Jesus is constantly reshaping the thinking and actions of his followers. They/we are works in progress. The work is never done. In this passage, Jesus is making his way towards Jerusalem and the cross. On the way, he makes preparations for a visit to a Samaritan town, but he is not welcomed.
So James and John, these sons of Thunder (Mark 3:17), were not going to take this. This was simply wrong! So they asked, if, in good Elijah and Mt Carmel style (1 Kings 18), they could rain down fire from heaven! They must have played with matches as kids. Jesus said no. This is not the way disciples of Jesus act.
The next section focuses on the call to discipleship. Unlike James and John who want to wipe out anyone who looks at them cross-eyed, Jesus reminds his people that following him means going the way of humility, servanthood, the cross. Followers of Jesus do no seek fire from heaven, but rather move from place to place being a blessing. It got me thinking. What defines us as followers of Jesus?
I just finished reading Christopher Hitchens’ new book: god is not Great: how Religion Poisons Everything. It is a best seller and a sad book for me to read. This is but one of a number of books on the market right now that seek to debunk the deity (Wall Street Journal 6/22/07 Page B1). The other books are: Dawkins, The God Delusion; Harris, Letters to a Christian Nation; Dennet, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon; and, Stenger, God: The Failed Hypothesis, How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist. I think these books are a reaction to an over the top, in your face type of religion that is prevalent on our culture. We see this in politics (national and international), issues of health (euthanasia, abortion, stem cell research) , gender identity and relationships (homosexuality), and science (creation/evolution debate in schools and other sectors).
Hitchens’ book rants on about the bad things that have been done in the name of religion. He also seeks to tear apart Jewish, Christian, and Muslim sacred writings. He has an angry tone. He is opinionated, whimsical, and quite harsh. He writes with a broad stroke full of generalizations and one-sided views. He attacks with a broad stroke. He is wrong, in my mind, in a lot of places. But in other places, he makes sense and I agree with him. Religion has poisoned a lot of things. A whole lot of bad has been done, and continues to be done in the name of religion.
By the way, I just read another book John Caputo’s On Religion. In this book, Caputo advocates for a religion beyond religion (sounds like Bonhoeffer). He calls for a religion beyond religion that is simply based on the love of God. For him the opposite of a religious person is a loveless person. Caputo says that having a religious sense of life is a basic structure of life. It is not about organized religion as much as it is about faith, and hope and love. Caputo says that religion is for the unhinged (for those who love). I liked this book. Caputo deals with religion in categories that are foreign to Hitchens and these other deity deny-ers. The way Caputo looks at religion (others would call this “spirituality”) offers a way forward. I wish that Caputo and Hitchens would sit down and chat.
There are too many similarities between James and John and us. We like to reign down fire from heaven. We like to get back at those who do us, or our cause, or our God wrong. We continue with that sense of triumphalism. We take the gospel into the whole world. We show people the way of Jesus. We invite people to follow…or else! That is the fire from heaven.
Jesus redirects our thinking. He calls us to follow his way. According to Jesus we are defined not by fire from heaven, or by poison religions, but rather by the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor…(Matthew 5). Our task is to live lives of generosity and blessing. Followers of Jesus smile, and offer a hand. Followers of Jesus do this because unlike Hutchens’ god, there is a God who loves this world, and wants the best for this world, and redirects humans from crazy notions of fire from heaven, to live out a life service and grace.