Saturday, 27 October 2018

St Bartholomew, Brighton Trinity 22 (30B) Bartimaeus 28 October 2018

I want to take us into the Gospel Reading using our imagination in the manner taught by St Ignatius Loyola.

I invite you to personalise the story of Bartimaeus in Mark 10:46b-52 as we seek the ministry of the Holy Spirit to do what he is always ready to do - make Our Lord real for us today. So, come Holy Spirit, touch our minds and hearts as we read through this sacred text. It may help to follow me on the pew sheet.

Look at verse 46: ‘They came to Jericho: and as he went out of Jericho with his disciples and a great number of people, blind Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, sat by the highway side begging’. ['Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (that is, the Son of Timaeus), was sitting by the roadside begging.NRSV]

A few notes on the context:

1) Holy Land Geography meant Galileans coming to Jerusalem Feasts came through Jericho to avoid Samaria

2) Jesus approaches his Passion. Of the 20 pages say of Mark's Gospel 10 are about Holy Week & Jesus' suffering, death & resurrection. Chapters 10 set the scene for Chs. 11-16. This chapter of St. Mark is the last word before Palm Sunday

3) The large crowd were no doubt drawn not just to Jerusalem for Passover Feast but drawn to travel with Jesus to Jerusalem.

4) The preoccupation of Jesus with his coming Passion..the last few days of teaching before His saving action...the pressing in of the crowd..in all of this Jesus is open to the Spirit drawing him to stop and give his all to one needy person...Bartimaeus son of Timaeus.

Wonder at the availability of the God Jesus shows us...Earlier this month we heard that the first moon outside our solar system, a gas giant the size of Neptune, may have been discovered...wonder at the immensity of it all... He made all of this yet He listens to my heartbeat… the attentiveness and availability of God in Christ!

Read  v47-48 second paragraph ‘And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out, and say, Jesus, thou son of David, have mercy on me. And many charged him that he should hold his peace: but he cried the more a great deal, Thou son of David, have mercy on me’. ['When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"  Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, "Son of David, have mercy on me!"']

1)  Faith is a virtue and a gift. Some people find the virtue of faith easier than others by nature and temperament.
We can all ask for faith and those who are asking for faith always receive and their faith grows.

Bartimaeus was given a special gift of faith to recognise Jesus as who He was, the 'Son of David', the Messiah, the One promised in the Old Testament who would bring in God's rule over all evil. The One Isaiah said would 'open the eyes of the blind'. In our Old Testament reading Jeremiah promises God’s special care for the blind.
The healing of the blind in Chapter 10 of Mark's Gospel comes just before the account of the Lord's Passion, as if to say "the Messiah, the One who is promised to be an opener of the eyes of the blind has come. Now see in the account of His Passion what he is prepared to do for you and for me!"

Fr. Hebert of Kelham wrote of this Gospel passage, "I am Bartimaeus and hear the Lord passing by on the way to the Cross, but because of the dullness of my blinded sight, I do not know what it means..so I cry to Him for light".

The Creed says Jesus is God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God  and Jesus is as available to you and me as he was to Bartimaeus. Only unbelief pretends this is not so...

2)  'Have mercy on me' Bartimaeus cries. Would that be my prayer before Jesus today? It is a frequent bidding in our liturgy. We call out for mercy half a dozen or so times in the Mass: in the Kyries of course, then in the middle of the Gloria, in the Agnus Dei and its implied when we say the ‘Lord I am not worthy’.

The prayer of the lips has to become the prayer of the heart. Only when I admit my need for God deep down can He fill me deep down - however many times I pray with my lips!

3)  Note the determination and persistence shown by Bartimaeus. One commentator on this Gospel says, 'Jesus is halted by the impassioned cry of need characterised by determination, definiteness and faith'. In other words Bartimaeus was not messing around with the Lord  He meant business.
Have you got business with God this morning?  Facing Jesus means facing myself and all that falls short in my life, my relationships, my sin...'Square with God and He will square with you'. It's a deal and it takes courage to lay all our soiled cards on the table before the Lord. Yet the Lord has deep compassion. Our sins are but dust before Him.

