In verses 33-50, Jesus’ teaches the disciples in Capernaum. The verses begin with the disciples arguing about who is the greatest. They end with Jesus urging them, ‘be at peace with each other’.
And in the verses we are looking at today, Jesus challenges three things.
1. He challenges a closed Christianity (vv38-41)
The disciples see a man who is casting out in demons in the name of Jesus, but he was not one the 12 or one of the people who was part of Jesus’ ‘in group’. So they tell him to stop. Jesus however rebukes his followers. He says to them, ‘Don’t stop him. If he drives out demons in my name today, he won’t say bad stuff about me tomorrow. If he is not against us, he is for us’.
In fact, says Jesus, it does not even need to be as dramatic as driving out demons. If someone simply gives you a glass of water because you bear the name of Jesus (v41), they won’t lose their reward.
It is very easy – whether it is in the face of hostility, insecurity or suffering – for us as Christians to retreat into our castles and close the doors.
But Jesus challenges us when we are tempted to be like that.
He has just called us, in the previous verse (37) to be people who welcome ‘little children’ in his name, who welcome those who have no status or significance in society, who welcome those on the edge, in his name.
He invites us to come out of our castles, with all their sense of security and exchange them for tents, with all their sense of vulnerability.
Travellers, refugees and people on the edge live in tents.
It is actually where people who follow Jesus ought to be.
Jesus was born in a cowshed, was a refugee in Egypt, became a homeless itinerant preacher and ended up dying the death of a slave.
The first Christian communities were made up of people who were ‘nobodies’ in the eyes of society: Gentiles, women and slaves.
Rosemary will tell you that the Church in India is growing at an astonishing rate among Dahlit people, people who are considered ‘untouchable’ by the majority of the population.
And I wonder if the Church today is being marginalised in our own society, pushed to the edge, so that we are forced to come out of our castles, live in tents and learn again to work with those on the edge and to love the marginalised.
One of the real joys about being part of the wider family of God here in Bury St Edmunds is to see how Christians work together across the denominations and churches with the marginalised: I think particularly of CAP, Town Pastors and now Bury Drop in. I think of our own Sometimes on Sunday working with those with learning disabilities. It is an astonishing rainbow of people who call on the name of Jesus and who welcome those on the edge, and each other, in the name of Jesus.
And when we live in tents, and when we work with those on the margins, we will rub shoulders with people like this man in v38 – people who are doing good stuff, in the name of Jesus, but who are on the outside.
Please don’t get me wrong. Truth matters. And the church needs to guard that truth against error. But it does seem here that Jesus is calling us to a deep generosity, to welcome those who do what is good in the name of Jesus, even if they have so much wrong.
Some of the churches that we saw in the diocese of Kiteto, Tanzania, consisted of very simple buildings with a roof and no walls. The problem with a church like that is that anybody can walk in and out. You don’t really know who is in or out. But maybe that is not really our job. Maybe our job is simply to stand on the edge and to invite in everyone who would come to be a follower of Jesus.
So Jesus challenges a closed Christianity.
2. Jesus challenges a complacent Christianity (vv42-48)
If you cause one of these little ones to sin, Jesus says, it is better for you to be drowned. It is better to be dead than go to hell.
I think that there is a connection with what he has just said.
The reference is ‘to causing one of these little ones who believe in me to sin’ (v42).
It might be to the little children of v37.
But it is more likely that Jesus is speaking about people like the man driving out demons in v38 – people who are new in faith or uncertain in faith or clueless in faith, who are on the edge of faith.
We cause these little ones to sin when we shut the door on anybody who is not like us.
We cause them to sin when we reject them because they do not do things in the way that we do them.
We cause them to sin when we put so many requirements on them that they are crushed by the regulations and rules, by what they feel they ought to believe and how they ought to behave.
We cause them to sin when we do not feed them, and do not teach them about the grace and purpose and power of God.
Jesus in v39 is aware that it is not just about what this man does today. It is about what he might become tomorrow. And we need to think about the future, and give people space to fail and space to grow. A person is not going to become perfect overnight because they pray a prayer of commitment.
And in v42-48 he uses astonishingly stark language about sin – this is no game.
God hates it when we cause a new believer to stumble.
God hates arrogance and hatred and the way we judge others in order to justify ourselves or our particular lifestyle.
He hates it when we crush, belittle or humiliate another.
He hates our rebellion and pride. We think that we can live without him, but that means that we replace him with ourselves or sex or our career or money or our family. We make ourselves little gods and treat everybody else as if they are our servant.
