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!