Read v49-52 last paragraph: ‘And Jesus stood still, and commanded him to be called. And they call the blind man, saying unto him, Be of good comfort, rise; he calleth thee. And he, casting away his garment, rose, and came to Jesus. And Jesus answered and said unto him, What wilt thou that I should do unto thee? The blind man said unto him, Lord, that I might receive my sight. And Jesus said unto him, Go thy way; thy faith hath made thee whole. And immediately he received his sight, and followed Jesus in the way.
['Jesus stopped and said, "Call him." So they called to the blind man, "Cheer up! On your feet! He's calling you." Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus. "What do you want me to do for you?" Jesus asked him. The blind man said, "Rabbi, I want to see." "Go," said Jesus, "your faith has healed you." Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.]
1) Notice the eagerness and openness in that action of throwing off the cloak. Much of Christian discipleship is a matter of 'throwing off the cloak'. Facing God, letting God into areas of our life he knows full well about but needs our permission to deal with. He respects our privacy though as God he sees right through us. It's up to us not him to reveal ourselves, to cast off our cloak bit by bit for the healing work of the divine mercy.

2) Jesus said to him, 'What do you want me to do for you?'

What - a blind beggar in front of him and Jesus asks 'What do you want me to do for you?'?

It's conceivable Bartimaeus as a beggar saw Jesus as rich enough to reward him well if he heard him calling. On that theory Jesus in this testing question might have been making a final check on whether Bartimaeus really wanted to lose his blindness  - it was after all a source of income. If he wanted to be healed he must be prepared to face the consequences earning his own keep rather than begging.
Thinking more widely it helps to look at the whole of Mark Chapter 10 since, as we learned last week, Jesus asks exactly the same question of his two apostles James and John, 'What do you want me to do for you?' They answer 'Give us important posts'. Bartimaeus answers, 'help me to see more clearly'.

In the Old Testament God offered King Solomon wisdom or riches. Because Solomon chose wisdom God rewarded him with both. James and John asked for privileges and were humbled by Jesus. Bartimaeus asked for mercy and for sight and he was granted it.

The fact that Bartimaeus followed Jesus shows his cure was not just physical healing but a deeper work. His inner eyes were opened to the reality of God in Jesus just as his outer eyes were opened to the world around him in all its beauty. Bartimaeus gained access to a greater beauty than physical sight can show us, the beauty of Jesus in his fullness as Lord and Saviour.

So we come back to this Gospel passage. It was written nearly 2000 years ago about Bartimaeus and Jesus. As we welcome the Holy Spirit we see this Scripture to be really about God and I.

I am Bartimaeus in need of sight and light on my life's journey.

I am Bartimaeus persistent in prayer, determined to get what God wants for me.

I am Bartimaeus ready to throw off the cloak of pretentiousness and open my life to the Lord.

And if I am Bartimaeus Jesus is the Son of God, the same yesterday, today and always.

He is present right now as he was in Jericho and is willing and capable of flooding my soul with Light, Glorious Light.

He has a way forward for me, a reason and purpose for all who will welcome Him this morning.

Let us keep silence for a moment before him...

Lord Jesus, we believe You are here as you were in Jericho long ago.
We want to spring into Your presence like Bartimaeus.
We are casting off our cloaks now before You.
Touch our inner eyes that we may see things as they really are.
Open our eyes to the reality of Your presence with us and our great need of Your mercy.
Make us ready to follow you as You summon us to go with you.
Bless us as we turn to you, O Christ, with all the expectancy of Bartimaeus!
Jesus, bringer of Sight and Light, have mercy upon us in Your great Compassion!

Saturday, 20 October 2018

Trinity 21 29th Week (B) What Jesus does for us - Presentation Church, Haywards Heath 21 October 2018

What does Jesus do for us?

What does it mean for us as he says in today’s gospel that he came to give his life a ransom for many (Mark 10.45)?

There are three main Christian doctrines – the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Atonement. This morning the readings centre on this last doctrine, Atonement, how God and humanity are made one by what Jesus does for us.

