A Sermon preached at St. Mary’s Iffley
by Anthony Phillips on 30 September 2017
Our Gospel reading to-day is a series of sayings by Jesus put together using catchwords. But they all concern discipleship – that is how followers of Christ should behave. Therefore they all concern you and me. Each one of them forces us to examine ourselves both as individuals and as the body of Christ in this place. Do we measure up?
The first saying concerns a pagan casting out demons using Christ’s name. The disciples were incensed and tried to stop him. He was not one of us. Jesus rebukes them. Someone who performs a miracle in Jesus’ name can hardly speak evil of him afterwards. He who is not against us is on our side. Similarly in the second saying Jesus asserts that anyone who shows kindness to one of his followers will not go unrewarded.
What Jesus condemns is the disciples’ exclusive attitude. If those despite not being confessing followers of Jesus are working for the common good, their actions are to be accepted: indeed they will not go unrewarded. This is the point Matthew makes in that long passage towards the end of his Gospel on the final judgement. People will be rewarded or condemned not on their religious life, but simply on how they treated the hungry, thirsty, strangers, the naked, sick or prisoners. As the poet Kahlil Gibran wrote; ‘Kindness is the shadow of God in man’.
So the first question we need to ask ourselves as an individual and a church is how exclusive are we? What is our attitude to those who are not one of us? Do we recognise kindness when we see it? All compassion whoever exercises it is forwarding the saving work of God.
Jesus then uses various forms of contemporary punishment to illustrate his next sayings. The first concerns causing ‘little ones’ to stumble. Probably this does not refer to children but to new converts, those who have recently embraced Christianity. Using a millstone to drown a person was a contemporary form of Roman capital punishment. But Jesus is not primarily thinking of eternal damnation but rather the seriousness of destroying new faith. How do we nurture new believers: do we even think it our responsibility to encourage new belief? Ultimately it will of course be the kind of people we are, the kind of church we are, that will attract outsiders, the kind of welcome we give.
Next Jesus turns to self-mutilation. It was a common punishment in his time: amputation of hand or foot for theft; putting out an eye for adultery. What Jesus is saying is that if a disciple knows of some crippling defect within himself, decisive action must be taken. The kingdom of God is worth any sacrifice however devastating it might seem. Too much is at stake.
Again we need to ask ourselves what inhibits us from being whole, the holy people of God – what needs cutting off, plucking out. And the same question faces our church as a whole, holy community. There is nothing more important in life than knowing oneself, knowing when help is needed to be the free people whom God intended us to be at our creation. And knowing this is not a sign of weakness but of strength.
Once more Jesus is here not thinking of hell as an eternal punishment. The word is Gehenna and refers to the rubbish dump outside the walls of Jerusalem where fires burnt continually and maggots gorged on discarded offal.
Finally we come to the sayings on salt. It is not certain what ‘Everyone will be salted with fire’ means. Clearly this is some proverb whose meaning must have been well known. Perhaps it indicates that suffering purifies in the way salt purifies a sacrifice. Maybe Jesus was simply pointing out that because you are a disciple, you cannot escape the facts of life – that whoever you are, however holy, like Job you will inevitably be faced with the inexplicable, but provided you keep your faith, like Job, you will in the end will be strengthened.
The final saying is for you and me the most important. I know that all commentators point out that salt cannot lose its saltiness – but that does not invalidate what Jesus is importantly saying. Salt is recognised by its taste. Similarly disciples are to be recognised by their taste – that is those who do not exhibit the characteristics of discipleship are as useless as salt that is not salt. And these characteristics have been spelt out in the previous sayings: lack of exclusiveness, generosity, care of the new in faith, and ensuring wholeness, holiness of personality and community.
Finally the disciples must have salt within themselves for their mission is to purify the world. There must then be an edginess about them. Just as salt spices up, so must they be prepared to stir up, transform those around them and society in general. Discipleship is never passive but always active through generosity, kindness but with a ruthlessness about one’s own person and community. Then one can fulfil Jesus’ final command and ‘be at peace with one another’. Be at one, whole, holy, all of a piece – that is what shalom means. It is not just not being at war but an active engagement with peace, embracing one another, loving till it hurts, so becoming one with the other.
I am not a fan of obsessive navel gazing. That way neither the community nor the individual ever gets anything done. But there is a time for proper stock taking and these sayingsof Jesus provide a useful agenda. Where do you, I and the church stand? Perhaps like most modern surveys we should mark ourselves on a scale 1-10. I have a horrid feeling we would end up at 5 – like the church at Laodecia neither cold nor hot.
But discipleship is about being red hot. There is a passion about it because it is founded on the passion of Our Lord, a taking up of thatmutilation, his cross, so that we can be individually and as a church Him in His world. Nothing else is more damning to true discipleship than self satisfaction with the status quo. Always there is more cutting off, more plucking out to be undertaken, always more salt to be poured out on this divided and distracted world. That is the cost of discipleship.
In the end as the German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer says of the cost of discipleship at the conclusion of his book of that name: ‘The follower of Jesus is the imitator of God.’ And as the cross proclaims,we all know that the generosity and suffering of God knows no bounds.