him. And sometimes that cross is to bear the burden of forgiveness for the sake of the Gospel, as Jesus exampled from the cross. Sometimes our best efforts are ignored and rejected and when that happens then Jesus also gave us the example in today’s Gospel reading: they went on to another village. The book of Proverbs has very sound advice in this situation also: Do not say, “I’ll pay you back for this wrong!” Wait for the Lord, and he will avenge you. Or as Paul says in 1 Corinthians – Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?
What would James and John have achieved by calling down fire and consuming them?
Now they have another opportunity to go back later and share the Gospel when the time is right. Now they have something to pray about. Let us also see rejection and injustice as an opportunity to pray and give an example of love and, as Peter says, always be prepared to give the reason for the hope we have with gentleness and respect.