How do we understand this making God one with us that Our Lord achieves?

More importantly how do we not only understand the doctrine but see it taking effect so that we know God not just only as our maker but as our saviour?

These are questions that spill out of all three scriptures this morning.

The Isaiah 53 passage was chosen to illuminate the text I read from Mark 10.45 at the end of today’s gospel. There Jesus makes a prediction of his coming Passion which pours cold water on the arrogance of James and John who thought their Lord was going to take worldly power and wanted part of his worldly glory. No, Our Lord says, my kingdom will be built from suffering service. The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.  

Isaiah foresaw the lonely figure on Calvary who would bear the immense burden of sin separating human beings from their maker and how that sin bearing would cost the suffering servant his life like a lamb that is led to the slaughter. The passage hints at the tomb of Jesus given by the rich man, Joseph of Arimathea, verse 9, they made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich. It concludes with a prophecy of the resurrection, verse 12. Let me read on from that passage, Isaiah 53. Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

Jesus himself gave no explanation of how his death and rising again made atonement other than to point to this scripture. Only after his resurrection did his followers reflect more fully upon what Jesus did and does for us as Saviour.

So we can move on to the second reading by the anonymous author of the letter to the Hebrews. Here in this letter is the best source of teaching in scripture on the doctrine of the Atonement. This teaching centres on the priesthood of Christ by which Jesus takes what he did on Calvary and pleads it for all time in heaven. It’s this his pleading that we join to at the Eucharist.

Today’s small section of Hebrews is from chapter 5. We read: Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sin.

[Priests have a ministry of representing mortals to the immortal God and the immortal God to mortals. The passage goes on to outline how Christ was appointed high priest by God but with full sympathy for humanity. He is the Son of God become Son of Man. In this passage we see graphic evidence of Christ’s humanity. It’s a powerful account actually of the passion of Our Lord that begins with his tears in the Garden of Gethsemane. It provides one of the most moving evidences in the bible of how deeply Jesus engaged with our pain and sorrow.

Let’s read this account in verse 7: In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.]
What does Jesus do for us?

Jesus shows us a God who expects nothing from us he’s not prepared to go through. But he shows us much more. He shows us God’s love and holiness, our need of them both and how we can attain to both.

Our Lord brings us atonement. He makes a way for the God of love and holiness to be one with us in our dignity and frailty.

In giving himself he does so in costly love. He does so on account of the requirements of God’s holiness. He does so because only by the Cross and its pleading for ever in the heavenly sanctuary can women and men be won to glory.

When we look at the Cross we see four things.

We see the love of God fully displayed.

We see the holiness of God in his hatred of sin. The Cross shows what sin feels like to God.

We see our dignity because this act of atonement is given to rescue us for eternal glory.

We see our frailty. Where else do we see the terrible consequences of our sin?

The doctrine of the Atonement is an awesome mystery. We will never fully understand the doctrine but that won’t stop us seeing it take effect in our lives so that we know God not just as our maker but as our saviour.

How does it effect our lives?

The Cross is once and for all but Jesus lives as eternal high priest to plead its benefits.  Inasmuch as we repent of our sins and trust Jesus all that he has done for us comes into operation in our lives bringing forgiveness, healing, deliverance and freedom in the Spirit.

As verse 9 of the Hebrews Chapter 4 passage states Jesus has become the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. What is salvation other than an eternal relationship with God sealed on his side by love and ours by the obedience of faith.

Yes all that Jesus does for us comes to us as we obey. Faith isn’t a feeling it’s obedience. It has its beginning in baptism, which is our great ‘yes’ to God and ‘no’ to self. It has its end in the vision of God face to face with the selfless adoration of all the saints.

The good news of Christianity is very simple.

God made us for friendship. Sin became a barrier to that friendship. God sent Jesus to lift away that barrier making us friends of God.

Things get between us and God so that we’re not at one. Sin, fear, sickness, bondage, anxiety, death and the devil get in the way. Jesus brings atonement – at one ment literally – because what he did in his coming, his suffering, death and resurrection has established the means to overcome these evils - if we use them. That means that the words we read today in Isaiah he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases come true when we trust his healing power. When we read he bore the sins of many that can become true in our experience when we seek his forgiveness and become one of the many who’re made one with God through Jesus.

