Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Sermons from the margins

The Fire God

Jesus once nicknamed James and John "the sons of thunder" (boanerges in Greek - Mark 3.17). The story in Luke 9.51-56 gives us an indication why. When some Samaritan villagers refuse to welcome Jesus, the two brothers suggest calling down fire from heaven to consume them - a somewhat drastic response to a lack of hospitality.

What gave them the idea is made clear in the story when (following some of the old manuscripts) the words "as did Elijah" are added.

In the Old Testament, the prophet Elijah is very much associated with God�s fiery aspect. Most famously, in his contest with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18), he called down fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice he had prepared.

Of more immediate relevance to Luke's story, is a less familiar one about Elijah (2 Kings 1) where the king is sick and sends an officer with fifty soldiers to summon Elijah to come and pray for him. Elijah responds by calling down fire that burns up the captain and his troops. This is the example that James and John want Jesus to follow. He rejects the suggestion.

Many themes could be developed out of this short passage from Luke�s Gospel. I wish to highlight just one, which can be approached from two directions.

Consider first the location of the narrative - a village in Samaria. The Samaritan villagers turn Jesus away because he is known to be heading for rival religious centre, Jerusalem. Competition between the two shrines was intense at the time. In the story of Elijah and the soldiers, the prophet knew that the king had had already sought help from a rival god (Baal-zebub) before turning to him for assistance. That was the reason for the prophet�s spectacular outburst against the king�s soldiers.

By refusing to follow Elijah�s example, Jesus is telling his disciples to put all such religious rivalry behind them. This message is emphasized further in the next chapter of Luke, where Jesus tells the story of the good Samaritan.

My second approach to the theme of religious tolerance is to note that in rejecting the religious violence exhibited by Elijah, Jesus is not rejecting him. In one of the most moving passages in the whole Bible (1 Kings 19), Elijah himself learns the limitations of the violent religion he himself had come to epitomize.

God told him to go to Horeb, the sacred mountain, where God made himself known. In that famous incident, Elijah experienced the wind and the earthquake and - above all - the fire, in which God should certainly have been found. But God was not there.

At Mount Horeb, Elijah�s religion was turned upside down. He learned by experience that God lives not in the fire of religious zeal but in the still small voice that speaks in the heart.

That is the lesson, with its accompanying requirement of religious toleration and respect, that Jesus teaches James and John - and us - in the incident at that unnamed Samaritan village.

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