Conversations with Jesus:
James and John and Violence in the Kingdom of God
Pastor Gary Chorpenning
A sermon preached at
Venice Presbyterian Church
Cecil Township, PA
We’re living in difficult and unpredictable times. I’ll admit that I had a different sermon planned for today, but the events at the U. S. Capitol this week have caused me to adjust my preaching plans some. Actually, I have a whole series of sermons planned out right up to Easter. Twelve sermons in one series! That’s a long sermon series—maybe the longest I’ve ever planned. It better be a good series, or you all are in for one long haul.
I’m calling the series, “Conversations with Jesus.” It’s not exactly a poetic title, but it’s a pretty straightforward description of what the series will be about. The gospels tell us about quite a few conversations that Jesus had with a wide variety of individuals—people who knew who he was and loved him, people who couldn’t figure him out, and people who hated him. I think those conversations are interesting, and each one reveals some important things about who Jesus is and what he is doing in the world.
I had planned to start out with Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, but something traumatic happened in Washington, DC this past week. And that event is really on most people’s minds right now. But just because something has happened that lots of people are thinking about, doesn’t mean I’m necessarily going to change my preaching plans. There was a very—well, in my opinion—a very shameful political event that happened in Washington, DC. But if it were just a political event—shameful or otherwise, I don’t think I would have changed my sermon for it. But what happened in the U. S. Capitol building this past Wednesday was not just a political event. Some of what happened in the U. S. Capitol this week involves the name of Jesus, and it involves the mission of the Church. And the followers of Jesus had better get their heads—and hearts—straight about these matters. Otherwise, the mission of Christ in America is in deep trouble.
As I was thinking through all of this, God brought this passage from Luke’s gospel to my mind. Luke tells us about how Jesus and his disciples were traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem. The northern territory of Galilee, where Jesus was from, was populated almost entirely by Jewish people, and the province of Judea to the south, where Jerusalem was located, was also populated almost entirely by Jews. But in between these two regions, there was an area called Samaria. Samaria was populated not by Jews but by an ethnic group called—you guessed it—Samaritans. Samaritans were not Jews, but then there weren’t exactly Gentiles either. In any case, there was a deep ethnic bigotry between Jews and Samaritans. They mostly hated each other deeply.
Generally, in those days, Jews traveling between Galilee and Judea would take a long detour to the east in order to avoid going through Samaria. But we know from the Gospels that Jesus often chose to go take the short route and travel straight through Samaria. In this case, that’s just was Jesus and his disciples were doing. They were passing through Samaria on their way from Galilee to Jerusalem.
Luke tells us in this passage that as they approached one of the Samaritan villages, the people of that town refused to welcome Jesus into their town. James and John were deeply offended by this rejection of Jesus. “Who were these filthy Samaritans to be rejecting Jesus?” And so, James and John asked Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to destroy them?”
Often, when preachers preach this passage, sometimes we tend to sort of make fun of James and John, the ones Jesus’ nicknamed, “the Sons of Thunder.” We chuckle and say something like, “There they go, those big talking thunderers.” I mean, after all, did they think it was an easy thing to call down fire from heaven? Had they done that often? How would you even go about doing that? It is sort of ridiculous.
James and John were serious though. They knew how to deal with people who oppose you, people who disrespect you, especially if they are filthy foreigners. These foul Samaritans had just dishonored their Lord. James and John knew how to deal with those who oppose you, those who stand in your way. You knock them down. You impose your will on them. You dominate them.
Well, ridiculous or not, one thing is for sure. Jesus didn’t think it was funny. Jesus didn’t laugh. He didn’t even chuckle. Jesus got angry. He got very angry.
Let me just digress here for a minute. You will not find any example in the gospels where Jesus gets angry with sinners. You won’t find Jesus confronting dirty people, sinful people, outcast people, people who had made a mess of their lives. But Jesus definitely had a temper. And you will find many places where he gets angry with holy people, with religious people, and, of course, with his disciples.
And that’s what happened in this case. The New International Version, that I just read from, says, “Jesus turned and rebuked them.” The Greek word that Luke uses there—that’s translated “rebuked”—is the same Greek word that the gospel writers use to describe how Jesus spoke to demons. He rebuked them. So, let me suggest to you that this may have been one of the most frightening experiences in James and John’s life. Jesus rounded on them and addressed them with the same tone of voice he used to address demons.
Now, I am not suggesting that James and John were demons. But I am suggesting that what James and John were proposing was demonic in nature. And Jesus responded accordingly. James and John were proposing to do violence against those who resisted Jesus. That proposition was demonic. It was diametrically opposed to the mission of Christ. And Jesus was offended by his disciples, not the Samaritans. He had not come to destroy. He’d not come to do violence. He had come to serve, to sacrifice, to save.
