Sermon Sunday 30 September St Chad’s, also POT Friday 28 September
“John said to Jesus, teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
This is the opening line of today’s Gospel reading. It’s not about casting out demons. The work that the other follower of Jesus was doing is not relevant here – John is not rejoicing that other people outside the first circle of disciples, and the next group of followers, have been understanding who Jesus is and what he is all about, and acting in his name.
No, John is complaining about the work of the other person, but rather smugly I think, saying that they tried to stop him, expecting Jesus to pat him on the head and say, well done, we can’t have amateurs taking up the message.
John, like so many of the disciples, so much of the time, has got it wrong. He may not have been prepared for what Jesus said next. ‘Don’t worry about it – if they’re not against us, they’re for us.’
He points out that the very act of invoking Jesus’ name to deliver someone from a demon meant that the person had faith in him, and was not about to turn around and attack or denounce him.
The disciples were being taught a lesson about the message, about the Good News. The were being shown that they were no longer in control of it! In our context, you could say that the Good News had gone viral! It was being spread without the disciples being in control of it, and that made them uneasy.
The kingdom of God has the power to make us uneasy. It can convict us where we don’t act according to its values – where we are not who we claim to be.
Jesus goes on to teach about the new believers – he calls them the little ones. It’s a tender way of referring to them, with all the care and love that should be lavished on children. Maybe the disciples were expecting to be told to get out there and if not stamp out the teaching that hadn’t come from the core group, to at least make sure it was right on the nail, that there were no inconsistencies or heresies creeping in.
But Jesus is aware of their desire to challenge the newbies. That’s what he meant by a stumbling block.
Some years ago my husband attended his first Cursillo course, while he was a student at Bible college, and wrestling with details of theology on a day-to-day basis. At Cursillo, various people had to give a talk about aspects of faith. Kevin was bemused to discover that there was a very wide understanding of theology, from the more-or-less what you might expect, to the downright wacky. But what really struck him was that God seemed to be able to work through all the talks, through all the speakers, touching hearts and lives even if the theology was a bit off. Kevin came away with a deeper understanding of the power of the Holy Spirit, in spite of people’s fumblings for meaning and understanding of this thing called faith.
Let’s have another look at the text. In verses 43-47 Jesus talks about how if a part of your body causes you to sin, to stumble, you should cut it off, because it’s better to enter heaven incomplete than go to hell with all your parts intact.
Have you seen the add for Specsavers, where people are asked how much money they would sell their eyes for? The subjects get really upset at the thought of losing their sight, and realise that sight is priceless. And yet here Jesus is telling the disciples to get rid of an eye if it causes you to sin! This passage is one of the reasons why we don’t take all of the Bible literally.
Jewish rhetoric and storytelling had a long tradition of exaggeration. ‘I have told you a million times not to exaggerate’ – was probably a Jewish joke long before I heard it.
Jesus uses colourful language so it will catch, so the lesson won’t be forgotten. It worked – Mark included it in his Gospel, and it has entered our language as a figure of speech, both as a complete idea, and in a short form.
Have you ever heard yourself saying “cut it out” to someone? I have said it to my kids, and my neighbour says it – often – to her dog.
What we can really take from this idea is that if something in our life causes us to stumble, to falter in our Christian walk, that thing needs to be removed. If looking at a certain website might tempt us into sin, we need to keep away from it. Or at least put on an ad block – I had to ask my daughter how to do that when I got sick of being offered a Russian woman! I’m sure you can think of other examples.
It’s a good habit to bring the day to God in prayer before you go to sleep. A sort of re-run with freeze-frames, and time to see things in another light. Often, if we listen the Holy Spirit will point out when we could have handled things better, we could have made better choices. But it’s not all about correction – it’s not like the last ten minutes of Masterchef which I always seem to find myself watching as I wait for the next programme to come on. God also gives us nudges in the right direction, and, most importantly, loves us, unconditionally, and tells us that, if we take time to listen.
After Jesus has finished the picture about removing parts of our anatomy, he tells the disciples that it is better to go into heaven with something missing than to be cast into everlasting fire, to Gehenna. This was a real place. On the south western corner of Jerusalem there was a large rubbish dump, smouldering with fire, where the city’s waste was dumped, and by Jesus’ time it also stood as a metaphor for hell-fires. Jesus foretold that the whole city would end up like that, if they didn’t follow his way of peace. This takes the story back to the passage before it, where the disciples were squabbling about who would be the greatest.
Jesus knew that they needed to be at peace with each other in order to show that peace to the world. He uses the image of salt – we are encouraged to have salt in us. Well, we do, our blood and our sweat contain salt, and we need to eat a little every day to keep healthy. But again, it’s not literal. You can get into so much trouble with the Bible of you take it all literally. By salt Jesus is referring to its properties – salt does many things. It adds flavour and makes bland food taste better. We can make bland lifeless days better by being the salt in them. It also preserves food by keeping out the bacteria – if we are being salt in our communities we are keeping out the bad, fighting for justice and help for those who need it. By sharing and doing and being the Gospel, by being real live examples of love in action.
What can we take from this text?
First, that the Good news will spread if we let it, and in ways that we never imagined, and that we shouldn’t try to stop it, or to control it.
Second, that we need to remove things that are harmful from our lives, to ‘cut it out’.
And finally, that we can bring it all to our loving God in prayer. And then, we will have the Holy Spirit with us, helping us to be the salt in our city, and to be at peace with one another.