June 26, 2022, Fire from Heaven, Luke 9:51-62 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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Unless you spent the week under a rock, you probably know that on Friday, the Supreme Court reversed its decision on Roe v Wade, which has protected the right of women in America to obtain a safe, legal abortion for almost half a century. It didn’t happen without warning, and it didn’t come as a complete surprise to most people, but the announcement definitely provoked a huge variety of reactions. People reacted with anger and despair. People reacted with jubilation and relief. People were overwhelmed with sorrow. People were overcome with joy. People were hopeful. People were fearful. There have been and there will be many more reactions and actions following this decision.
I so appreciated the comment I saw yesterday by my friend Pastor Walter Smith, who wrote this: “A friend asked, “What do you think about the abortion ruling?” When I look at a baby I can’t tolerate the idea of terminating that life. When I look at the disrupted state of American civil life I can see no good coming from this ruling. We are more divided than ever. Civic peace requires tolerance for opposing views. There: I’ve offended both sides.” Walter’s comment was honest, heartfelt, and well considered. But his friend’s question brought up an important point. They asked Walter at least in part because as a pastor, he represents the Church. Abortion has become a major political football in American politicking over the past few decades. People want to know: what is the Church’s response to this momentous shift in American policy? Is there a proper Christian response?
What do Christians say in response to Friday’s bombshell decision?
Here’s a Christian reaction: Life is sacred, even in the womb. And abortion is the taking of a life. We are called by Jesus to protect and care for the last and the least of his brothers and sisters, and that certainly includes unborn children who have no voice to speak for themselves. Thank God that Roe v Wade has been struck down at last.
Here’s a Christian reaction: Life is sacred, and the lives of poor people and people of color will be disproportionately harmed and threatened by this ruling. There are cases where abortion needs to be an option, and it is wrong for the government to make a decision that should belong to the woman whose physical and mental health is at risk, along with her family and her doctor. Much suffering will come of the decision to strike down Roe v Wade, especially the suffering of those who are dearest to God’s heart.
The truth is that there is no correct, absolute, monolithic position on this Supreme Court decision, or on the issue of abortion, that every Christian should hold. The Bible doesn’t spell out in black and white what our political positions are supposed to be about abortion, or about so many other facets of modern life: socialized medicine, or nuclear weapons, or gun control, or gender issues. God’s faithful people find themselves on both sides of so many truly important issues because God in his infinite wisdom didn’t choose to write them down on stone tablets for our convenience. There are so many things we have to wrestle with, there are so many choices we have to make, and the hard truth is that we won’t always come to the same understanding as our brothers and sisters in Christ, any more than we will always agree about everything with the non-Christian people we know. But as Christians, we hold fast to the things that Jesus made crystal clear to us. Love your neighbor. Have compassion on the poor and oppressed. Forgive each other. Love the truth. Honor everyone equally as a beloved child of God. Listen to each other. In humility, be servants of one another. Love each other.
Which brings us to a pretty clear principle we find in the gospel reading today: don’t call down fire on a person because they disagree with you. Jesus and his disciples were coming to the end of their three-year ministry. In those last days, Jesus’s passion and death was hanging over them like a shadow – the disciples felt it but couldn’t quite understand it yet. They were coming to the end of a long day and looking for a place to spend the night, and Jesus sent a couple of them ahead to find a place to eat and sleep. But the scouts came back in consternation. This particular village of Samaritans didn’t want anything to do with these Jewish pilgrims to Jerusalem. As far as they were concerned, Jesus and his Jewish friends could keep right on moving and get out of their home turf. And James and John, notorious hotheads that they were, thought there should be some kind of retribution. They didn’t even ask Jesus to do something; they offered to do it themselves, eagerly even. “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven?” Jesus turned to them. And he rebuked them.
Jesus must surely have been a little dismayed at James and John’s reaction, because vengeance and judgment and condemnation is one of the things he was clear about in his teaching. That was one of the teachings he really hammered home in the strongest terms. “Do not judge others, so that God will not judge you,” he taught them, on the day they gathered on the mountain. “for God will judge you in the same way you judge others, and he will apply to you the same rules you apply to others.” And, to make sure they would understand and remember, he gave them this illustration. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the log in your own eye? How dare you say to your brother, ‘Please, let me take that speck out of your eye,’ when you have a log in your own eye? You hypocrite! First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will be able to see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”
“I tell you who hear me:” Jesus said on another day. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you. Do not judge others, and God will not judge you; do not condemn others, and God will not condemn you; forgive others, and God will forgive you.”
And of his own purpose in his ministry on earth, Jesus said, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Jesus couldn’t have been more clear in his teaching: hia had no business passing judgment on others, or condemning others. Calling down fire from heaven to consume the men, women and children of a Samaritan village was clearly out of bounds, even if they were offending the Son of God. It must have felt so clear to James and John, in that moment, that they were entirely justified in their righteous indignation. But Jesus rebuked them, and having rebuked them, they went on peacefully to another village.
There are few things more clear in the teachings of the New Testament than this: that we are not supposed to pass judgment on each other. Paul wrote this to the Church in Rome: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.”
But that is something that is really hard for us to remember in the heat of the moment, and never more so than in this time when the whole country, and the church right along with it, seems to be divided right down the middle, one side against another. We think “if my side is right (and who doesn’t think their own side is right?) then it stands to reason that the other side is wrong.” We choose sides, left against right, pro-life against pro-choice, traditional against progressive. Judgment is the name of the game these days. Our country is being torn in two, and the Body of Christ is being torn in two along with it. Instead of listening to one another, we are all offering to call down fire from heaven on the other side. We all assume, like James and John, that Jesus is on our side. And the world knows us by the flags we fly, and by the signs in our yard, but not by the love we have for one another.
BUT not judging is not the end of our responsibility in loving one another. We haven’t been handed down a set of political positions and party affiliations in the Bible. And that means we have been called to love one another, without judgment, without condemnation, without calling down any fire from heaven – despite our differences of opinions and experiences and connections. But it doesn’t mean that we aren’t supposed to care deeply about things, and it doesn’t mean that there isn’t truth to be found. As we continue to love one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, each one of us bears a responsibility to seek a better understanding. This week in particular, that means listening to both sides of the abortion debate, no matter which side we find ourselves on now. It means finding out what the effects of this sudden change of policy are going to be – on real women, on women in poverty, on women of color, on women with disabilities, on women in abusive situations. It means listening to the stories of women who have had abortions and the stories of women who’ve chosen not to have abortions. And it also means taking action, as our understanding and our conscience lead us. Because loving isn’t a side. Loving is our home, the place we live, the ground of our being, and loving is the place from which we live out our faith in this world.