Mark 9: 38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 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. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. 42 “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. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.49 “For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
John Colter spent the winter of 1804-5 not too far from here as a member of the Corps of Discovery that Lewis and Clark led up the Missouri River, over the mountains and down the Columbia. On the trip home, Colter requested and got an early discharge so that he and two friends might check out the fur trapping. Following the Yellowstone River towards its source, they were shocked by the geysers, the steam vents, the hot springs and the boiling, bubbling, brightly-colored mud pots where Yellowstone National Park now stands. Colter called it “the place where hell bubbled up.”
Two hundred years later, we know better, that Yellowstone with all its thermal features is one of the greatest wonders of the world. But Colter was right: hell bubbled up there when Colter and his two companions got into a fight with local Natives in which his two friends were killed, Colter killed one of Natives, and then he ran and hid for several days with the Natives in pursuit, until he got to safety. Hell bubbled up there in the form of fear, violence and the lust for revenge. Hell bubbles up again in today’s lectionary Gospel passage, when the disciples try to shut down a stranger who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name, because he’s not “one of us.” And John expects Jesus to commend them for it.
Now, I’ll confess that when I saw that this passage was this week’s lectionary gospel reading, I was tempted to slide right over it, because it touches so boldly on such a scary and controversial topic, probably my least favorite subject. For some of us, texts like these may bring up memories of preachers using the topic of hell to enforce their control and conformity over us with fear. That could be spiritual abuse. But I had committed to preaching this year from the lectionary Gospel passages from Mark, on the theme of discipleship. And Jesus didn’t slide over this topic in his training of the twelve. What’s more, he should be an expert on the subject because of his constant combat with hell, whenever he liberated the demonized, or when he encountered the hardness of human hearts.
So, now I shall grasp the nettle, fortunately, with, 6 months until my next review. Besides, how am I to preach the gospel—the good news– if I pretend that there is no bad news? Which is the first point in the message outline: What’s the bad news in today’s Gospel passage? The first is that hell is still bubbling up and bursting forth in all sorts of ways and places today. Like in Iraq and Syria, where ISIS is killing and persecuting people, and driving millions of people to seek refuge around the world. It’s bubbling up in the drug war zones of Central America and Mexico, and our cities, where to grow up black is to live with a target on your back. And in the prisons where a disproportionate number of young men of color transition to manhood. To paraphrase a saying in AA, “Religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell; the grace of God is for those who have been there.” Recovering addicts should know, having escaped their own private hells of addiction.
This morning, please drive from the mind those medieval images of fiery underground caverns where horned demons chase people around with pitchforks. Just as our language about heaven can only be symbolic, limited to what we know here and now, so is our language about heaven’s opposite. In this passage, and others, Jesus used the word “Gehenna,” the name of a big ravine just south of Jerusalem, a rugged place with a nasty history, and a nasty reputation. For there idol worship and human sacrifice had occurred. Jesus used that word figuratively too. Sometimes, when Jesus talks about Gehenna, it’s an eternal state of being after death. Sometimes it’s an active force for evil in this life. At least once on his lips it may be symbolic of the coming fate of Jerusalem, when it will become a smoking pile of rubble, which came to pass forty years later.
So, is the Gehenna of which Jesus speaks something for now, or the future? Yes.
Is it something for the individual soul, or for society? Again, Yes, and more.
Which makes me wonder, is not the worship and service of any God-substitute, like money, pleasure or power, hell, when compared to the grace and the goodness of God? Is hell another name for the human condition, without God? For wherever God is not, all hell breaks loose. To be alone with our fears, resentments, remorse and rebellion, our lusts for unattainable and self-destructive things, defenseless on our own against shame, blame and temptations, which set us at odds with ourselves and each other, is that not hell?
I have problems with evangelizing by trying to scare people about hell and then asking, “Do you want to know how to go to heaven instead?” Any more the question for me is, Who will get us out of our hells of enslavement, alienation and separation from God, from others and from our true selves? How will we escape the Gehennas we create when we love and trust anything more than God? Or when we worship and serve gods of our own making, which always turn out to be devils?
