Sermon for 18th Sunday after Trinity, YearB 2018
‘Confess your sins, one to another and pray for one another that you might be healed’
On (not) making life difficult . . .
Years ago I remember a chance remark my Spiritual Director made to me about her own perspective and how it was changed. She had been visiting her own director and in a conversation about her parish said ‘well at least I’m not responsible for their salvation’ – to which her director shot back, ‘what on earth gave you that idea?’
As James says ‘My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.’ . . . ‘confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.’
James the brother of Jesus seems clear enough on this responsibility for one another’s Salvation life, yet, starting from Cain, humankind has tended to ask over and again ‘Am I my brothers’ keeper’, and if we listen we might hear the Lord reply, ‘his blood cries out to me from the ground’. Our lives are intimately woven together – we ignore this at our great peril, indeed the challenges we face in the world in this hour are deeply rooted in this loss of consciousness amongst us.
We are responsible for the life amongst us. And our lives can either assist the flow of this Salvation Life, or impede it, and sheer ignorance of our responsibilities in this regard lead us far more often to the latter, rather than the occasional ‘accidental’ moment when by the Grace of God, our lives intersect those of others in a way which causes faith to spring up . . .
The prophet says of Jesus ‘He grew up before the LORD like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.’ Easy to miss, easy to pass over, easy, all too easy to crush as Jesus keeps reminding his disciples, yet they seem not to get the message.
Last week we considered character of the Servant – and prime amongst the characteristics of the Servant is gentleness – Wisdom from above comes to us in humility and gentleness and it is easy, tragically easy to crush it, by following the way of power.
As we have said Jesus follows the way of powerlessness, in the way we understand it, in the way we use it without reflection. But as I was reminded by someone on the way out last week,’but we have the power of the Spirit!’ To which Yes, and Amen! The power of the spirit, gentle as a dove . . . all too easy to impede. All too easy to make life difficult . . .
We continue our readings in Mark’s gospel and the narrative of powerlessness, and of following the path of gentleness with the disciples again getting it wrong. Jesus has just put a child amongst them, he has said – ‘he who welcomes one such welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me’ Jesus comes amongst us in many ways as a little one, as a child, yet John seems not to get it. “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.”
Perhaps one of them was a disciple on the edge of the group, seemingly unimportant to the apostle John, who after all has recently been on the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus, so OBVIOUSLY is a Very Important Disciple – and he throws his weight around . . . like all those who think themselves important – the irony is that having come down from the mountain they come across some of the disciples who can’t cast out demons! So here is someone who can and they are stopping him . . . Making life difficult – opposing the power of God . . . Perhaps the one casting out demons who John stopped is literally a child – after all isn’t this what children do? They See Jesus casting out demons, and they copy him . . . in simple faith
Jesus commands them not to stop such as these, for if they are channels for the life of God, they will soon know the one from whom that life comes . . . done as it is in the name of Jesus.
But Jesus goes on to issue a warning – ‘If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.’ Those who have any sensitivity to matters of faith in Jesus Christ know how very very easy it is to crush it . . . the words of Jesus are the starkest of reminders of our responsibilities towards those young in faith, both children and adults . . . we can permit the gentle work of the Spirit space, we can refrain from laying heavy burdens, we can seek always to encourage ad to build up . . . or we can do the other, and we are responsible. When Jesus says ‘great millstone’ he’s talking about one that a donkey would have turned . . . it is so easy to make Life difficult
What is more e often do this in a way that makes out we are helping . . . we get in the way. Often we might do this by seeking to please a third party. Why after all does John tell Jesus what he has done? The subtext is, ‘we knew you wouldn’t like this so we put a stop to it . . .’ It’s a stark warning not to act on behalf of others, especially to please them
It is so easy to snuff out this Gentle work of the Spirit – God does not impose himself. I remember speaking with a doctor friend about some wonderful healings I knew of that were taking place. She was a little sceptical – she wondered if those who claimed such things would open them up to ‘scientific’ testing . . . not understanding that this was entirely contrary to the hidden small work of the Spirit . . . Not realising that she was asking God to bow to her command . . . which is of course what is going on . . .
Finally there are Jesus’s stark words about cutting off hands and feet and gouging out eyes . . . It is so very easy to get in the way of the Spirit in the lives of others, to crush the tender shoot – and it is very easy in ourselves. If carelessly crushing the work of God in a child or young disciple bears such consequences that it would be better we were thrown into the depths without hope of return, then we need to do all in our power Not to do it – for our lives are woven together,
Jesus’ words on cutting off feet, and hands and gouging out eyes come into focus when we realise the huge responsibility we bear for one another, not putting obstacles in the life of Grace in them for the consequences for us of doing so are terrible for them – and us. This only makes sense when we see our lives are woven together
The word translated Hell here, is Gehenna – it is the name of a valley close by Jerusalem – it was until the time of King Josiah a place of Child sacrifice – although the story goes that to put a stop to it, he turned it into the rubbish tip, so the imagery of fires and worms would be very clear to the disciples.
What is Jesus saying here? That in ignoring the work of the Spirit, amongst the least of these, amongst the children and those new to faith – you would be in danger of going to the very place where at one time all the nobodies were sent for sacrifice. The announcement of the Justice of God is one of the great reversal. In the words of Mary our Mother – He hath cast down the mighty from their seat and raise up the humble and meek He hath filled the hungry with good things and the rich he hath sent empty away.
Jesus is saying you are so casual about getting in the way of others, but equally casual about your own sin! You should take great great care over both! Yes, we are responsible for our own Salvation and for that of those around us. The two are intimately woven together.
For everyone will be salted with fire – here the idea of Salting is that associated with purification in the old rites of Israel – the refiners fire of Malachi. Don’t lose that purifying salt in your life, for how can you result salt? Keep Salt within yourselves and be at peace with one another
The words of James point us to this peace. Peace which is no simple absence of conflict – that is no different to death! No Peace in the Scriptures is Rich fullness of Good Life, Shared life – and how is it achieved? Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. This is how we know God’s life amongst us
Like cutting off hand or foot or gouging out eye it sounds hard, but in truth it is the way to healing and wholeness – putting our lives in the hands of those amongst whom we share in Christ’s life – like Christ, allowing ourselves to be handed over