And what Jesus came to do is what Jesus sends us out to do. That is the mission of the people of Christ today. That’s our identity. We are not sent out to dominate others, to impose our will on others. We are sent out by Christ to serve, to sacrifice, and to save.
Well, as I said, the events at the U. S. Capitol have really been weighing on me this week. And I’ll tell you why. A violent mob ransacking the halls of the U. S. Capitol building is a sight that should shock and offend all patriotic Americans. So, yes, that offended me. But there’s more, something even worse. As I scanned through news stories about the event, I started noticing some particular things that shocked and offended me as a Christian, as a follower of the Lord Jesus.
I saw a photograph of the crowd of rioters surging up the Capitol steps, and in the center of that crowd was a person holding overhead a sign that said, “Jesus Saves.” Now, of course, that person could have been there trying to convert the rioters. . . .But I don’t actually believe that. The person carrying that sign overhead was there rioting in the name of Jesus, and he wanted everyone to know it.
I saw a picture of the rioters that showed one of them carrying that flag triumphantly across the floor of the House chambers. A flag knows as the “Christian Flag.” The man was ransacking the U. S. Capitol building in the name of Jesus.
I read about but did not actually see the image of a flag that read “Jesus Is My Savior” on one side with a certain political slogan on the other side. The report said that that flag was fluttering in the breeze beside rioters as they were battering in the doors of the U. S. Capitol building. Again, marauding in the name of Jesus. Violence in the name of Jesus! Sounds like a couple of disciples that we just read about. And we see how Jesus reacted to them.
Now, what’s going on in the minds of folks who will do such things? Somehow, some Christians have gotten the idea that the mission of Church is to dominate the people and the society around us, that the mission of the people of Christ is to impose our will on the world—by coercion, by political power, by force, by violence even.
Is that how Jesus did it? Is that the model he gave us? Our Servant King. Our Crucified Messiah.
Christianity in America is being enticed—by Satan, I believe—to embrace an idolatry, an idolatry of power—this world’s power. We are being enticed to believe that this world’s power will bring about the kingdom of Christ in the world. We’re being tempted to believe that political power, coercive power, and apparently even violent power are the tools we are to use in order to fulfill the mission of Jesus in the world. And of course, if domination and imposing our will on others is our mission, well, then I guess worldly power is the right tool.
But of course, domination and the imposition of our will on others is not the mission the Jesus gave us. We’ve been called to serve the world. We’ve been given the mission of caring for the people of our society, especially the broken, the weak, the vulnerable. And the tools that God gives us for that task are not the tools of this world. He’s given us the tools of the Spirit—the Fruit and Gifts of the Spirit. He’s told us to use love, mercy, kindness, compassion, humility, gentleness, a servant heart.
“He has showed you, O man, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8 [ESV]
“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love which binds them all together in perfect unity.” Colossians 3:12-14 [ESV]
“But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:44-45 [ESV]
Oh, but these ways seem so . . . soft. Don’t they? So impractical. If you want to get things done in this world, you can’t expect all this talk of love and humility and serving to actually work. You have to use the world’s ways to get things done. You have to be tough. You have to be hard. You have to stand up for yourself. Sometimes you have to knock them down and show them who’s boss. All this love and kindness and humility—it just won’t work.
Well, do we believe God or not? Do we actual believe the Bible or not? Are we going to obey Jesus or not?
If people want to dominate the world, if people want to impose their will on the society, they can try. But don’t dare do it in the name of Jesus.
There’s a lot at stake here. I am afraid that unless the faithful followers of Jesus Christ stand against this vile abomination of the name of Christ, our ability to bear witness to Christ in America will be poisoned for generations to come. What was done at the U. S. Capitol this week was not the work of the kingdom of God. It was the work of the devil. It was evil.
But in less dramatic ways, the Church in America is being sorely tempted to embrace the world’s notion of power. We are being enticed to pursue a different mission. Christ has not sent us into the world to dominate our neighbors or our society or to impose our will on them. He has not sent us to coerce them into doing what we think they should by means of force or power or threat.
He has sent us to care for our neighbors, to serve our neighbors, to love them and in every way to seek their well-being. Violence is not in the toolbox of the people of the kingdom of God. Political power and coercions is not in the toolbox of the people of God. Those who would use violence in the name of Jesus are frauds, liars, servants of a demonic cause. We need to renounce such things unequivocally, if we hope to preserve the name of Jesus and our ability to bear witness to him in the days ahead.
We need to show the world a different Jesus than the one that stormed the Capitol stairs on Wednesday. This is not politics. This is gospel faithfulness.
(c) 2021 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.
Photos are all of the Spokane River in Riverside Park outside Spokane, WA.