Sons of Thunder: Thoughts on what we know about and can learn from the apostles James and John.

Sons of Thunder

One of my favorite TV shows when I was a kid was the Twilight Zone.

The Twilight Zone ran for 5 seasons beginning in 1959 and had 150 episodes.

But out of all those episodes, I only remember one vividly.

It was called “It’s a Good Life” and was based on an award-winning short story by Jerome Bixby about a young boy who had God-like powers.

If anyone displeased him, he would use his powers to punish the offender in some horrible way and then “send them into the cornfield” never to return.

It was one of the creepiest TV episodes I ever watched.

Can you imagine having that kind of power?

If someone offends or displeases you, that person can be “sent away” with a wave of your hand.

Would you use it if you had it?

I think my Dad would have.

He used to say things like that to keep me in line when I was a kid.

He would tell me that if I didn’t stop doing something, he did not like he would “cloud up and rain all over me!”

Well at least he would not “send me into the corn field” never to return.

What does any of this have to do with the apostles?

Here is an event passed along by Luke.

Luke 9: 51-56

51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. 54When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ 55But he turned and rebuked them. 56Then they went on to another village.

This week’s featured apostolic biographies are about James and John.

The sons of Zebedee.

The Sons of Thunder.

Next to Peter, they are the disciples mentioned most in the Gospels, and almost always together.

They seem inseparable and of like mind.

James is usually named first indicating he was the older of the two.

Actually, many believe that John was pretty young when called by Jesus which is why in most paintings of John, he is beardless.

James is often referred to as James the Greater to distinguish him from the other apostle James, son of Alpheus, who is referred to as James the Lesser.

And just so you know, James the Greater is not the author of the Letter of James.

That was James the Just, brother of Jesus.

We first meet the Zebedee boys on the shores of Galilee.

They are in their fishing boat with their father and the hired hands.

Jesus comes along and tells them to follow him.

They do, immediately leaving behind their fishing business and family.

Along with Peter, James and John form Jesus inner circle.

The ones always named at important events in Jesus’ life.

We see the three of them at the healing of Jarius’ daughter.

We see them at the transfiguration.

We see them in the Garden of Gethsemane.

James’ and John’s close relationship with Jesus might have gone to their heads because they seek a place of privilege among the apostles and also believe they have the authority to render judgement on those who offend Jesus.

We see one of these events in Mark.

35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ 36And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ 37And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ …

41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

James and John wanted to be elevated to positions of power, even over the other apostles.

If you read Matthew, you might learn where they got their ambitious nature – from their mother who also asks Jesus to give her boys positions of power.

A bit more evidence of a desire for a special status with Jesus, maybe suggesting some sibling rivalry as well, is that John in his Gospel refers to himself as “the disciple Jesus loved”.

Maybe it was true, because Jesus gives John responsibility for Mary when John is the only member of the disciples who shows up at the crucifixion.

Anyway, the other apostles did not like this ambition, not one little bit.

They were furious.

This led Jesus to teach then all that to be great, one must be a servant, like Jesus.

Yet the passage about James and John I chose as our text today is the most telling, I think.

James and John have been with Jesus for three years.

Jesus in now headed for Jerusalem for his final act.

The disciples are sent ahead to find shelter and food.

James and John head into a Samaritan town.

Now, Samaritans think that the sacred place to find God is on Mt. Gerizim.

Jews believe it is Jerusalem.

Jesus is headed for Jerusalem and so these Samaritans want nothing to do with him.

James and John are offended and ask Jesus, Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ 

Jesus rebukes them.

Some ancient Luke manuscripts add this statement from Jesus:

 “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of, for the Son of Man did not come to destroy [the lives of men and women], but to save them.

While this addition to Luke might have been a later scribal supplement used to help explain Jesus reaction to James and John, it does exactly that.

Jesus did not come to destroy people, but to save them.

Just because these Samaritans had a different theological point of view was no reason to send them into the cornfield.

James and John seem to forget what they saw at the well when Jesus was with the Samaritan woman.

Jesus does not reject those who have differing points of view.

He saves them.

He loves them.

There are some references to John alone.

We see him telling Jesus about someone working miracles in Jesus name.

John told the man to stop.

“We get to do that and no one else!”

But Jesus tells John to let the man alone because he is for the Kingdom and so not against it.

Lots of judgement and privilege in these Zebedee boys.

John gets the honor of being the first of the Twelve to get to the empty tomb.

Not because Jesus loved him, but because he was fast.

John seems to have learned a bit of humility because he lets Peter go in first.

While Peter puzzles, John understands that the burial clothes having been left behind has meaning – Jesus is alive!

The last time we see James and John in the Gospels, they are on the beach eating fish with the resurrected Jesus.

Peter and Jesus are walking away and Peter asks, “What about John?”

Jesus says that John is not Peter’s concern and that John might live to see Jesus return.

That is it for the Gospels.

When we get to Acts, we see the brothers split up.

James has a brief presence.

He is executed by Herod with a sword pretty quickly.

His apocryphal history offers a bit more about James execution.

James encounters two magicians.

