Sons of Thunder

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Jesus’ original disciples were not what an objective observer would call the brightest and the best. 

The top students – those who at the age of 13 had rung up the highest marks on their SATs (if there had been a Synagogue Aptitude Test) and who therefore seemed destined to become the future leaders of Israel – would typically present themselves to the most famous rabbis.  Essentially they would ask, “May I have the privilege of following you?”  If the rabbi consented, the wannabe disciple would gather up his things and fall in line with that rabbi’s band of learners.

So what about all the 13-year-old boys who habitually stared out the window during school, or who got into shoving matches on the playground, or who failed to impress anyone with their final exams? 

They would go back home and continue their apprenticeships with their fathers – learning a useful trade they would in all likelihood practice the rest of their lives. 

The astonishing report that emerges from the four Gospels is that these common, everyday Jewish young men – who were never going to rock the world of theological scholarship or proficiency – became Jesus’ fishing pool.  Jesus does something that no self-respecting rabbi would ever have done.  He actually goes out and recruits them:  “Come, follow me.  Put down your fishing nets, walk away from your tax collector’s booth, leave behind the life you thought you were going to live and join my band of learners.”

Movie depictions of the life of Christ have not helped us picture this particularly well, especially with regard to one reality: the fact that the disciples were almost certainly quite young.  In some films Peter appears to be as old as Tony Bennett.  Think instead of a 30-year-old Jesus working with the equivalent of a dozen high school or college-age kids. 

The Twelve, in other words, are not bored mid-life adults who gradually become open to a challenging second career in global missions.  Although age 13 signified (as it still does in Judaism) the beginning of manhood, they would have been what we call adolescents, standing at the threshold of the rest of their lives.

We know something else about them.  They were seriously broken individuals.  According to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, they make lots of mistakes.  They say dumb things.  They are biased and blind and fearful and selfish.  They live with Jesus, yet they don’t “get” Jesus.  They fail to grasp his teachings, struggle to follow his example, and regularly get chewed out. 

First-time Bible readers are often surprised by these disclosures.  Aren’t these the people whose names adorn countless churches?  How can they be such blockheads? 

It turns out that Jesus is in the life reclamation business.  He has called a dozen students into a living relationship with him, forming a new community or society, where he is showing them that a life worth living comes down to being committed to two crucial activities:  loving God and loving each other.

I like the cartoon where Timmy calls out to his dog in the first panel, “Lassie, get help!”  In the second panel Lassie is lying on the therapist’s couch.  We all need help.  We don’t need more seminars to remind us of the gap between what we profess and how we actually live.  What we need is transformation, and the assurance that we serve a Savior who won’t give up on us just because we have so far to go.

Two young fishermen, the brothers James and John, become living examples of that process. 

Jesus gives them a nickname: Boanerges, which means “Sons of Thunder.”  In modern English that might be translated into something like “grenade heads.”  These boys apparently have anger management issues.  They are fiercely competitive.  As the Twelve walk toward the sorrowful experience of Jesus’ Passion, James and John are embroiled in a petty argument concerning which of them will be number one and who would settle for being number two in their Lord’s coming kingdom.

In the text beginning at Luke 9:51, the brothers are in rare form:

As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.  And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem.  When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they went to another village.

Jesus and his apprentices are traveling from north to south in Israel – from Galilee to the city of Jerusalem.  Standing in between is the spacious domain known as Samaria.  It takes at least three days for Jewish pilgrims to walk from Galilee to Jerusalem.  But that’s only if the Samaritans say, “Yes, you can enter our villages.  You can even spend the night here.”  The Samaritans, however, frequently compel Jewish travelers to do a two-day detour around their region – which is exactly what’s happening here.

Why such animosity?  The Samaritans feel a deep-seated bitterness toward the Jews, who have historically treated them as heretics and half-breeds.  Even though they live within the borders of Israel, the Samaritans have formed their own theology, worship at their own temple, and pursue their own hopes and dreams.

James and John propose a simple solution.  Remembering that Elijah settled a spiritual debate in the Old Testament by calling down fire from heaven, they say to Jesus, “Lord, do want us to nuke ‘em?” 

The brothers assume they are standing right alongside Jesus, opposing the wickedness of the Samaritans.  To their shock, Jesus turns and opposes them. “This is not why I came,” he declares. 

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to provide redemption for the whole world.  That will include the Samaritans.  Today we are the ones who have been recruited to bear his message of hope and reconciliation. 

But before people can encounter that message, they will have to encounter us.  And so often we tend to call the police on other people when the real need of the hour is for us to call them an ambulance. 

The drama of discipleship, in the end, is twofold.

First comes the miracle.  Jesus wants us!  And he wants us just as we are.  We’re all invited to join his band of lifelong learners.

Then comes the responsibility.  Jesus has no intention of letting us remain just as we are.  Instead of picturing our lives as an ongoing war where our job is calling down fire – the Righteous vs. the Wicked, Believers vs. Skeptics, Catholics vs. Protestants, Old Earth Creationists vs. Young Earth Creationists, the Right vs. the Left – we must grasp that our true call is to join Jesus in his work of redeeming human hearts wherever brokenness is found.  Beginning with the brokenness we find inside ourselves.

There is hope that such a thing can really happen.

During the Christian movement’s first generation, Jewish followers of Jesus brought the good news to Samaria.

According to Acts 8:14-17, one of the leaders of that effort was none other than John.

By God’s transforming power, even a Son of Thunder can become a vessel of grace.