The Gospel today is a bit over the top. I told a couple people this week that we get mean Jesus today, not the loving, compassionate Jesus that we like. Maybe Jesus was just having a bad day. Whatever it is, since it’s written in the Gospel, we’re left to wrestle with it. That’s a good thing for us to do – wrestle with scripture, especially scripture we don’t like. It would be naive for us to only read and look at passages we were comfortable with, and doing that would kinda go against everything Jesus was about. Jesus certainly wasn’t about making sure people were comfortable. In fact, he made a lot of people quite uncomfortable, and still does today, even almost 2000 years after his death.
“Let the dead bury their own dead.” “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Even the apostle Paul’s “those who do such things and live by the flesh will not inherit the kingdom of God.” These are all extremes today, and they make us uncomfortable. They wake us up a bit and pay attention. This isn’t where I’m going to spend most of my time today, but I want to say something briefly because this theme will return. It’s thought that the phrase, “Let the dead bury their own dead” means “let the spiritually dead bury the physically dead.” Jesus is only interested in true discipleship in this passage, so he’s calling all those who have pledged to follow him to leave behind everything. Following Jesus is to put the way of Jesus, the way of discipleship, above everything else. I’ll return to this theme later.
Where I want to focus today is on the disciples’ question to Jesus. At the beginning we hear that he needed to travel through Samaria and he was not received. And so the disciples ask Jesus if they can command fire to come down and consume them. Talk about extremes. Think about it though, we’ve all felt that rise in our gut when someone rejects us and our core beliefs. We feel defensive, like we’re being rejected as a person. And what do we do? We don’t often stop at just feeling the feelings, we go on the attack. We feel a need to show how the other person is wrong or misguided, even unfaithful. Professor Amy Oden wrote about this, and she pointed out that “if we have structural or institutional power, we may move to shut them down and “command fire to come down from heaven and consume them” figuratively if not literally. If we have military or political power, we may use it to harm and punish.”
Maybe now we can sense a little of what was behind James and John and their suggestion. While it doesn’t justify their interest in violence, it makes sense to us that they would seek to defend their beliefs, and defend Jesus, after being rejected. It makes sense that they would even go to such extremes to seek defense.
We can see this activity in our modern-day life. If you’ve ever been told to never read the comments on Facebook, or Twitter, or news articles, or anything else, now you have: don’t read the comment section. Because this is often what’s going on there. People going back and forth feeling attacked and going on the offensive, and usually being quite mean, and sometimes to extremes. In our polarized political world, we’ve come to the point of wanting the other party, or at least the voters who disagree with me, to get what’s coming to them. We rage about their ignorance or lack of compassion or openness, or maybe we rage about their lack of standing up for what we believe to be true. And we feel like we must be the “right” ones. It’s hard for us to see that someone who disagrees with us might be right too, or that sometimes there might not always be a right and wrong, just differences. We get so caught up in our own feelings of being offended or rejected and we want to attack those that we think caused those feelings.
This happens in churches too, or across denominations. We are sure Lutheranism is the best kind of Christianity, and sometimes maybe we would go on the attack about other denominations and say things like “oh, those Catholics just don’t get it,” or “those Baptists just don’t get it.” Now I’m sure none of you would ever do that. 🙂 The truth is that we’ve all done it. Whether about our religion or our politics or something else. I know it’s easier to blame the other side – to say that they’re the ones doing it, they are attacking me – but we need to be aware that we do the same thing. We’re a bunch of people feeling defensive volleying back and forth our need to belong and feel affirmed.
There’s another aspect to this game. Triumphalism. Triumphalism is the attitude or belief that one particular belief, doctrine, religion, culture, or social system is superior and should triumph over others. “[It] is a powerful and dangerous drug [that is] closely tied to self-righteousness.” (Oden) It’s easily identified in sports, where we gloat when our rival loses. It feels good to be right and to win. Sometimes we believe we won because God is on our side and not on that of our opponents’. “Yay us! Boo everyone else! The endorphins pump through our bodies and create a high we want to sustain.” (Oden)
Triumphalism has shown up throughout our Christian history. The Crusades come to mind quickly, where Christians believed that they are right, and everyone else is wrong, and they deserve to die because of it. Many of our missionary work of the past sits here, in the spot of “we are right, and we need all these native peoples to believe what we believe, and if they don’t we will kill them.” “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.” (Oden) This sense that someone needs to die because they disagree with me is dangerous, and it’s poisoning our world.
This is where we meet the disciples today. They believe they are right – they are with Jesus after all – but they want to bring demise on the people who reject them. And Jesus will have none of it. Jesus turns and rebukes them. He expresses his sharp disapproval and criticizes them. And he leads them onto another village, getting onto the work of the gospel – of preaching good news and healing and teaching and loving. The Gospel doesn’t clue us in on James and John’s response. As far as the text is concerned, Jesus doesn’t let them argue for it. He knows this isn’t a contest to see who wins. More or less he tells them to move on. The disciples didn’t get it anyway – Jesus is only about his mission within the kingdom of God of spreading the good news. Nothing must get in the way of that. But Jesus isn’t willing to engage in triumphalism and wish harm upon those who disagree with him.
This Gospel calls us to account this morning. It calls us both to be aware of when we are at risk of practicing triumphalism, and it calls us to radical discipleship. We need to examine our own life commitments, and reorder our priorities so we are free to follow Jesus. We need to remember that whenever we draw a line, Jesus is on the other side.
“When we are tempted to focus on how right we are and how wrong others are, [we can] pause and pay attention to this impulse as a red flag. The impulse to attack tells us that, according to Jesus, we must to 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?” (Oden)
Jesus has come to call you and gives you freedom, the kind of freedom where not even death has the power to destroy or hold back. This path of discipleship is not an easy one, but it’s one that will make us better people if we are brave enough to let go of our need to be right and just follow Jesus.
The article that inspired me for this sermon, by Prof. Amy Oden on this text, can be found here.