Jared Witt l May 31, 2018
The best Bible reading advice I have: always pay attention to sidebars and surprises.
Serious Bible study is Bible study that can surprise and even upset you. It’s a waste of time to read a book which only confirms what you already think. And the thing you thought was of central importance is often just that: the thing which you thought was of central importance. The point is to figure out what the Holy Spirit thinks is of central importance on a given day.
Something surprised me the other day when I jumped down a rabbit hole after just one line in the Book of Acts, “[Herod Agrippa] killed James the brother of John with the sword.” I of course knew of the martyrdom of James from the lore of early church fathers (such stories were often written down hundreds of years after the fact, so it's tough to tell where they originated), but I hadn’t recalled it being mentioned anywhere in the Bible.
And while a quick look through the Bible dictionary entry for James didn’t answer my initial question (what other biblical martyrdoms have I been glazing over?), it did lead to a quick survey of every time James and his brother John are mentioned. And seeing these all mashed up together uncovers something infinitely relevant in this day and age:
Jesus had a couple of wild cards in his group of disciples. Rash, unpredictable hotheads.
Almost every time they’re mentioned, James and John are doing something unbecoming of a disciple, let alone a leader of disciples. If a leader is someone who keeps his or her eye on the larger mission of the group and doesn’t get lost in the weeds of personal ambitions and petty slights, then these two leave a lot to be desired as heads of Jesus’ very young movement.
They fly off the cuff and overreact. They lack any sense of proportion and patience. They’re way too concerned with personal standing and accolade. They harbor delusions of grandeur. They're intellectually naïve and struggle to chew on a new idea without immediately swallowing or spitting it out. Their “us versus them” impulse is quick and reflexive, and they circle the wagons at the slightest tingle of anxiety.
1. When they see someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name, rather than celebrate that the mission of blessing and healing the world is growing beyond their own efforts, John is the first to say, Wait a minute. Who do they think they are, healing folk without our official club seal and logo? Jesus essentially says, Don’t get denominational or prideful about this. When good stuff happens, the good stuff is the point.
I can think of few insights more relevant to the Christian conversation in this day and age.
2. When Jesus experiences some less than optimal hospitality in a Samaritan village, they’re ready to call down fire and destroy every last man, woman, and child. Jesus predictably rebukes them but in a surprisingly calm and measured way, given that their essentially suggesting genocide. As the more mature party, he seems to weigh the heinous words that are coming out of their mouths against the harmlessness of their actions and decides he can laugh this one off.
I sometimes wonder if our society would be in such a crisis right now, if we so-called intellectual leaders could have this same sense of proportion and generosity. What if every time we heard something offensive, we sought gentle and loving ways to challenge and redirect the offending parties rather than immediately drawing tribalistic lines and mocking their ignorance. To humanize a bigot is not necessarily to condone his or her bigotry.
3. James and John, with Peter, have intimate access to the Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop, and rather than fall down humbled and awed by perhaps the most privileged glimpse of divinity that any human has ever had, they immediately come back down the mountain and start a petty argument among the other disciples about who is the greatest.
Hey religious people, don't follow their example. If your religion is as true as you say it is, act like it. It’s hard for outsiders to buy that you’ve caught a glimpse of God, eternity, and the truth that sustains all things, if, far from being humbled and wizened by it, you start a bunch of pissing contests with all the other religions.
4. They ask Jesus if they can have privileged seats at his right and left hand when he comes in glory.
Pretty much Jesus’ whole thing is being smaller, humble, servant-like. They missed the memo.
Were James and John in charge of the whole operation, it would be an utter disaster. And Jesus likely knows that. So what does he do with them?
Does Jesus humiliate them for their lack of judgment and balance? Does he make them feel dumb for their provincialism, their lack of PC, their inability to see the longview? Does he insist on changing them by force?
No instead he adjusts himself. In modern business leadership-speak, he demonstrates adaptive leadership. He learns, himself, to see the good in their spontaneity and passion. He sees its usefulness to the cause when properly directed. He trains his eyes to see the positive things that they bring to the table.
Why did I feel surprised and, honestly, indicted by this? Because these are the personality types that I generally avoid like the plague. In the public sphere, I tend to write them off as “the problem.” In a work setting, I look at them as liabilities to be mitigated, not assets to be channeled.
What does Jesus do? He values them, listens to them, and keeps them close. Rather than ostracizing them for their tone-deafness and their most unflattering missteps, he makes them a part of his “inner-circle,” his personal cabinet. Jesus obviously isn't the sort to surround himself with yes-men. He wants people who challenge his thought patterns, say objectionable things, make him tap-dance a bit.
He comes up with a silly term of endearment for them. He calls them “sons of thunder.” That one silly nickname takes all the fangs out of the less PC things that come out of their mouths. In a group of likeminded hotheads, those words could spark a conflagration of harmful and destructive impulses. But surrounded as they are by wiser and more levelheaded disciples, the rougher edges of their bluster are rendered buffoonish and harmless.
What if instead of mocking and outcasting the quickdraw hotheads of our world, leaving them no one to find but each other, we brought them close. What if we gently and non-manipulatively made them a part of our circle, inevitably diversifying their relationships and experiences so that they're not always shouting into an echo-chamber?
And while its playful, “Sons of Thunder” is not a mocking or abusive nickname. It legitimately honors what’s great about James and John. Their zealotry, ambition, and decisiveness, if given some appropriate guardrails, are essential gifts to any group that actually wants to accomplish anything of substance. The more contemplative and levelheaded among us would let every vision die in deliberation if not for the James and Johns of the world.
Cheers and Peace,
How Castle Church is stirring up a new spirit in the church from a brewery in Orlando, FL.