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The question of enemies and friends, allies and opponents is never far from current human affairs. Those of us who stand outside conflicts between different peoples find it hard to understand such differences. Locked in the cage that is Gaza, Palestinians of the Fatah and Hamas factions seem intent on mutual destruction when they desparately need to stand together for survival. Closer to home, there seems to have been plenty of controversy when Gordon Brown attempted to recruit people of a different party into his team. Was it genuine openness to the contributions of non-Labour party members, or was it the cynical move of a cunning politician? Time may tell in the long run!

Face towards Jerusalem
Enmity between the different peoples or groups in the Bible is something we may find difficult to understand. We have to work hard to appreciate the emotional resonance of the terms “Samaritan” and “Jew”. Once we know a little of the background to their animosity we can appreciate a little of the strength of feeling in today’s gospel reading. Luke tells us how, “when the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Walking through potentially hostile territory, the disciples must have felt nervous and wary, as they followed their master on a journey that was full of foreboding from the first footfall. Normally, Galilean Jews, making pilgrimage to Jerusalem, would skirt around the edge of Samaritan territory on their way to the Temple mount which Samaritans rejected as the sole place of valid worship. But on this last journey to his death, Jesus made his way through Samaria.

A year ago I made a ten day walking pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Some people ask me about accommodation. Where did I stay and was there always a place for me each night? Pilgrims are treated with respect and hospitality on the Camino de Santiago. But on one occasion Jesus and his disciples did not find a ready welcome. Tired and in need of somewhere to find shelter and nourishment, and feeling edgy being in hostile territory, James and John, Jesus’ closest henchmen, openly declare their fear and anger. Previously they had been given power for exorcism, healing and to declare the presence of the Kingdom of God. They had been told to expect free provision, not needing to take their supplies during their mission. Previously, James, Peter and John had been on the mount of Transfiguration with Jesus, having privileged access to extraordinary experiences. So their response to being rejected may have been consistent with their earlier experiences: “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”

Hand to the Plough
Jesus’ response was to rebuke them. Once more they had misunderstood his way. Peter had been rebuked for challenging Jesus’ necessary suffering. The disciples were rebuked from time to time for their lack of faith or their slowness to grasp Jesus’ true mission. The misunderstanding was this: calling down fire from heaven was significant in two ways in the OT. In some cases it refers to judgement, as when Elijah called down fire from heaven to destroy opponents or when Sodom was consumed in the same way. In other cases fire came from heaven to consume a prepared sacrifice, as with Moses, Elijah or Solomon, amongst others. James and John thought that the fire of judgement was appropriate on this occasion because they had been rejected. But animosity towards Samaritans was also mixed in with their sense of righteous indignation. Their motives were not pure.

Jesus rebuked them and they went on to another village. Luke’s next episode may seem at first sight to have little connection with the previous episode apart from being further scenes from the last journey to Jerusalem. Closer inspection helps us to see that Luke is making a point about the reason for Jesus setting his face to go to Jerusalem. Various individuals volunteer to follow Jesus and he points out to them what it might cost them. “You may not find a place to stay if you come along with me!” or “Coming with me means re-ordering your priorities in life – my mission involves leaving home with all its ties and obligations.” The point is this: when the Son of Man is turned away from a village because he is on his way to a place that is unacceptable to the people of that village, fire from heaven is on its way. But the fire from heaven that will come is not the fire that destroys sinners or Samaritans in judgement. This kind of fire from heaven is that which consumes a sacrifice prepared and acceptable to God.

Now it becomes clearer: Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem where he will be sacrificed. Whilst literal fire will not come from heaven, Jesus’ sacrifice of himself on the cross will be the perfectly acceptable sacrifice to fulfil and complete all sacrifice. Thus all difference between Samaritan and Jew will be transcended by Jesus. Although Jesus must go to Jerusalem, in order to fulfil the expectations of Jewish sacrifice, he is sacrificed outside Jerusalem, not in the Temple rejected by Samaritans. After Pentecost the good news of Jesus would be preached throughout Judea and Samaria and people of both sides of the divide would come to believe and rejoice in Jesus.

We have moved a long way from a society where ritual sacrifice has emotional or cultural resonance. Fire from heaven may puzzle us. What has not changed is that we experience estrangement and enmity. We experience rifts in family relationships and breakdowns in friendships. We know of rivalries in workplace, leisure pursuits or neighbourhoods. The challenge of Jesus comes to us afresh: our feelings of fear or anger can never be justified by wanting to call down judgement on our opponents, to have them apologise or be clearly shown to be in the wrong. With our hand to the plough we are called to leave behind the divisions and conflicts we experience and look towards him who brings us together in things that matter far more and makes us fit for the Kingdom of God, ready to receive Pentecostal fire from heaven.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith



Almighty God,
you search us and know us;
we rely on you in strength
and rest on you in weakness,
now and in all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.