For that is the second piece of bad news in today’s passage: we can get stuck for keeps in Gehennas of our own making, with our own gods made after our own images. To those who say that the love of God is so great that he would send no one to hell forever, I agree. God doesn’t want that for anybody. But I would also ask, Are we humans always and inevitably so good that no one would prefer our illusion of independence, to a state of rest and reliance upon God, no matter how miserable that makes them? Are we so powerful that we can get ourselves out of our enslavement to the love of evil on our own? Even if God should disrespect our free will, overrule our choice, and place us, in spite of our wishes, in eternal communion with himself, would that not be hell for anyone who came to God stuck in a state of resentment and resistance toward God and others who would be there in heaven with him? Someone like……
….well, if you thought I was going to mention drug dealers, pimps, and terrorists, I was actually going to say, like some of Jesus’ own disciples, like John. They are the ones to whom Jesus gives today’s sharp warning about where their eternal souls are headed. Which is the third item of bad news in today’s passage: hell can bubble up in the most subtle, strange and surprising ways, in even the most righteous, religious and spiritual places, and not just in bars or battlefields.
We have usually held the threat of eternal loss over the heads of irreligious and immorally-acting people, for giving in to sins of weakness, like pornography or intoxication. And when people do come to Christ from street gangs or crack houses, they’ll tell you that they believe in hell because they have been there. But this is not the only time that the disciples, especially John, have needed such a stern rebuke. When Samaritans refused Jesus and his disciples entry on the way to Jerusalem, John and his brother, James, asked Jesus, “Do you want us to call fire down from heaven upon them, to destroy them?” Jesus rebuked them sternly, like he did demons. Then there was the time that James and John angled for seats at Jesus’ right hand and the left when he takes his throne over the world. Jesus took them to the verbal woodshed for that one, too. These are fellow righteous, religious men whom Jesus is trying to scare the hell out of. Because of their sins of power.
It seems especially prophetic that, in this very exchange, Jesus would also warn his disciples against “offending one of these little ones,” the children. Especially since today, even now, Pope Francis is meeting with victims of clergy sex abuse. I hope he also addresses the scandal of cover-ups and hush money. Those are sins of power, not just indulgences of weakness. Jesus had a zero-tolerance policy for John’s power-tripping because that first eruption of hell would lead to even greater eruptions of hell, greater sins of power, if left unchallenged, or unchecked.
John’s attitude toward the unknown exorcist reminds me of the time that a dog sauntered into a cathedral during mass one Sunday and took his place in line leading up to the altar, waiting patiently for his turn at whatever it was people were eating. When the dog got up to the communion rail, the priest looked at him a moment and then said, “I’m sorry; I don’t remember hearing your confession.” A more heavenly, Christ-like response would have been to consider, What does this visitor really need? Not, What has he done wrong? Then, the priest might have said, “Good boy, waiting your turn in line! Now stay!” and then sent the altar boy to get some lunch meat from the rectory.
When Jesus told John, “Do not stop him” and “Whoever is not against us is for us,” he’s saying, “Look for what he got right, before you go looking for what he got wrong; look for the commonalities before you scrutinize the differences. Then do what you can to introduce him to the Man whose name he’s using.” Instead, they are falling for the very temptation that Adam and Eve fell for: You shall be like God! You’ll be in control! In this case, control of the brand name: Jesus. They are slipping from having the Messiah to having a Messiah complex. That includes taking on the Messiah’s role of judging souls and enforcing God’s rule on others. And so hell bubbles up even in righteous, religious people.
The fourth item of bad news is that, no one is getting through this life un-scorched. Or is it un-salted? Or both? “Everyone will be salted with fire,” Jesus says in verse 49. That’s quite a mix of images there: as though you might sprinkle salt on your French fries and they go up in smoke, because the salt shaker was also a flame thrower. Bible teachers and scholars have long been scratching their head over those words. How can anyone or anything be “salted with fire?”