Atonement isn’t just a doctrine it’s a way of life. It’s living one to one, heart to heart with God.

This is what Jesus does for us.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Giggleswick School, Settle Yorkshire 14th October 2018

Do you want to be great?

Great people - people fondly thought of - aren’t those seeking to further themselves but those recognised for furthering the good of others.

They’re also resilient - a term set as our theme for this week which means able to withstand misfortune.

Great people have capacity to rise above what Hamlet calls the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and bounce back into life with a compassionate focus.

It's strange how suffering can make you better as a person though no human being worth their salt would deny how awful it can be to suffer.

All world views have something to say about suffering and most face it head on encouraging resilience rather than escape, let alone the suicide Hamlet pondered in that passage to be or not to be which includes the slings and arrows line.

In my day at Giggleswick Mr Wood would stare down from his high plinth at our English class and say: ‘To be or not to be Twisleton?’ if I was his unfortunate choice. My response would be to complete the Shakespeare passage from the memorising homework we were then given. It was indeed one of the the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune to have to answer Keith Wood, rest his soul!

I chose the account of Christ’s death and resurrection in Mark’s Gospel and Paul’s practical reference to that event in Philippians to fit this term’s miracle series in Chapel and address resilience from a Christian perspective.

In the first passage one who is acclaimed God’s Son is done to death only to rise again. It's the key passage of what’s called the Christian revelation. In Christianity what God’s like isn’t made up so much as revealed through historical events. Many of these events are strange and some say fanciful, especially in parts of the Old Testament, but those of Good Friday and Easter Sunday stand in a different league. A former head of the Judiciary said no jury in the world would provide a negative verdict on their happening such is the overwhelming evidence, positive and negative, factual and circumstantial.

The second passage from Philippians spells out how Christianity sees resilience. It's a passionate statement of allegiance to the risen Lord Jesus Christ which links knowing Jesus to living out the first passage as his disciple, dying to self and rising to him. It's about sharing suffering and gaining hope within it from the promise of resurrection. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Paul writes, adding: Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.

How do you see Good Friday and Easter?

At one level they’re events to be weighed up and not lightly dismissed. At another level they reveal a God who’s not above suffering and doesn’t expect anything of us he’s not ready to go through himself. At yet another level, that taught by Paul in his letter to Philippi, the suffering and resurrection of God’s Son are the clue to resilience.

When things go down in life you know God’s not aloof from you and even that dark tunnel of death has got a light at the end. This we call the good news or Gospel of Jesus Christ.

You will recall from the passage Jesus cried in his death agony ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ It’s actually a verse from one of the Psalms, so it wasn’t a terrible thing to say, but it must have shaken folk around him, given the godly reputation Jesus had. In that cry God was making his own cries of the tormented down through the ages. No wonder that total outsider, the Centurion on duty, is recorded as saying there and then: ‘Truly this man was God’s Son’! From that dark place Jesus the Son is raised two days later by God the Father through their Holy Spirit rolling back the stone from the entrance to the tomb. Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified Saint Mark records the mysterious young man dressed in a white robe saying. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.

All the forces of evil from every age and place met Jesus head on and in resilience he met and overthrew them. He took in suffering, death and all the powers of evil, absorbed and transformed them.

Do you want to be great?


To attain greatness is to take part in such a battle, to gain an ambition beyond being good at what you do and succeeding in it, an ambition Christianity states as one: to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings so that by becoming like him in his death, you [and others your enthusiasm infects] attain the resurrection from the dead.

The resilient explorer Laurens Van der Post complained in these words about what he calls elsewhere the Church’s domestication of God. One of the strangest ideas ever conceived is the idea that religion is the opium of the people, because religion is a call to battle…human beings in their rational selves...shy like frightened horses away from a God who is not the source of opium for people but a reawakening of creation and a transcending of the forces and nuclear energies in the human soul.