And so he says we are to hate that which causes sin.
If it is our hand which causes us to sin, the hand which threatens, hits, steals, writes falsehood, points, then we need to cut it off.
If it is our foot which causes us to sin, the foot which stamps on another, walks over another, takes us to places which shame God, us or shame others, we cut it off.
If it is our eye which causes us to sin, the eye which envies, lusts after, or rejects another simply because of what they look like on the outside; or the eye which is so blinded by self that it does not see the other, we gouge it out.
I hasten to add that Jesus is exaggerating to make his point. He is not commending that we literally cut our body parts off. The Old Testament, and the Christian church has always rejected self mutilation. One chap, Origen, did read this verse and castrated himself, and as a result the church did not permit him to receive communion until he had repented of his action. And certainly the early church never said, as in sharia law or as in our own legal system in the past, that those who steal should have their hands cut off. To be honest, if we did take Jesus’ advice literally, we would all be in a pretty sorry state.
But this idea of cutting things off is not just a dramatic figure of speech. He is also saying something very practical. If looking at a particular website leads us into sin, cut it out. If playing a game on the play station means that we are not spending time in prayer, delete the game from the memory. If we know that when we get angry we hit out, note the warning signs and take steps to stop ourselves. If going somewhere causes us to sin, stop going there.
Jesus is saying that sin is a desperate matter. The consequence of sin is the eternal judgement of God. This is no joke. There is no place for complacency.
3. Jesus challenges comfortable Christianity (vv 49-50)
Comfortable Christians live in their castles, with the drawbridge pulled up, feeling safe, with a fire burning and servants running round, surrounded by people like themselves. Comfortable Christians do what we can to avoid inconvenience, let alone suffering.
But having spoken about how desperate sin is, Jesus continues, ‘Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves ..’ (v49-50)
And I think what Jesus is saying (and the commentators disagree on how we should interpret this – but do agree that these are the hardest two verses to understand in Mark’s gospel) is that, if we are faithful, we will go through times of fire and that those times are not to be avoided, but to be welcomed. They are to be welcomed as something that will transform us and shape us so that we become salt, agents of God’s mercy and love, in today’s world. Paul writes in Romans, ‘We rejoice in our sufferings, because suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.’
So although we dread the fire, when it comes, we can welcome it as something that can transform us and help us come closer to the Lord Jesus Christ.
So welcome the hostility of society. The community that Mark was writing to was suffering dreadful persecution. It is a fire that God can use to purify us – and move us out of castles into tents.
Welcome suffering. Suffering can often drive us to our knees; it can help us recognise our human frailty and our need for God. There is the story told about the monk who lived in the desert who always used to get a cold in the autumn. One autumn he didn’t get a cold. He prayed, ‘God, why have you abandoned me this year?’
Welcome the discipline which comes with the Christian faith – the discipline of daily prayer and bible reading - of coming to worship on Sunday even when you don’t feel like it – the discipline of giving – the discipline of occasional fasting – the discipline of praise, when praise is the last thing we want to do.
Welcome the discipline of obedience: maybe the time when we know that we need to move out of our comfort zone, when we need to say sorry to someone, or when we need to welcome someone who we really struggle with.
Welcome the fire of reproof. It can sting when people rebuke us, especially if it is not done in the spirit of love or generosity, but it can purify us.
And welcome the discipline of confession. It is not something we speak about that much. I’ve spoken much this morning about the dreadful eternal consequences of sin. Confession is one of the ways of dealing with it. There is a real purifying of our inner being when we confess our sin to someone else. It is something that we need. It means we have to recognise the sin that is in us, and that we need to confront that sin. We cannot blame anybody else. We need to own just how desperate our sin is. It hurts; but if we confess our sin before someone who knows their own sin, and who knows the love and the mercy of God, and who can declare to us what Jesus has done for us, it will bring us healing.
And as we repent of our sin, and discover how much God forgives us, so we become salt. Jesus talks elsewhere about Christians being salt in the world, in the sense that Christians help transform society. We come out of our castles, and we welcome others. We are not blind. We do see their sins (we’re very human). But we also see that their sins are foothills in comparison with the Himalayas of our own sin.
When we listen to Jesus’ challenge against a closed Christianity, when we refuse to be complacent about our own sin, and when we allow God to transform us through the fire – of persecution, suffering and Christian discipline – then we will be people who will move from castles to tents, who are not obsessed about our own status, who will welcome one another, and who will live at peace with one another.