THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Prayer of the Day: Sovereign God, ruler of all hearts, you call us to obey you, and you favor us with true freedom. Keep us faithful to the ways of your Son, that, leaving behind all that hinders us, we may steadfastly follow your paths, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. 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?’ But he turned and rebuked them.” Luke 9:51-55.
“A religious community that believes itself to be in possession of ‘The Truth’ is a community equipped with the most lethal weapon of any warfare: the sense of its own superiority and mandate to mastery.” Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context, (c. 2003 Augsburg Fortress).
Religious violence is as old as living memory. Indeed, the very first murder recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures arouse out of a dispute over how God should be worshiped. See Genesis 4:1-16. That same dispute lay at the heart of the mutual antipathy between Jews and Samaritans. In spite of their mutual hatred, Jews and Samaritans had much in common. Both were Israelites. Both claimed lineage from Sarah and Abraham. They shared the same language and the same scriptures. Both had far more in common with each other than either had with the Roman overlords enslaving them. But for 1st century Jews, the holy city of Jerusalem and its temple was the locus of worship. For Samaritans, their own temple on Mount Gerizim was the location chosen by God for a holy temple. The depth of Jewish animosity toward Samaritans is reflected in at least one daily prayer used in some synagogues pleading for God to ensure that Samaritans not enter into eternal life. Ellis, E. Earle, The Gospel of Luke, The New Century Bible Commentary, (c. 1974 Marshall, Morgan & Scott) p. 151 citing Oesterley, W.O.E., The Gospel Parallels in the Light of their Jewish Background, New York, 1936, p. 162. Of course, the Samaritans were equally ill disposed toward Jews. Jews and Samaritans each regarded themselves exclusively as the one true Israel; therefore, the very existence of each constituted an existential threat to the other.
It always seems that religious hatred is most intense among those whose ties are closest. The carnage between Sunni and Shiite Muslims is far greater than between Muslims and Christians. Witness the savagery between Irish Catholics and Irish protestants. Catholics persecuted Lutherans and Calvinists during the Reformation. Once we protestants established our own territories, we returned the favor within our borders. In a rare show of Reformation era protestant-catholic ecumenism, we both persecuted the anabaptists and all of us persecuted the Jews.
I think that part of what lies at the base of all this blood letting is a deep insecurity on our part. I see it frequently in the urgent insistence of some of my more conservative leaning friends that “there is no salvation outside the church” and that only those “who have accepted Jesus as Savior can be saved.” “If we compromise on that,” one colleague told me, “then there is no point in the church. No point in evangelism. No point in anything.” For this pastor, faith in Jesus was a zero sum game; an all or nothing proposition. If we make room for other faiths or recognize the value of life without religious faith-we undermine our certainty and lose our own faith. It therefore becomes imperative to win outsiders over, give them up for lost or perhaps annihilate them.
Sadly, a zealous evangelical concern for the “lost” can easily mutate into zeal for their destruction. Such was the case for my church’s reluctant namesake, Martin Luther. Early in his career, Luther expressed sympathy and compassion for the Jews and decried their mistreatment by the medieval church. He was convinced that, once the threat of persecution was removed and the Jews were allowed to hear the gospel in its purity, they would flock to the church. When that didn’t happen, Luther turned on the Jews with a vengeance. Luther’s vitriolic rhetoric against the Jews and his calls for violence against them remains a scandal and an embarrassment to his spiritual descendants down to this very day.
James and John seem to be having a similar reaction to the Samaritans. These people were offered the Truth. They rejected the Truth. So let’s “nuke ‘em.” But Jesus takes a different view. Though the Samaritan villagers reject him, he will not reject them. Judgement belongs to God and, as the prophet Jonah had to learn, judgment, justice and righteousness often look quite a bit different from God’s perspective than from our own limited understanding. Faith and salvation are not inseparably linked to discipleship. When Jesus encountered a gentile Roman soldier who likely knew nothing about Israel’s God and turned to Jesus looking only for compassion on his servant, Jesus marveled at this pagan’s faith. When Jesus was informed that a man not among his disciples was performing exorcisms in his name, he would not allow his disciples to hinder him. “Whoever is not against us is for us,” says Jesus. Mark 9:40. All whose lives and work bear witness to the ways of God’s gentle reign are allies of Jesus-whether they recognize it, understand it, acknowledge it or not.
It is helpful to remember that disciples are called to be witnesses to the truth. It is not the role of a witness to persuade. That belongs to the advocates. It is not for the witness to decide the case. That is for the judge. As witnesses, “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” Acts 4:20. The rest belongs to God.
Furthermore, what we have heard and seen, wonderful as it surely is, does not constitute the entirety of what can be said of God’s saving work. As Jesus reminded us two weeks ago, we do not yet have “all” the truth. John 16:13. Indeed, it is presumptuous for us to imagine that we can ever “have’ the Truth. But Jesus assures us that the Truth has a hold on us. We need to be led each day ever deeper into that Truth which is God. It should not surprise us that, as we grow ever deeper in our understanding of God’s Triune life, we discover more evidence of God’s working in the lives of God’s people, especially those whose understandings differ from our own. We can marvel and wonder, but never doubt that God is at work in every corner of the universe reconciling creation, filling its cracks and healing its fractures with the love which the Father has for the Son from eternity. It is not for us to short circuit that long and loving process by forcefully converting, dismissing or purging people who, from our limited perspective, seem not to fit.
Here is a poem by the Muslim poet, Mahmoud Darwish, reflecting on his sojourn in the City of Jerusalem, holy to Jews, Christians and his own faith tradition. Listen for the mixture of Jewish, Christian and Islamic images over against the harsh reality of occupation. Can you hear the sound of God’s reign struggling to be born?
In Jerusalem, and I mean within the ancient walls,
I walk from one epoch to another without a memory
to guide me. The prophets over there are sharing
the history of the holy … ascending to heaven
and returning less discouraged and melancholy, because love
and peace are holy and are coming to town.
I was walking down a slope and thinking to myself: How
do the narrators disagree over what light said about a stone?
Is it from a dimly lit stone that wars flare up?
I walk in my sleep. I stare in my sleep. I see
no one behind me. I see no one ahead of me.
All this light is for me. I walk. I become lighter. I fly
then I become another. Transfigured. Words
sprout like grass from Isaiah’s messenger
mouth: “If you don’t believe you won’t be safe.”
I walk as if I were another. And my wound a white
biblical rose. And my hands like two doves
on the cross hovering and carrying the earth.
I don’t walk, I fly, I become another,
transfigured. No place and no time. So who am I?
I am no I in ascension’s presence. But I
think to myself: Alone, the prophet Muhammad
spoke classical Arabic. “And then what?”
Then what? A woman soldier shouted:
Is that you again? Didn’t I kill you?
I said: You killed me … and I forgot, like you, to die.
Source: The Butterfly’s Burden. (c. 2008 by Mahmoud Darwish, translated into English by Fady Joudah and pub. by Copper Canyon Press). Mahmoud Darwish (1942-2008) was a Palestinian poet and author. He was born in al-Birwa, Galilee, a village that was occupied and later destroyed by the Israeli army. Darwish lived for many years in exile in Beirut and Paris. He is the author of over thirty books of poetry and eight books of prose. He won numerous awards for his works. Darwish used Palestine as a metaphor for the biblical themes of losing Eden, of birth and of resurrection. He sees in the suffering of his people the biblical anguish of dispossession and exile. Darwish also served as an editor for several literary magazines in Israel. You can read more about Mahmoud Darwish and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.