So be it - God wake in us such a vision of God, such passion and supernatural perspective!

Van der Post was imprisoned by the Japanese during the World War Two and lived under the threat of execution. A date was set. The night before he records experiencing a tremendous thunderstorm outside his prison. He saw in this storm a strengthening truth, as if from the awesome truth of the resurrection. The Japanese weren’t ultimately in control. The storm witnessed a greater than human power which in the end would decide all. He was spared execution.

It’s the Lord’s day - the day of resurrection!

God open our hearts and minds to possibilities that exceed our imagining!

May the Lord build in us the resilience we need to turn misfortune to good and build the outward focus to our lives that will make us truly great!

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Trinity 19 (27th of Year) Marriage - Ascension Haywards Heath 7th Oct 2018

Joe and Lydia phoned about getting married. Lydia had been married before. We spent two hours together looking at how a service of prayer and dedication after a civil marriage might fit the bill and they agreed to that as a principled way forward.
I visited Harry and Joan whose son Kevin had just come out to them as gay and wanted to get married in Church. We discussed how the love of Jesus is for us all, heterosexual or homosexual, though when it comes to institutions marriage in his and our book isn’t same-sex.
Bella and Luke are cohabiting without marriage but came to me to seek baptism for little David. They want the best for him. I explained the best for Christians involves marriage so, after a few meetings, they fix a date for David’s baptism whilst committing to marriage the next year.
Ingrid is a Christian student alarmed by the expectation at College that full sexual relations follow just brief acquaintance. In conversation with her I encourage her to hold fast to belief that sexual intercourse is a union of life-giving love and not just physical gratification and to pray for God to lead her to the right man to be her husband.
Roger shares with me his addiction to internet pornography which has severed his understanding of sex from loving commitment. I help him find God’s forgiveness and turn the page on this so he is made free to socialise and find himself a life partner of God’s choice.
I thought I’d share some pastoral encounters I’ve had over my 41 years as a priest, changing names, as a way of bringing sense out of  today’s scripture with its focus on the sacrament of marriage.
We read in the holy Gospel from Mark 10.7-10 that from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’
Our Lord draws his teaching from our first reading, Genesis 1.21-24 which ends with the injunction Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.
In Mark Chapter 10 Our Lord challenges this maltreatment of women and the culture of easy divorce weighted towards men. He goes out of his way to uphold marriage as first conceived in Genesis over against the easy divorce of his day as we read in the Gospel v11-12 He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’
Marriage according to Christ is the union of man and woman for life and what a high bar it can be in a society where 2014 statistics show 34% of marriages are expected to end in divorce by the 20th wedding anniversary, an unprecedented phenomenon bringing pain to many in our close acquaintance.
My talk with Joe and Lydia involved a culture clash. They came to me expecting to repeat vows in Church as it can happen in law, and I had a task I frequently have of explaining that the law gives us the right to do many things that aren’t right. In Christian marriage we seek irrevocable love, which means the sort of love Jesus showed on the cross which can never be called back. We fall short of that love, yes, so repeating wedding vows in the lifetime of a previous spouse has to have a difference about it which, in Church, looks to a merciful Redeemer to give a new start based on being honest before God.
With Kevin I have to explain how the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act may have rewritten marriage on the UK statute books to make husband and wife gender neutral but the Church of Jesus Christ is exempted. In Christianity marriage remains a life-long faithful  commitment between a man and a woman, ordained by nature, and by God for the creation of the family and future generations. Kevin’s love for Andrew may be from God, as is all friendship, and that sort of love the Church can bless, but not a physical union that neither nature nor God in his Word or his Church in her teaching can sanction. The recent change in the law is a privatising of marriage so its content is now whatever the couple wish to construct.
