Posted by: owizblog | February 4, 2013

Fire from Heaven – Sermon, 1st July 2007

(Preached the day after the unsuccessful car-bomb attack on Glasgow Airport.)

Luke 9:51-62

Sometimes, even when it’s written, the sermon for Sunday has to be torn up on Saturday evening.

So – what nearly happened yesterday?

It really doesn’t bear thinking about. I remember sitting down in front of the television on the ninth of September 2001, just after two. I’d answered a phonecall from 121 George Street, [the Church of Scotland offices in Edinburgh] and returned to a cooling mug of coffee made a quarter of an hour before. And the end of Neighbours wasn’t on. Instead, like most people plunged into that sea of images, I thought I was watching an unscheduled actioneer film. With me, that only lasted a few seconds. And as soon as that initial impression was dispelled, I knew that I was watching something appalling and world-changing. And instantly, I wanted Carolyn and the children home – they were at school – and safe with me. Despite the fact that all this was unfolding thousands of miles away. There it was on TV.

Yesterday was a strange reversal of that. We caught the first bulletin about what had happened at Glasgow Airport about four – maybe three quarters of an hour after it happened. It was all vague enough for us to think, initially, that it might have been an accident – though that seemed unlikely. After all, most of us here know the road layout outside the terminal building. We’d all have looked askance at a report of a car losing control and turning through ninety degrees to crash into the doors.

Then the reports of the car being on fire as it veered off the road were supplemented with stories of the two men in the car pouring petrol inside it and trying to set it on fire. It now sounded malicious, but more than a little inept. They didn‘t even manage to get the car in properly through the doors. And the emotional impact of the story, for me anyway, was modulated again by the tales of interventions from the crowd, and a splendidly articulate and graphic account from one man who didn’t fail to refer to the malefactors in the car as “gentlemen” even as he described one of them lashing out at a policeman and him going to the constable’s aid. It was hard to deny the warm surge that what was now looking like a hate-filled deed was extinguished by the kind of intervention that speaks so well of a society’s values of responsibility and working together. Our society, locally, here, as it happens.

And then, for me, the chill set in. There was, it seemed – at least according to the experts who were now appearing – a connection with the attempted bombings in London. And with what happens daily in Iraq. And the connection was propane gas cylinders and large quantities of petrol. The by no means naïve intention appeared, prima facie, to have been to create a vast fuel-air explosion, which would have killed literally hundreds of people. 5.1 miles from where we’re sitting. (I can be that precise because I looked it up on Google Earth.) They wanted to kill people like us. Some of these people doubtless people we know.

I’m still not sure what I feel about all of this, but one question keeps coming back to me in slightly different forms, the words of each of which don‘t quite contain all of it: “Why would they want to do that?” “How could you hate anyone so much?” “How could you hate people you didn’t even know that much?”

It comes as a bit of a shock to read in today’s Gospel these words:

On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”

I hadn’t been going to preach on these today. I had been going to preach on the rousing text

No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.

Commitment! Zeal! Vision! But yesterday, whatever it adds up to in the end, was a grim reminder of what commitment, zeal, vision can inspire. And – worse than that – those verses that I wasn’t going to preach on, that I was just going to skim past in the reading – it’s all there, too. There in the inner circle of the disciples. There in the pages of the New Testament.

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

And Jesus rebukes them. This isn’t his way. This isn’t anything to do with what he’s about. This is a rejection of everything his ministry means. It’s there in the text. Loud and clear. And thank God for it.

But the sentiment… That was there, among the disciples. And the New Testament bears witness to it. After all they’d seen, heard, experienced, of and with this Jesus. They still thought of themselves as the people who really mattered, of their faith in him as the cause of their group, and of other people – not just people who opposed them, but people who simply had no interest in them or their Jesus – as non-people, as undeserving of compassion, of meriting destruction and extinction and worse for the glory of their, the disciples’, faith.

And by this time, according to Luke’s Gospel, they have been with him through: the experience of their own calling, and everything that must have meant in terms of grace, acceptance and in most of their cases forgiveness; healings; teaching including Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount; the forgiving of extortioners and prostitutes; his revolutionary attitude to the Law, and especially the Sabbath; and even intimations that Jesus is about the overcoming of death in the name of the life God intends for us.

And still they don’t get it. Still they want to destroy, unmercifully, people who see things differently to the way they do.

