What Spirit Are You Of? in Four Stories
1 Kings 18:17-40
Speaker: Joel Miller
Story 1. James and John and Jesus
Toward the end of his ministry, Jesus decided he had to go to Jerusalem. He was in Galilee, his home region in the north, and sets off on the journey with his disciples. Luke’s gospel tells about this in chapter 9. As they go, they send messengers ahead, scouting out places where they might stay along the way – kind of the analog, labor-intensive version of scrolling through the Airbnb app. The messengers enter a Samaritan village. Samaritans and Jews had a long running conflict over where the spiritual center of worship should be. When they learn the travelers are headed to Jerusalem, they refuse the hospitality of their village. Word of this gets back to the disciples, and James and John approach Jesus with a proposal of how to respond: “Master,” they say, “do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”
It seems a bit unexpected for a couple guys drawn to Jesus’ teachings, and definitely disproportional to the offense. But it did have a precedent. The disciples are referencing an earlier incident in Israel’s history when Elijah the prophet had called down fire from heaven to consume messengers sent to him from King Ahaziah who ruled in Samaria. I’m not sure how James and John thought they were going to call fire down from heaven, but here, perhaps, was their thinking: If Elijah, our spiritual ancestor, when faced with a similar situation, responded in this way, why shouldn’t we?
Luke says that Jesus “turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.” It’s as if Jesus thinks their proposal doesn’t even warrant a counter-argument.
Which is perhaps true, but this is one of those occasions where I’d love to hear more from Jesus. Because the issue James and John raise is one that never quite goes away. What do we do with the parts of our tradition that include violence or other harmful practices? Do we ignore them, or rebuke them, or make long arguments against them? Do we unknowingly repeat them out of muscle memory if we don’t consciously retrain ourselves?
Story 2. Elijah
Today’s reading isn’t that exact story of Elijah and the king’s messengers, but it does share a lot of themes. Elijah was one of the early prophets. He was a vocal critic of King Ahab, living in exile with a widow and her son in the Phoenician town of Zarephath. This is the widow whose little jars of oil and flour never run out. And it’s a good thing. Elijah had declared a drought over the land as a sign of God’s disapproval of King Ahab. Nothing’s growing, so even a little oil and flour were a daily miracle.
But now Elijah has decided to come out of hiding, to tell the king that rain is on the way. Elijah asks King Ahab to assemble all the people on Mount Carmel, including the priests of Baal. It’s a carefully orchestrated bit of public theatrics. It’s Elijah vs. these priests. The Yahweh movement that Elijah led, vs. the older Canaanite storm god Baal, who had Ahab’s loyalty. The first of them to make fire fall from heaven to consume their sacrifice is the winner.
The priests of Baal, despite their fervent ritual dances and prayers, are unable to get a response from Baal. Elijah trash talks the priests, gives himself a handicap by having water poured over his sacrifice – three times – then sends up one prayer as fire falls down from heaven and consumes even the stones that held the sacrifice. The people hail the God of Elijah, and Elijah has all the priests of Baal killed right before the rains come to end the drought.
It’s a heck of a way to win the culture wars. No wonder the character of Elijah produced such a strong impression on James and John.
Parenthetically, the Narrative Lectionary ended the recommended reading the verse right before Elijah kills all the prophets. Ignoring the distasteful parts of the tradition is always an option and, depending on the context, could be the best one.
Story 3. Melchior, Muenster, and Menno
Every first Sunday of November, as part of our All Saints/All Souls observance, I like to highlight someone from our own Anabaptist tradition. For today, I thought what better person to feature than someone who thought of himself as Elijah. This is a person whose legacy not only could be taken in a couple very different directions, but was.
If you’ve never heard of Melchior Hoffman, it could be that his impact on Anabaptism has been underplayed. Not exactly ignored, but not exactly the person you enthusiastically claim in your spiritual family tree. He was born at the end of the 15th century, which meant he was in his prime adult years right in the middle of the ferment of the 16th century Protestant Reformation.
