The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:

s180g10  Sunday 13  27/6/2010

"Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?"   Luke 9.54

It is a salutary lesson for all of us who claim to be religious that Jesus did not call down God’s vengeance on those who did not worship him and actively discouraged people from following.   Yet the church has ever been want to condemn those who do not adhere to the orthodox faith to eternal damnation and to make it a primary task to get others to follow ‘Jesus’ - in precisely the same manner as ‘they’ do.

And I draw your attention to the fact that this is not a criticism of some individuals in particular but the churches in general.   I am not talking about a sin that individuals commit, but the corporate sin that goes entirely unnoticed, precisely because it is the church that is doing it and therefore it must be right, even though these words of Jesus suggest it is wrong.   I mean, if you can’t trust the church and the learned preachers and theologians - who can you trust?  

Time and again Jesus calls those in authority to critique what they had turned faith in God into - a religion that despised the less-than-devout and demanded the less-than-devout to become devout like them.   But Jesus turned this upside down and inside out, by associating with those who were the despised less-than-religious.  

I have often observed that these days Jesus command to love has been replaced by devout ‘christians’ into ‘challenging’ the less-than-devout to amend their lives.   This seems a remarkably similar attitude those who had Jesus killed would have had.

There have been occasions when I have heard someone preach and I have been left thinking that the preacher has spent the time asking the congregation questions, either with the expectation that they will be ‘ninnies’ if they come up with the wrong answer or leaving the questions unanswered.  I have often come away thinking that the sermon was an admission by the preacher that he or she didn’t know the answer, and they were leaving it up to the congregation to answer it, if they could be bothered!   Somehow, I don’t think the gospel is all that complicated, and while indeed Jesus did ask his hearers questions, the questions he asked were to the point.   For example: ‘Which of the debtors would love him the more?’   They were not questions that required a theological degree to answer.

Jesus renounced all use of force, even the moral force of punishment for misdemeanors, or on people who refused to follow him.   We can only conclude that following Jesus as a person was unimportant.   Following Jesus, by associating with others, was important - even others who refused to follow Jesus.

But of course these days, each and every denomination claims special revelation and status and all who do not follow can be damned.   Do they not read this passage from Luke?

Indeed it seems that those who take the bible ‘literally’ are those so want to condemn others to eternal damnation, quoting John 3.16: ‘God so loved the world’ as if it means ‘God so hates the world that any who do not believe the right things, live the right way, and worship in the correct manner are damned by the Almighty.’   A remarkably similar attitude to that of James and John, I would say.   A recent article in ‘The Age’ was entitled: ‘Men lead, women obey?’  (June 10, 2010)  It describes a resurgence of the theology of the subordination of women in the Diocese of Melbourne, Australia.   ‘According to Kevin Giles, a Melbourne evangelical minister and veteran of the fight for women's equality within the church, the issue is "about power — who has it and who doesn't, who determines how the Scriptures should be read".’   I reflect that this implies that scripture can be read in different ways, and this implies in turn that any doctrine of the infallibility of scripture is essentially meaningless.   ‘Infallibility of scripture’ actually means the infallibility of the person who determines how the scripture is read, a remarkably similar proposition to that of papal infallibility!

The second section of our gospel - the three would-be followers who are turned away, is often interpreted as pointing out the distinctiveness of Jesus.  

But loving others who do not believe the right things, live the right way, and worship in the correct manner is as distinctive as Jesus.   It does not necessarily mean that the disciple’s lives will be comfortable.   It must be made plain, it is not just that we are to love the cherished members of our families - even members of the mafia do this.   The kingdom of God will not come about because everyone loves the cherished members of one’s own family.   The kingdom of God will only come about when we love beyond these familial boundaries, for if it doesn’t, then wars will continue, world without end, Amen.   In this sense we must put the kingdom of God, the loving of others beyond our familial relationships as a first priority, even when our families demand our undivided attention.   Even when our ‘church’ demands that we proclaim IT as the only way, the only truth, the only life.