It seems to have something to do with Old Testament laws about ritual sacrifice, which require putting salt on offerings of meat or grain before the priest burns them on the altar. Or rubbing down a sacrificial carcass with salt to purify it, before it gets burned. That’s why speakers of Hebrew and Aramaic, like Jesus, commonly use the word “salted” also to mean “sacrificed, consumed or destroyed.” It could also mean “Purified, cleansed, and rubbed clean.”
I think Jesus is saying that everything and everyone will be purified, cleansed and consecrated with fiery trials and testing of some kind or another. Everyone will face examination and testing, whether from the common struggles of life and death, which we all share, to the grand, fiery trial to come upon Judah and Jerusalem only 40 years later, to the Great Day of judgment and renewal for all creation. Then, only what is divinely silver and gold about us, through our faith, hope and love, will endure. That’s the fourth part of the bad news: expect some fiery trials of testing in life.
As scary as that sounds, God also promises in Isaiah 43, that “When you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” Notice that God says, When we go through the fire, not if. But that actually brings us to the good news in today’s passage. Though no one’s getting through this life un-salted or un-scorched, it doesn’t have to be fatal. It can actually be freeing. With Jesus as our guide, friend and defender, the fiery trials through which we pass can serve to reveal, refine and reinforce all that is sacred and eternal in us. In the words of the old hymn:
“When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
my grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply.
The flame shall not hurt thee, I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.”
This salting by fire that Jesus promises need not be fatal; it can be freeing.
The second item of good news about this passage is that, when we go through the fires of testing, we’re not alone. When the three Hebrew exiles were thrown into Nebuchadnezzar’s blazing furnace, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, the king saw a fourth person with them, “one,” he said, “like a Son of Man.” A name Jesus claimed for himself, as the One who goes through our fiery times and trials with us. Even when we get it wrong, like John did, Jesus may have to reprove us, but he doesn’t abandon us.
The third item of good news is that, not only are we secure in Christ through any and all fiery trials, so are the fruits of our labors in Christ. That’s why Jesus assured John that, “whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.” The fiery trials of evil, the eruptions of hell, that regularly destroy the systems and structures of mortals, cannot undo the works of God that are building his kingdom, not even the littlest, seemingly most insignificant ones. God has them in safe keeping. It often feels like the little efforts we make toward planting seeds of heaven are for naught, that they amount to little more than trying to empty the ocean with a thimble. But Jesus here says that even the most meager works of God will endure when everything else is consumed. Like Mother Teresa often said, “We cannot all do great things for love; but we can all do little things with great love.” And those will endure and bear fruit. Even the cup of water freely given in Christ’s name.
But with every offer there comes a cost. Thus the third question: What’s the cost of the good news, that 1) the fiery trials of our lives can be used of God to liberate and purify us; 2) because God in Christ goes through them with us, so that we do not face them alone; and 3) so that our lives can make a mark on eternity, that some good and godly things can and will endure forever in God’s kingdom?
Part of what makes this passage so scary is when Jesus says that it’s better for us to lop off a hand, a foot or an eye if they would keep us from entering heaven. That’s not meant literally, though. The real cost is heavier and harder than a hand, a foot, or an eye. But it’s still a bargain, compared to the reward.
This is when it helps to know something about both the Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern ways of talking. The Old Testament absolutely forbids Jews to mutilate themselves, so Jesus would not teach us to literally do that. Furthermore, the Bible doesn’t locate the source of sin in our body parts, but in the spirit that motivates them. And like many Jews of his time, Jesus regularly uses some pretty shocking overstatements to shake up his hearers and make his point clear, and this is Exhibit A. He’s saying that if there’s anything as dear to us as our hand, our foot or our eye that comes between us and God, and is keeping us bound to the ways of hell, then we must lop it off and let it go. The good news is, our hands, our feet and our eyes would not qualify for such amputation. So keep those; take care of them. The bad news is that things that may be nearer and dearer to us than our hands, our feet and our eyes could qualify for amputation. Things like our illusions of independence and total self-determination. Or the Apostle John’s craving for control and his pride of place above others, his sense of ownership, entitlement and superiority. Sometimes we would rather lop off a hand or a foot than lose such idols. So, what is our security and safety in Christ, through whatever fires come our way, going to cost us? Anything that would take his place, no matter how dear. But it isn’t really any part of our body. It’s more internal and eternal than that.