Melchior was trained as a furrier, someone who makes and repairs, buys and sells, fur clothing. He never received a scholarly education, but was drawn to Martin Luther’s teachings and became a lay preacher, combining his business travels with speaking opportunities. He was an impassioned, gifted speaker, and developed some ideas that cost him Luther’s approval. He believed that the Eucharist, the bread and wine of communion, were a memorial of Christ’s death and did not, as Luther taught, become the sacrament of the real presence of Jesus. He believed that good works were part of Christian living and could lead to participation in the divine nature during this life. In his writing, The Ordinance of God, he wrote “The King of Kings shuts no one out,” a universalist flavor. He held that he, and others, could have direct knowledge of God through the Spirit. This included an affirmation of women’s spiritual leadership, having the same access to the same spirit, at a time when this was rare.
But what came to define Melchior’s theology was his apocalypticism. In layman’s terms, he thought the world was ending very soon. He became convinced he was the new Elijah bringing this message to humankind.
He was baptized as an Anabaptist, re-baptized, in 1530 in Strasbourg, Germany. Soon after that he founded a congregation in Emden in northern Germany and baptized around 300 adults. They were mostly tradespeople of lower economic status, ready for the kind of social change Anabaptists like Melchior were proclaiming.
It was Strasbourg where Melchior believed Christ would return to culminate history, and he had a year – 1533. Melchior never taught violence, but he did teach that Christ would purge the unrighteous at his return. A not-so universalist flavor. In other words, he and his followers weren’t going to kill the priests of Baal, but Christ would. Because of this, he was perceived as a political revolutionary. He was not among the martyrs, but died in prison. (light candle)
What makes Melchior so significant is that he was one of the first and most vocal people to bring Anabaptism to the Netherlands. His complicated, convoluted, and contradictory theology made him the source of three very different streams of the tradition. The Muensterites picked up on his apocalypticism, and after 1533 came and went they declared that Melchior had gotten everything right except for two points. Christ was going to return a little later in Muenster rather than Strasbourg, and because the folllowers of Christ are to do Christ’s work on earth, it was their job to instigate the physical destruction of the unrighteous that Christ would soon complete. This was the violent apocalyptic revolutionary stream of Anabaptism.
The Jorists, named after another Anabaptist leader, picked up on Melchior’s emphasis on direct revelation from the Spirit. Neither the pope nor the law of scripture had authority over one’s inner spiritual compass. The outer world of kingdoms and economic arrangements took a back seat to the emphasis on one’s inner condition. This was the spiritualist stream of Anabaptism.
The violent apocalyptics who became sword bearing warriors for Christ, the spiritualists who minimized the importance of social conditions and focused on the inner life, and a third stream from Melchior Hoffman’s legacy, led by a Dutch man by the name of Menno Simons. Menno picked up on the nonviolent aspects of Melchior’s teachings, also holding that Christian commitments impacted one’s daily actions. For Menno, this was to be lived out among the gathered church community in which people take counsel from one another and consult the scriptures to manifest the peaceful and just reign of God. Menno’s stream of Anabaptism came to bear his name, the Mennonites.
Story 4. All Those, Plus Us
Those are very different directions to take one person’s teachings, but we shouldn’t be surprised. Consider the different ways James and John and Jesus took Elijah’s legacy. Consider how many directions Christians have taken Jesus’ teachings. That question of what to do with a tradition that contains a multiple of streams remains. The question about what to do with those Samaritans/prophets of Baal/the unrighteous/the enemy still remains.
I did notice something this week I’d never seen before in the James and John story. It’s a text note. It turns out some of the ancient manuscript copies of Luke do contain a longer response from Jesus. In those copies, Jesus doesn’t just rebuke James and John and go, without further commentary, to a different village. In these texts, after the disciples’ proposal to be like Elijah in calling down fire from heaven on their enemies, Jesus says this: “You do not know what spirit you are of, for the Human One has not come to destroy the lives of human beings, but to save them.”
You do not know what spirit you are of.
It’s the kind of response that sharpens the question. What spirit are we of? What stream are we swimming in? Is it one that brings harm to others and ourselves? Is it one that brings life?
To go back to fire, being a part of a spiritual tradition is like having access to fire. Fire is dangerous to handle. It can be used to destroy people and communities. It can also be a flame that brings warmth to friends and enemies alike. It can be a hearth for daily bread.
What spirit are we of?
On this All Saints/All Souls observance, we remember those who have fed the stream of compassion, those who have tended the flame of justice and peace. We receive this gift embodied in so many lives, now ours to hold. We honor the spirit of Christ deep within ourselves and seek to live it out as members of this community.