Scripture says – and Mark 10:7-8 is the clearest text of all - a man shall… be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.
In same sex marriage things don’t fit together in the plain sense of marriage. Hearts do fit together though, as for Kevin and Andrew, so that my pastoral encounter, or anyone of our encounters with gay couples, is a struggle from the point of view of balancing Christian hospitality and teaching. I remember meeting a lesbian couple who were having twins. Whilst wishing them the best at a human level I left profoundly troubled in heart at this form of parenthood that severs the unitive and procreative aspects of marriage.  
Bella and Luke cohabiting without marriage were in one sense no different to Kevin and Andrew but this pastoral encounter, related to the request for David’s baptism, was more a matter of talking through how marriage in Christianity is far more than an expensive ceremony. You can get married for less than £10,000 and it was great to see them as parents publicly celebrating the love that brought David into the world as the family headed for commitment to Our Lord at his baptism.
For Ingrid, the Christian student alarmed by promiscuity at College and her own shortcomings, and Roger struggling with viewing pornography, my main task as a priest was to remind them of the high standards Our Lord expects alongside his mercy, which covers sexual sins as much as any other, complicated through a strange shame. I quote C.S.Lewis on God’s mercy. No amount of falls will really undo us if we keep picking our- selves up each time. We shall of course be very muddy and tattered children by the time we reach home. But the bathrooms are all ready, the towels put out, and the clean clothes are in the airing cupboard. The only fatal thing is to lose one’s temper and give it up. It is when we notice the dirt that God is most present in us; it is the very sign of His presence.
It’s my earnest prayer that what I share from God’s Word this morning far from defeating us helps our empowerment as witnesses of humanity put into their right mind by Jesus Christ. Over the last half century contraception has given new controls to parents who in past ages saw the procreative side of marriage damaging the unitive or love side. Now we’ve turned the circle with such emphasis on the unitive side that those procreated, the children we have, fewer and more blessed materially, are for one in three families casualties of divorce.
There’s little we can do save knowing and handing on Christian teaching on the ideals of marriage and celibacy as appropriate, as well as the ways we have been helped in our own walk by the grace and the forgiving mercy of God.  
Sex outside marriage is a sin, as Christ makes clear in today’s Gospel, but context and blameworthiness is a separate issue. In today’s culture I would say having sex outside marriage is less blameworthy since folk no longer know or understand or follow the way of Christ, which is partly our fault, hence my not ducking a troublesome issue even at 8.30am on a Sunday morning. As a Church, we’ll get nowhere unless we hold ourselves to Jesus’ teaching so our words and deed fit together. In walking the talk it’s desperately important not to make the best the enemy of the good. Our Lord sets forth the best but is forgiving to those who fall short. We should applaud openly Christian gays, bisexuals and transgender folk and look to them for guidance on how best you live close to Jesus within a sexual minority.
Many of us will know second marriages where God is evidently at work and first marriages where he needs to get in more, so to speak, or same-sex unions that seem more godly than heterosexual unions. This is the human reality but it would become so much more inhuman without the wise standard Jesus sets us. The sayings of Jesus are unlike the sayings of say the Buddha. Jesus not only gave his teaching, he gave us his life to seal it by his release of the Holy Spirit able to empower us not just to hear what he says but to do what he says and to do it cheerfully.  There is no word of God without power. Let’s believe it – however much it might cost!