It isn’t hard to see a connection with what nearly happened yesterday, 5.1 miles away.

But you can miss the point…

Maybe my family are right, and I’m getting more irritable in my old age, but a certain type of “letter to the editor” has always bugged me to the point of incandescence. Let me preface what I’m about to say with the cliché that “some of my best friends are atheists”. Maybe more importantly, some of the people I respect most as human beings are atheists. Despite that – or more likely because of it – it really bugs me when you get “militant atheists” writing letters to the Herald saying that sixty, seventy, ninety per cent of wars are caused by religion. I don’t know where they get their statistics, but they are all beside the point. The only statistic that matters is that one hundred percent of wars are caused by human beings. It’s in us.

It’s in us to hate each other. It’s in us to kill and destroy each other, and it’s in us to want to do these things. It’s in us to divide into groups, and it’s in us to hate them just because they aren’t us. And religion is a potentiality in the human soul which can mobilize the best or the worst in us. Religion is something which human beings do in human ways. Sometimes very dark and bad ways. Because it’s a very human thing.

It was this, in us human beings, that crucified Jesus of Nazareth.

Islamic terrorism is indeed a problem for Islam. It was good, and reassuring to hear the Glasgow MP Mohammad Sarwar speak so unequivocally about this yesterday. It is good to hear courageous Muslim voices raised about what is a huge problem for the Muslim religion.

But the horrors of religiously based hatred are a murky flood swirling around in our basement too. It’s there in Christianity. The lunatic fringe of American fundamentalism – people who see the faith of Christ in terms of killing and destroying unbelievers in a post-rapture, post-apocalypse wasteland, such as at least one “Christian” computer game allows you to envisage – that’s our lunatic fringe. Filled with Christian hatred. But that same hatred – and it is the same hatred – is there whenever people in the name of Christ judge, and reject, and vilify, and dehumanize. And in whatever way, in whatever form, with words however “call down fire from heaven”. And it isn’t confined to the fringe.

Religions contain things like this, because religion is a human activity, and these things are in us as human beings. We are violent beings. But at the heart of our Christian tradition, as we saw a few weeks ago, when we looked at the work of the scholar Rene Girard, is something very strange. An act of violence suffered. Not inflicted. Endured. To the point of death.

Religion, according to Girard, has a lot to do with regulating our human social violence, by masking it. But the act of violence at the centre of the Christian faith, suffered by Jesus, unmasks the violence at the heart of our human existence. It holds a mirror up to us, and shows us what we’re really like. Not that for the most part the Christian tradition is very good at taking this truth on board. We go through hoops to turn back this vast insight into a religious masking, so that we can hide from the violent truth about ourselves, and talk glibly about “Christian love”. Christians say and do some appallingly violent things to each other in the name of this “Christian love. We can pretend that somehow the violence which is endemic to the human condition isn’t also in and among us as Christians. Today’s Gospel reminds us that it’s there among the disciples, right next to Jesus.

So… The cross tells us something about ourselves as human beings, social beings, religious beings. Christians… The desire to “call down fire” on people who don’t happen to be interested in our religious outlook is there in us all too often. And whenever and however it rears its ugly head, it is exactly the same as the impulses in the human heart which put Jesus on the cross.

But we can go beyond that too. We can understand the cross as the measure of God’s capacity to love us. That God can look at us as we are, seeing even the violent truth about us that we hide so desperately – and usually so successfully – from ourselves, and that God, seeing all this, can still love us… That, surely, is the grounds of a vast, transforming hope.

What was nearly done yesterday, 5.1 miles from here at Glasgow Airport, “doesn’t bear thinking about.” But we daren’t not think about it. We need to be able to see it as an attempted deed of sickening brutality and wickedness, but at the same time we need to understand that impulses in this direction infest the human heart. Prejudice, hatred, judgmentalism, rejection of people just because they are different, all of these things bear a horrible kinship with the atrocity that was intended yesterday. They aren’t the property of any one group, or community, or religion. If we really are serious about our discipleship, we need to be absolutely sure that we are constantly purging ourselves of all that is loveless, violent and rejecting. We need to be completely sure that we give no home to any such things among us. But that means being absolutely honest about recognizing these things when they do suddenly show their faces.

But it also means understanding the Christian faith in new terms as well.

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