Sermons

ST MARY’S  CHURCH, FARNHAM ROYAL UBS : 18th AFTER TRINITY :  30th September 2018

 

“SALTED WITH FIRE”

 

Readings:          Numbers 11 v 4-6, 10-16, 24-29 :   James 5 v 13-20  :    Mark 9  v 38-50

                       

I can remember from my childhood, and on other occasions since, the feeling of having done something really special, only to have those good feelings dashed, as my well intentioned actions brought recrimination and angry responses. An action I had thought worthy of praise, resulting in anger or resentment.

 

I remember being sent shopping as a boy and meeting some old school friends.  Having been brought up to be kind and generous, I spent some of the shopping money given me by mother, on buying some sweets for my friends.   When we are young (and maybe when older) we are a little naïve and life is simple. 

 

What a terrible feeling of failure and shame when I realised - from the telling off I received - that something in the family did not necessarily belong exclusively to me!  Something done with the best of intentions turned out to be a hopeless mistake.  

Have you ever experienced that crestfallen feeling too?   Some people are so affected by such feelings of failure, that they soon cease to do anything on their own initiative, because they fear the results will be uncomfortable.   Fortunately, although it still happens to me from time to time, I am not put off.

 

The disciples of Jesus were not immune from doing silly things either!

Jesus told them of their mistakes in no uncertain terms.

In today’s gospel reading, they thought they were doing the right thing and were helping by stopping outsiders, who didn’t belong to their group and knew nothing of Jesus, from acting in His name.

 

After all, did not Jesus sayThose who aren’t with me are against me” [Matt 12v30] so you would think that the disciples were justified in trying to stop someone who was not a close follower, from acting in Jesus’ name. 

 

If we look back in the same chapter 9 of Mark we might see a clue as to why Jesus was angry.

 

After the Transfiguration on the mountain, Jesus and Peter & James & John join the other disciples who are with a large crowd and some teachers of the Jewish Law.  A big argument was going on, and Jesus discovers that his disciples [ who have been closest to him] have not been able to cast out an evil spirit from a child.

Jesus says = “ How unbelieving you people are!”   “How long must I put up with you?”  “Everything is possible for the person who has faith!”  Jesus had to heal the child himself and then explains to his disciples that only prayer can drive this kind of evil out. Prayer is our direct link with the power of Almighty God.

 

The conclusion is that the disciples are lacking in faith and lacking in prayer.  And then later they try to rebuke others outside their privileged group, who do seem to have faith    and the power that only prayer can bring!    Was it jealously or guilt that prompted the disciples to act the way they did. 

Does their action ring bells of familiarity with us -  in similar situations?

 

It is significant that at the end of his most practical letter, that James turns to the subject of prayer (as we heard in our lesson).   The active and effective Christian witness that he has been arguing for, will lack all purpose and power, if it is not based on a prayerful relationship with God.

 

Somehow or other then, the disciples got it wrong and the result was a tirade - a telling off - from Jesus.

“Who are YOU to stop these people?” he said - “if they are acting in my name that is a good thing”.

……..AND he didn’t finish there

He went on to tell the disciples that if they put any sort of barrier or stumbling block in the way of any of these “young ones” [those new in faith or on the borders of belief] - they might as well drown themselves in the sea, because that would be preferable to what they could expect as a result of their hindering someone seeking the Kingdom of God!

 

Terrifying words!  But it gets worse.  Jesus went on 

 “If your hand causes you to lose your faith, cut it off!

It is better for you to enter life without a hand than to keep both hands and to go to hell - to the fire that never goes out.”  And He began a great and scary tirade about hell and the fires of eternal damnation.

 

He continued “If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off!”

“If your eye causes you to lose faith, tear it out!”

It is better to enter the Kingdom of God lame or partially blind, than to be thrown into hell, where the worm never dies and the fires are never quenched.”

 

Strong words, and seemingly quite out of proportion to the apparently unwitting offence of the disciples.