One is converted, the other magically binds him as punishment.

James miraculously frees the converted magician and the other unleashes demons who capture James.

James is handed over to the high priest and is ultimately beheaded.

Clement of Alexandria reports that the guard who took James to his execution asked James for forgiveness.

James forgave him and blessed him and the guard becoming a disciple.

For this, the guard is executed with James.

James is the only apostle whose martyrdom is recorded in the New Testament.

Other sources have James in Antioch with Peter before heading to Lyda and Africa all the while performing miracles along the way.

Finally, James is reported to have gone to India with Peter and ultimately alone to Spain at the behest of Mary who invites James in a vision.

James missionary journeys and particularly his trip to Spain are unlikely.

Nevertheless, Spain is where we find the second largest memorial to an apostle at the Cathedral of St. James of Compostela where it is claimed James is buried.

No evidence of this has ever been found, but Spain is happy to claim James much like Scotland claims Andrew.

We have a lot more information about John.

While we see a little about John in Acts.

John is with Peter in the Temple when they are accosted by the temple leaders and is also dispatched from Jerusalem to Samaria to investigate the acceptance of the Gospel there.

That’s basically it for John in Acts.

But there five books in the New Testament attributed to him.

The Gospel of John, which is believed by many to actually have been written John.

First John, which is also believed by many to actually have been written John.

Second John, which was likely written by a follower of John.

Third John, which was also likely written by a follower of John.

The Revelation of John, which is of considerable debate on many levels.

Unfortunately, other than the Gospel and Revelation, none really offer much biographical information.

I will say this, though.

If you read the Letters of John, the message is crystal clear.

That message is that we are to love each other – period.

Seems to show that John finally got off his high horse and understood what Jesus really came to say.

Revelation, if written by John, tells us only that he was exiled to Patmos during the time of Nero or Domitian.

What do we learn from the apocryphal literature?

One of the early traditions has John martyred in the year 50, before the Jerusalem Council.

The thinking is that John is not mentioned after Paul’s persecution of the apostles.

So, John must have been one of the apostles killed.

If true, John was not the author of any of the five New Testament books.

Most reject that early date of death.

There is way too much evidence that John lived a long life and died of old age in Ephesus.

The most detailed description of John’s missionary life is in the apocryphal Acts of John.

This book is full of fantastical material that defies belief but also offers some nuggets of geography that might be true.

This strange book has John head from Jerusalem through Miletus to Ephesus.

Along the way, John allegedly raises many dead people, destroys a pagan temple and commands bedbugs to depart.

He gets to Ephesus in 48, plants churches until 54 when he departs – maybe to exile on Patmos.

During his time in Ephesus, he drinks poison and lives to prove the power of God to a pagan high priestess.

John is also reported to have gone to Phillip’s crucifixion in Hierapolis to rescue Bartholomew.

He is also reported to have preached in Anatolia.

John’s exile to Patmos has two potential causes.

Nero, having heard that John would not give due obeisance to the Emperor, sends John there.

Others say that it was the Emperor Domitian.

Domitian is said to have brought John to Rome to be tried.

John is immersed in boiling oil and is unscathed.

He drinks poison and lives.

He then raises another who drank the same poison and died.

Because John seems impervious to punishment and death, he is sent to Patmos only later to be released after Domitian’s death to return to Ephesus.

Some of you might wonder about what happened to Mary.

She is rumored to have gone to Ephesus with John and lived there for many years.

Stories of John’s death, or lack of it, are varied.

There are a couple legends that John had a grave dug for himself and then lay in it offering a benediction and then dies.

Another report has the grave examined, found empty but for John’s sandals and a fountain.

This was believed to be the fulfilling the prophecy that John would not die before Jesus return.

Another of these ancient legends is that John, just before he died, old and unable to walk, was taken by his disciples to church where he said to them, “Little Children, love one another. It is the Lord’s command and if done is sufficient.”

What do we learn from the lives of these two brothers?

Maybe this.

James and John, even after years with Jesus were still pretty ambitious, judgmental and spiteful.

When they were rejected by the Samaritans, rather than just moving on to the next town they wanted to destroy the place.

To show what?

That they were superior?

That they were privileged?

That to disagree with them was such an offense that it called for violence?

Maybe all those things.

That was James and John.

Jesus rebuked them.

He came for the Samaritans, too.

Not to Lord over them.

But to love them and serve them.

Kind of like us, today, right?

We don’t take offense lightly, do we?

We take any slight or disagreement as a personal attack from “them” worthy of a violent verbal or physical response.

To show what?

That we are superior?

That we are privileged?

That to disagree with us was such an offense that it calls for violence?

Maybe all those things.

And Jesus rebukes us, too.

He came for “them”, too.

Not to Lord over them.

But to love and serve them.

And here is the good news, when we act like James and John, Jesus does not command fire to come down from heaven to consume us.

Jesus does not send us to the cornfield!

Jesus loves us and serves us and saves us.

That is what John ultimately learned and proclaimed to be the most important lesson he ever got from Jesus.

Little Children love one another.

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