S. Pentecost 6.16 “Slowly Sainted” Luke 9:51-62, I Kings 19
There is a Far Side cartoon that has inspired me far more than it should. These two gorillas are sitting next to an enormous pile of banana peels, their stomachs greatly distended from overeating. One gorilla says to the other. “Sid, I really like bananas. Heck, I know that’s nothing profound or anything. I mean, we all do. But for me, I think it goes much more beyond this.” It’s good we don’t have video screens in our sanctuary because I’d be powerfully tempted to put it up there for you—the picture worth a thousand words, you know. Which is why it is very good, right, and salutary that we do not have video screens in our sanctuary.
In our Gospel this morning, we can see that James and John really looked up to Elijah, the great Old Testament prophet famous for calling down fire from heaven to win the life or death contest with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, and then later, Elijah called down fire from heaven to consume a couple hundred soldiers who were threatening his life. Now, James and John liked Elijah. Heck, that’s nothing profound or anything. I mean, we all do. But for them (as for me) I think it goes much more beyond this…
If I have a favorite part of a favorite Gospel (oooh, tough call! because I like all the Gospels, a lot) it might be this scene here at the beginning of our Gospel this morning. I could sit and contemplate this scene for hours and be very, very happy. And paired with our Old Testament reading, and Elijah storming off to Mt. Carmel (I think in a Jonah-like huff, not because he’s scared of Jezebel, but because he’s sick of seeing essentially clueless Israel let off; so he’s quitting this prophet thing, but figures that quitting God’s call is like quitting the Mafia. They will find you. And kill you. Still, Elijah is prepared!). Wow. All I can say is that heaven will be like this, for me, at least, I think/hope—a place to hang out with Elijah, James, John and marvel over stuff like this, and wonder why guys like us get to go to heaven at all and what a marvelous practical joke this is. I delight in these parts of the Scriptures where the prophets and the apostles, Heroes of the Faith, do stuff that is very unheroic, or actually downright clueless, showing that they don’t really get Jesus very well at all, what He’s up to, what He’s all about.
The first sermon I ever preached was on (my confirmation verse?) 2 Kings 2:23ff, Elisha commanding the two she-bears to maul 42 children who were making fun of his encroaching baldness. All the students at my div school had to preach one chapel sermon to the whole school, on any text they chose. Faculty voted at year end and the sermon deemed “best in class” won a large cash prize. That text just spoke to my heart—and I’m still sinfully proud of that sermon…
It was a simple sermon to write. I just flipped back and forth for the congregation from the conventional idea of saint (like, Mother Theresa) to this picture of the thin skinned prophet Elisha mauling children with bears. How can these two images possibly fit together?!? What in the world is the takeaway from that?! If you read in the paper that Mother Theresa was cornered in a Calcutta back alley by a gang of street toughs, and she surprised them by producing a .45 caliber automatic and gunning down 12 of the boys, would her sainthood be revoked? I’m fairly sure it would have been. So what’s up with Elisha/Elijah/James/John? How is it they get to be saints when they do (or try) similar stuff? Easy to write. Fun to deliver. Somewhat shockingly to everyone, the President and Fellows of Yale University deemed it a Charles S. Mersick Prize winner too. You know, they really shouldn’t encourage people like me, like that, I think. Rebuke for that instead of praise might have steered me on a very different course in ministry. Oh, well, too late to change now. I squandered the cash, too…
Anyway, here are James and John, Apostles of Jesus Christ, on a mission from God to spread the good news to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. They come to this village of Samaritans (oddly, because Jesus had told them to just leave the Samaritans alone, but He was passing through there, and James and John were trying to help). The Samaritans would not receive Jesus though because His face was set for Jerusalem (whatever that means). And when James and John saw this, they said (and I think they had just been itching for this opportunity for like 2 and a half years, so they were ready): “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?”!
And I go, “Yes. That’s the spirit! That is so hilariously and delightfully clueless! How in the world did these guys get to be Apostles, right? They don’t get it. But… if they’re apostles maybe I could be a pastor? My heart is strangely warmed by Elijah and his antics, too. I think this little scene pulls back the curtain on apostolic holiness by showing us James’ and John’s heart. Everyone usually thinks they were in this apostle thing because their hearts were pure, they loved God, they loved their fellow man and they just wanted to go out there and do some good, make a difference!
And, uh, not exactly. They were in it for the fireworks, clearly. They must have figured something like: “Hey, this Guy is the Son of God. We are His sidekicks, better than the prophets. So… if Elijah got to call down fire from heaven and Elisha could command bears to maul kids, this is going to be awesome!” And when their time comes to cry havoc and unleash the dogs of war, Jesus says, “Uh, no. Let’s not. You guys just do not get what manner of spirit you are of! The Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them!” Duh!
“And they went to another village.” Wonderful end to the scene! No lectures. No tearful repentance. No hugging. No learning. The quarter doesn’t drop, yet. They go away sad and hoping for another chance to unleash destruction, maybe when Jesus is in a different, more stand-your-ground kind of mood?
But that day never comes, does it? “Love your enemies. Turn the other cheek. Do good to those who hate you. If they want your coat, give them your shirt too.” And we go, “But not if they’re like really bad people, right Jesus? Muslims, let’s say?” And Jesus goes “I’m going to start from the beginning, and tell Me where I lost you…”
The real joy of this story is that Jesus seats James and John on two of the twelve thrones, judging all Israel(!). He calls them friends and brothers and saints. And so do we. Because Jesus came to save sinners—the trigger happy, the clueless, the selfish, the stupid, the thin-skinned. In other words, people like us(!). He even nicknames James and John “Sons of Thunder” for this, just to have fun with it.
St. John would write, later: “If our heart condemns us, God is greater than our hearts.” And that’s the heart of the matter, right here: Jesus saves us not because we change. No, we change, finally, someday, because Jesus saved us when we aren’t worth saving at all! Saints are simply sinners—forgiven. It’s not our goodness; it’s His that saves. Following Jesus, Jesus putting up with our folly—it slowly saints us, by Word and Sacraments, through faith alone, so that Peace, surpassing all understanding, finally guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.