And I want to suggest that when I use the term familial relationships, I mean this in the widest possible sense.   It is not just members of our natural family to which I refer, it is also clan relationships, racial groups, national allegiance, social standing, gender, human sexuality divides AND religious affiliation.   For humanity can fight about each and every one of these.   The different, in however way they are different, can be marginalised, alienated, killed and damned, and all in the name of some god or other.

And this incident with the un-welcoming Samaritan town tells us that we can’t marginalise, alienate, kill or damn anyone in the name of Jesus, as the enthusiastic disciples, James and John thought - as well as countless ‘disciples’ after them.

Our love must be in word and deed (Romans 15.18) and sometimes that deed is what we don’t do; we don’t marginalise, alienate, kill or damn anyone in the name of Jesus.  

And if there is anything fundamental that we need to observe ourselves and need to teach others, it is not that Jesus lived, died and rose again 2000 years ago, but that we don’t marginalise, alienate, kill or damn anyone in the name of Jesus.

For me this only puts flesh on the bones of ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ - but again applied wider than just our personal relationships.   The kingdom of God will not come about while individuals do unto others as they would have done unto themselves, while faith communities slog it out amongst themselves.   Indeed while the faith communities continue to slog it out amongst themselves - even in ‘debates’ about who is right - what earthly moral authority has the church to suggest to its adherents that they should live up to precepts that they themselves, as a ‘church’, ignore?

By logical extension what heavenly moral authority has God to suggest that his / her followers ‘do unto others’ while condemning anyone to eternal damnation at a whim?

Perhaps the question becomes: ‘Isn’t there some form of hell?’    I am endebted to David Eagleman: 'neuroscientist by day, novelist by night', speaking on "All in the Mind" last year when he told the story: 'God decides to sort of revolt against the structure that she had set up (this binary categorisation into good and evil) and .. instead invites everybody to come into Heaven and to be a part of Heaven.   And what ends up happening actually if I can just read the last line here: 'So she brings everyone to Heaven and everyone's achieved true equality and the communists are baffled and irritated because they have finally achieved their perfect society, but only with the help of a God in whom they didn't want to believe.     The meritocats are abashed that they're stuck for eternity in an incentiveless system with a bunch of pinkos.   The conservatives have no penniless to disparage, the liberals have no downtrodden to promote, so God sits on the edge of her bed and weeps at night because the only thing everyone can agree upon is that they are all in Hell.''

So yes, I do believe in a hell, but it is one of the church’s own making, but making in the here and now, not in any time to come.   It is all in my attitude and your attitude, whether I and we choose to live in heaven or in hell.   And there is little point in living in hell in the hopes of something better in an after-life, whether that exists or not.

The un-welcoming Samaritan town was un-welcoming precisely because Jesus had ‘his face set toward Jerusalem’ and therefore they believed that Jesus was coming to reinforce the legitimacy of orthodox Temple worship and the illegitimacy of their unorthodox worship.   We know that Jesus came to critique orthodox worship where that excluded others.   So they were right to refuse to welcome Jesus’ messengers, for they hadn’t got the message of God’s love for all.   When they got that right message, they would no doubt re-evaluate their welcome.   And it is clear that even then ‘religion’ was recognised to reinforce differences not bridge them.  Have we learned better even yet?

And the refusal to condemn the un-welcoming Samaritan town is a paradigm of the incarnation itself, where Jesus came not to criticise, condemn, torment or challenge; but to accept and to love all.   Even the disciples, who had far less excuse to get the message wrong than those in the Samaritan town, believed that they as followers were privileged enough to condemn others who were not so privileged!

So the question that the gospel puts before us today is precisely the same.   Do we believe as worshipping Anglicans / Christians / people of faith that we are so privileged that we are entitled to condemn others who are not so privileged, or are we rather called to strive to follow Jesus and be incarnated into society and accept all, even the reluctant and the less-than-devout?

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