Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Jesus said, “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). Yet this gospel makes me uncomfortable. Unfortunately, these verses have a long and cruel history of literal application. How many hands were cut off, how many feet? How many eyes were plucked out? How many drowned? Who among us doesn’t know someone deeply hurt by the church, or someone claiming religious authority? Religion without grace is a terrible, mean thing that has nothing to do with the gospel of Jesus.
Knowing, as we do, the capacity of bad religion to afflict and to wound, the graphic language used by Jesus would seem more fitting for Halloween than the Good News. In fact, Matthew’s gospel trims this story from seven verses to just two. Luke omits these sayings altogether (cf. Luke 17:1-4) (Eugene Boring). Of course, we could skip right over these verses. Just pretend they’re not there. Yet if we ignore the fact our faith calls for sacrifice, that resurrection includes transformation, it is astonishing how quickly piety becomes an empty, arrogant, and unbearably sanctimonious thing.
Grace is a double-edged sword to free us and change us. The cross is anti-dote to human violence and a call to turn from scapegoating and inflicting harm. If we would call ourselves Christian, then we must dispense mercy and forgiveness, just as we ourselves have received mercy and forgiveness by grace through faith.
So, to wring a up cup of grace from the harsh words of today’s gospel, first, I think it helps to remember Jesus is still teaching the disciples with a child seated in his lap (from last Sunday). The “hell” to which Jesus refers is not a time after death but an actual place called the valley of “ben-hinnom,” a place where idol worshiping Israelites had engaged in child sacrifice. Perhaps Auschwitz or Hiroshima are equivalent places today. This kind of hell is not a threat that comes from God, but from our neighbors and each whenever people turn from God. In a world of institutionalized inequality and dehumanization, the choices are stark. Either we embrace the “fire” of recovery (9:49) or live in the “hell” of our addiction to violence.
Western religions tend to teach that you are punished for your sins. Could it be rather that we are punished by our sins? When religion is reduced to a board game with God keeping score the objectives of faith narrow so it becomes all about me and nothing more. Christianity is not a solo endeavor. It’s not a private relationship between with God. This phrase is never found in the bible. Life with Christ is communal. It’s about a church relationship with Jesus committed loving, serving, and sacrificing for one another as Jesus did.
Through water and the word, through bread and wine, through fellowship in the Spirit, Jesus said, we are salted with fire, and purified by the God of grace for the flourishing of the whole community. Jesus uses a metaphor about salt to teach about the power and promise of grace.
What can salt do? Salt lowers the melting point of snow and ice and also raises the boiling point of water. Salt of the Spirit opens our hearts and deepens our compassion even as it helps us manage the conflicts that naturally boil over among us. This grace makes us salty. One of the unique properties of salt is its ability to blend flavors of many different things together to make them complementary. Salt builds community. Salt welcomes diversity. Just as salt enhances the flavor of the food we eat disciples of Christ add flavor to unify the diverse peoples of the world.
The apostle John ran to Jesus saying, “We saw this unknown, un-credentialed healer doing spectacular things and using your name even though he is not one of us.” The disciples wanted Jesus to prevent someone from doing what they have just failed to do (a few chapters before).
“Envy and jealousy are near-sighted sins. They limit our vision and focus our attention on ourselves and our status” (Culpepper, p. 323). Salt is a natural preservative. The salt of the Holy Spirit plucks out of us those things that spoil good community. Here’s where this gospel becomes truly radical. Here’s where we learn the great Good News that begins to heal the strife and division that so afflicts us today. When it comes to connecting with God in the presence of strangers, with people of different religions, and among those with no religion is it anything goes? How do we tell the difference in what is of Christ and what is not of Christ? The answer: taste and see. “By their fruits, you shall know them,” Jesus said (Matthew 7:16).
Martin Luther expanded on this criterion for recognizing the presence of the salt of grace in each other and among strangers. Luther said, ‘whatever preaches Christ is the pure and salty gospel, even if Judas Iscariot said it. Conversely, whatever doesn’t preach Christ is not the gospel, even if Saints Peter or Paul said it.’ It is the salty heart of faith that recognizes the truth about our brothers and sisters in Christ –even when we disagree, even when they play for the opposing team, even though we belong to different tribes.
The salt we have in us is love. It is a love worth living for, changing for, sacrificing for, and dying for. Perhaps because of love we don’t have as much money as we would otherwise have. Perhaps because of love we don’t have as much time as we would like to watch Netflix. We haven’t gone as far as we could have in our career. Our reputation has been damaged. Our hearts have been broken. We have tried and we have failed. Yet we have no regrets.
In these stern words from Jesus today, we find a promise and invitation. God can use whatever you have to give flavor to the world. God’s grace is truly good news for people weary of petty religious battles. Grace is timely good news for people who are wounded, in landscapes that have been shattered, for communities that have been broken by religious intolerance.
Wisdom begins with the knowledge we all stand in need of mercy. See, by grace we are poured out of the saltshaker and into the world. We embrace the things that make us different, not to stand apart, but to stand together. With the salt of grace, God prepares a banquet from the meager stuff of our lives. Bring me who you are. Bring me your weaknesses. I will strengthen them. Bring me your doubts. I will quiet them. Bring me your shortcomings and your limitations. I will fill you with abundance. Amen.