Friday, 28 September 2018

St Bartholomew, Brighton Trinity 18 (26B) 30 September 2018

‘We need a heart of flame towards God’ wrote Saint Augustine, ‘a heart of love towards our fellows and a heart of steel towards ourselves’.

Those three aspirations frame today’s difficult Gospel from Saint Mark Chapter 9 verse 38 to 50. In this passage we see the wideness of God’s mercy at the beginning and end but the middle section is steely indeed, with hellfire thrown in for good measure. Let’s have a closer look.

And John answered him, saying, Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name, and he followeth not us: and we forbade him, because he followeth not us. But Jesus said, Forbid him not: for there is no man which shall do a miracle in my name, that can lightly speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is on our part. For whosoever shall give you a cup of water to drink in my name, because ye belong to Christ, verily I say unto you, he shall not lose his reward.  [John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop 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. Whoever is not against us is for us. 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.]

As practicing Christians become a small minority in Britain there’s a danger of our becoming a narrow minority. Into this scenario we need to hear Our Lord’s counter to his disciples narrowness when they stopped others using his name to heal: For he that is not against us is on our part or in NRSV translation Whoever is not against us is for us. Our Lord assumes and brings out the best in people including ourselves. As we look up to him we’re uplifted ourselves, especially at Mass, as we see his loving gaze down on us extending beyond the walls of our Church towards the inhabitants of this great city. There are many around us not against us. Sometimes we fall short like the first disciples by narrowing Christianity into an exclusive preserve. Christ died for all!

Let’s move on now into the second more troublesome paragraph of the Gospel. Here we move from our heart of flame towards God and the world to the heart of steel required towards ourselves as Christian disciples, Mark Chapter 9 verses 42 to 48:

And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea. And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. [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. 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. 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., 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, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.]

Forbidding the strange exorcist, narrowing down the work of the kingdom, is dangerous, Our Lord says, because it causes little ones to stumble. Those who teach the Faith need to be watchful lest they make unnecessary obstacles that upset and alienate the vulnerable. I may have been guilty of that last time I preached on Pride Sunday, please forgive me - we do our best in the pulpit, trusting the Holy Spirit to counter our failings, especially when there’s risk of making the best the enemy of the good of individuals.  

Now to those extraordinary verses in the Gospel about physical mutilation being a lesser evil than unfaithful discipleship. And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched. [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.] Is there anywhere else in Our Lord’s teaching where his message of the primacy of the life of the soul is put so forcefully? It's not my task to explain it away. Where we catch on to this, get shocked into seeing things we need to put right in our lives and circumstances, we’re indeed in spiritual peril if we don’t act on them. We need to fix the things we know need fixing that we also know are in our power to fix. Something easier said than done - though it's good to say it in the pulpit for there’s no word of God without power!

In my youth I was very troubled by lustful thoughts, which have the destructive effect of schooling you in seeing people as objects and not women and men with beauty to be honoured and given thanks for. I learned several strategies.
One was, when the thoughts came, to imagine my soul on fire - which it was - and seeing a bucket of water thrown over it by the Holy Spirit. Another was to make the thought trigger prayer for the conversion of China, which I came to realise greatly annoyed the devil who would then pull away the lust. Another was to follow the advice of today’s epistle and go to Confession to a priest: confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed (James 5:16a). Best of all I learned to practise giving thanks for human beauty which takes me out of my selfish urges into the praise of God who made that beauty.

Such is the heart of steel we disciples need towards ourselves, towards a conceited, disdaining mindset, towards a spirit of entitlement, towards an attitude of arrogance, towards those seven deadly sins of pride, anger, lust, envy, gluttony, avarice and sloth, all of which corrode us inside. Our Lord wants them, not us, on the fire - his reference to hell, Gehenna, the ever burning rubbish heap in a valley outside Jerusalem. We don’t need to take him literally on hell but we do need to take the corrosive impact of uncontested sin seriously.

So to the last two verses which pick up that fire image: For every one shall be salted with fire, and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt. Salt is good: but if the salt have lost his saltness, wherewith will ye season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace one with another. [For everyone will be salted with fire. 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.] There are some 15 interpretations of these obscure verses. One that fits the drift of my framework from the Augustine quote is about Christian disciples seasoning the world. Having a heart of flame towards God and a heart of steel so far as one’s own discipleship goes is destined to overflow in a heart of love for one’s fellows. This interpretation builds from the use of salt elsewhere in Our Lord’s teaching as an image of his disciples seasoning the world. If we lose our saltiness, our cutting edge as Christians, we will be less effective as servants of the common good.

‘We need a heart of flame towards God, a heart of love towards our fellows and a heart of steel towards ourselves.’ As we lift ourselves to God at this Mass - as we lift up our hearts - we capture his loving gaze upon us, upon this great city and many around us not against us. That heart of love towards our fellows seasons the common good in Brighton and beyond but it does so at a price - that heart of steel we need to exercise more and more towards ourselves, the fixing of the things we know need fixing in our lives that we also know are within our power to fix which will guarantee we keep spiritual saltiness. Let’s fix these things, the Lord being our helper!