Which brings me to the last point, question #4: So, what does this passage call us to do? Three things: The first action I call, “Getting our judgment out of the way early and often.” That’s how I understand Jesus’ words, “Have salt within yourselves.” The Apostle Paul told the Roman Christians in his letter, chapter 12, verse 2, to “Offer yourselves as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God.” So, having “salt within ourselves,” is like offering ourselves upon God’s altar as living sacrifices, presenting ourselves honestly before the eyes of our High Priest, to be examined, sprinkled and rubbed clean with God’s cleansing, purifying truth.
One ancient Christian way of offering ourselves up for judgment early and often, is called “The daily examen.” St. Ignatius Loyola did it twice a day, at noon and night, but it could also be done when we lay down to sleep. Ignatius would reflect briefly on at least two questions, something like: “Where was God active in my day?” and “Where was I?” Where was I in relation to God and others, meaning, in what spirit was I acting? Then he would turn it all over to God in prayers of confession, surrender and gratitude.
When we offer ourselves to such little and repeated judgments, we find that doesn’t destroy us; it liberates us from the accumulation of guilt, shame and condemnation; it frees us to live all the more for God’s glory and our own greatest good. So, let’s keep getting any necessary judgments of our own conduct or character out of the way early and often.
Secondly, “Have salt within yourselves,” also means that we’re more willing to have our own selves and lives laid out, examined, cleansed and purified, than we are to go around examining, fixing, correcting everyone else. It means that we let the Lamb of God sit on the Great White Throne in final judgment, and keep taking ourselves down off his throne whenever we find we have climbed up on it again. Before we start ragging too hard on other people, let’s remember that they have probably been going through fiery trials, like us. Let’s remember to ask, What do they need? Not just Where did they go wrong?
Yes, as a church we are committed to accountability, to receiving and giving counsel one to another. Yes, as a church we have covenanted to share the gospel with the world and to act in it for good. But to “have salt within ourselves,” means that we understand and accept that our first field of mission is ever and always ourselves. It means that, whenever someone’s actions or words get our goat and rile us up, before we charge off to crusade, correct and convert our brother or sister, or the world, we lay our hearts and lives open before God and our brother and sister to ask, “What’s my part in this conflict? When and how have I been like this? What have I done before about this that didn’t work? Could my problem with this person be more about me than about him or her? Is he or she just too convenient a scapegoat for something that I don’t want exposed or evaluated about myself?” Having done that, then our words of correction and concern will be, as Paul told the Colossians, “gracious, fully seasoned with salt, appropriate in response to everyone.” That, Jesus said, is how to “be at peace with each other.”
This all depends upon the third action, the most basic: trust. It’s living with enough trust in God’s rightness and righteousness that we’re willing to act upon it, but never so sure of our own rightness nor our righteousness that we’re unwilling to take a word of correction to heart. We trust more in God’s ability to guide us, than in our ability to follow. But still we follow, or try, expecting course corrections once we’re committed, just like you can’t steer a car until it’s actually moving. Or at least you couldn’t before power steering.
Our Anabaptist ancestors who spoke German used the word “gelassenheit” for this quality, which means “yieldedness” or “surrender.” It’s being yielded enough to God that we’re willing to obey God and follow Jesus. But we also yield to any course corrections God wants to show us along the way. Like what Jesus did for John and the disciples, when he challenged their sins of pride and power.
Jesus was simply acting according to his own prayer for all of his disciples, including us, recorded in John 17: “Sanctify them in your truth; your word is truth.” If we are to be salt for the world, then Jesus would have us carry that salt within ourselves, the cleansing, consecrating salt of his word with which he scrubs the hell out of his disciples, so that all that is heavenly might shine more brightly through us.