But it seems that no-one took his words literally - for there were few one handed or one legged or one eyed followers around.  ……………….And it is the same today.

 

So then - what was Jesus getting at?

 

Jesus sees right through the surface to the centre of our being –

 

He knows our inner motives even before we know them ourselves!

So - while we can only view the surface action of the disciples in trying to stop these outsiders from being part of the Jesus effect,      Jesus himself knew instantly why they took such a stance.

 

The disciples were preventing people from hearing about Jesus and trying to stop others acting in His name, because     they didn’t consider them to be suitable.

Perhaps they didn’t want them to be suitable - to be acceptable - for the more people who were acting in the name of Jesus, the less special were their own positions as close disciples and followers of Jesus.

 

Jesus knew they were acting from motives of jealousy and intolerance, even though they themselves may not have been aware of those motives.

 

He used strong language and graphic examples to try to show the disciples that they needed to attend to their own inner being  -  that they needed to become aware of what was spoiling their own relationship with God          and what was cutting them off from the enabling power of God.

 

Once they were aware of their own motives, they should stop at nothing to address that cause of sin,

and make sure it was removed - cut out - from their lives.

 

Perhaps part of the reason, for the graphic and unpleasant pictures that Jesus used, was to acknowledge the kind of deep inner surgery needed to remove the cause of sin        - that it would be painful and drastic.

 

 

 

 

I think that there are times in our lives, when we too realise that spiritual surgery is necessary  -

immediate, drastic and painful in order to save our spiritual being.

 

There are things in our lives that we are loathe to get rid off, but faced with the redeeming sacrifice of God, we know we must take action to rid ourselves of sin.  We should remember Paul’s words to the early Roman church

The wages of sin are death, but God’s free gift is eternal life in union with Christ Jesus our Lord”                                                                                                                                   [Romans 6v23]

 

Jesus goes on to say that the pain of ridding ourselves of sin   is necessary for his followers,

BUT it is like a refining fire which removes all the impurities and leaves us strong and clean and useful Christians.

He says “For everyone will be salted (purified) with fire, as a sacrifice is purified by salt” and 

Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it again?” 

Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another”.

 

You don’t need much salt to flavour a whole dish of food and a few grains in a dish can rarely be detected.

Its purpose is to bring out the flavour of the food and to preserve the food.  BUT it can’t do that if it has lost its saltiness.

 

Christianity is not exclusive.   And we don’t have the right, any more than the disciples did, to decide who is and who isn’t a Christian, or who is welcome to join the Kingdom of God.

 

So…..Two thoughts :

If God, through his Holy Spirit moves in surprising ways and not as we expect….is our attitude the same as the disciples.  In other words, do we rate our own view of what is appropriate, more highly than God’s?

 

Secondly, do we genuinely expect to see the Holy spirit at work outside the established Church?

Our attitude to those currently outside the Church will be changed for the better, if we recognize that, in His love, God is already at work out there in other people’s lives.

 

We have all been called to act as salt in our particular world, and those who really want to accept that calling    should be ready to take a long, hard look at their own inner selves.

 

We need to accept the fire of purification, which will in the end, improve our saltiness, and bring the flavour of Christ into the lives of others.

 

It’s no good side stepping or evading the pain of truth, for if we do that, we’re just side stepping and evading Jesus himself.   But we can be sure that when we accept and deal with and cope with those awful feelings of failure and shame and so on, and seek God’s forgiveness and direction in our lives, we become saltier by the minute.  And that’s what really matters.

 

Fearsome God,

I prefer to think of your love and your kindness and your gentleness, rather than your holy anger and things like "refining fire". Anything associated with fire immediately sounds frightening, and I want to get away from that sort of pain, but I know that it is necessary.

Caring God, help me to understand that I must accept a rounded picture of you rather than just the parts I like. Help me to accept that “refining fire” is necessary for my own good, and is an expression of your great love for me. And then, awesome and loving God, hold my hand, teach me and guide me through the fire and show me the way ahead.  Amen.


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