97,000

File:RomeArchofTitus02.jpg

Sunday Evening

John 10:22-30

27My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.

File:Rom, Titusbogen, Triumphzug 3.jpgIt’s hard to know how many people perished when Judea rose in revolt and Titus came to crush the rebellion. Josephus says 1.1 million died in Jerusalem and 97,000 were carried off to slavery. We see their image carved into the Arch of Titus in Rome. They are in chains and the temple treasures held high as booty. It paid for the construction of the Roman Coliseum, where many more Jews and Christians would lose their lives.

When John’s community listens to this set of images about the good shepherd, the thieves and bandits, and the hirelings, Jerusalem’s tragic story is not that many years behind them.

‘Perish’ is a soft translation for a word that typically means to kill or destroy utterly. ‘Snatch’ seems like trying to grab something off my brother’s desk when I was ten, rather than the 97,000 taken away by force.

The hirelings are the Jerusalem elite who saved their skins. The thieves and bandits are the rebels acclaimed as messiahs (or condemned as terrorists) who seized control of the city and led the revolt. And the wolf is the Roman Army that came “to steal, kill and destroy.”

The history is brutal as revolutions often are. Consider the reign of terror in Paris or the ruthlessness of the Russian Revolution or the killing fields of Pol Pot or the ISIS beheadings in the ancient Roman theater in Palmyra. The Judean revolt was not different. But it ended with utter destruction and slavery.

Caiaphas will say that “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (11:50) Yet the truth of the matter is that the path followed by Caiaphas and the nation led to destruction. The path offered by Jesus would have led to life.

And still that path is offered to us every Sunday around a table with broken bread. But the path of wars and crusades seems too alluring. Compassion, mercy, justice, faithfulness – they don’t rouse the crowd like anger, hate and claims of divine approval. But they are life. Imperishable life.

Followers of Jesus where crucified and slain in the chaos of that war. Some by Rome and its allies. Some by their fellow countrymen. But they knew true life. And no one can ever snatch them from Jesus’ hand.

 

Image of the Arch of Titus: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARomeArchofTitus02.jpg By Alexander Z. (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Closeup of the Arch: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARom%2C_Titusbogen%2C_Triumphzug_3.jpg  By Dnalor 01 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 at (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/at/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Fire from heaven

Friday

Luke 9

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(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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

Fire from heaven.  We still joke about this.  Lightning strikes.  The notion that God would act in such a way should be beyond us, but it isn’t entirely.  We are often haunted by the thought that God might be punishing us.  Or we are frustrated that God does not punish those we are convinced deserve to be struck down.

Stories of extraordinary divine punishment are rare in scripture.  There was the fire and brimstone that took out Sodom and Gomorrah.  And there was the earthquake that swallowed up Korah and his followes.  But many of the stories that sound like punishment – or use the language of punishment – are not, really. The ten plagues visited upon Egypt were not retribution, but opportunities for Pharaoh to repent, opportunities to recognize and turn away from slaveholding and all its brutality.  Most of what we identify as God’s wrath is simply the consequences of our rebellion working its way out in human society – and, unfortunately, often afflicting the innocent.  We poison the water, poison the air, or poison sexuality and people get sick.  It is a consequence of our sins and a chance to repent, to change direction, but we often do not and the consequences simply get worse.  The passenger pigeon.  DDT.  Chernobyl/Three Mile Island/FukushimaGlobal warming.  AIDS and genital warts.

Lightening did strike two companies of men who came to arrest Elijah. Yet even this is more than simple divine vengeance; God was protecting his prophet.  God was guarding his word.  (It was only the leader of the third company coming to “escort” Elijah from the mountain who showed by his humility and regard for the prophet that Elijah would be safe in his custody.)

But God’s defense of his word somehow becomes, in our mind, God’s vengeance upon our enemies.  These Samaritans treated Jesus with dishonor.  “Do you want we should ask God to strike them dead?!”  We like revenge, which is why God takes vengeance away from us, “Vengeance is mine, saith the LORD.”

With Jesus’ rebuke of James and John, God removes the possibility of religious war.  Period.  It may be necessary to exercise violence to protect my neighbor against violence, but vengeance is forbidden.  We are not a religion of lynchings or crusades – though we are, in our fallen humanity, a people who like them.  In contemporary America we do such things verbally now, rushing to judgment and condemnation, but we do them.  Oh, the heady rush of crusading.

Were Jesus to call down lightning you would think he would call down lightning on those religious people so eager to invoke lightning.  (See, I can crusade even against crusading.)  But Jesus does not.  He continues on with us: a rebuke followed by teaching.  “If you are going to follow me, don’t think it will be easy.”  “Leave the dead to bury their own dead.”  Love of neighbor is a bigger challenge than smiling and waving and not playing basketball in your driveway after 10:00 pm.

The stories mentioned above can be found in 2 Kings 1 (Elijah), Genesis 13 (Sodom & Gomorrah), Numbers 16 (Korah) and Exodus 7 ff. (the plagues on Egypt).