Sunday, September 27, 2009

Salty disciples

James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

It’s important to pay attention to how anyone tells a story. In the case of our gospel text, the way we break up the story to read small portions of it each week, we can lose the sense of the whole story. The disciples had been out on a mission trip, and had done a lot of healings and casting out of demons. But there was one child they couldn’t heal, apparently because they didn’t pray.

In contrast, in today’s story, someone who doesn’t believe in Jesus is using his name to heal, and it works. The disciples object. “How dare you misuse the name of Jesus to heal people when you refuse to join us!”

The disciples try to stop the man from doing these healings, but he refuses to stop. They have drawn a line in the sand. They go to Jesus and report on him – tattle on him, if you will. In response, Jesus takes his sandal and erases the line. Once again, the disciples don’t get it, and the outsiders can even heal in Jesus’ name.

Jesus calls such actions stumbling blocks. The outsider healer could come to believe in Jesus, even if he doesn’t at the start. The disciples are not to interfere in the process as he comes to faith. Jesus then issues warnings about such interference. We should avoid putting stumbling blocks to faith in anyone’s way.

The punishment is severe. Millstones are huge round stones, turned by donkeys. There were also small ones, used by women to grind small amounts of grain, but the millstone described here would be the equivalent of cement overshoes. Not content with one image, Jesus lays out several more. If your hand, foot, or eye causes you to stumble, or to cause someone else to stumble, you should amputate the offending limb or eye.

Although some interpret these threats literally, they are meant as hyperbole – as extreme exaggeration. Jesus wants us to understand how important it is to not prevent anyone from coming to faith in him, or using their gifts to serve him.

Jesus then softens his message, and turns it into a sort of encouragement. He describes three different uses of salt. First, it is used as a cleanser, and so people are tested and cleansed in order to follow the way of Jesus. Second, salt is used as a seasoning; without seasoning food is bland, unappetizing. Disciples who go astray are like salt losing its saltiness. They have lost their appeal in God’s realm. Third, salt was a sign of a covenant in ancient times. People who shared salt with one another were in fellowship and at peace with each other. Disciples were to model this covenant fellowship.

To summarize Jesus’ points in this passage, disciples should do everything they can to help nonbelievers come to faith, and should not interfere in this. People come to faith in many ways, and the path to faith is almost never a straight line. Growth in faith is a lifelong process, in which we do well to remember the saying, “Please be patient with me. God isn’t finished with me yet.” Our own faith and relationship with Jesus depend on not making it hard for ourselves or others to come to believe in Jesus.

The book of James has provided us with practical advice in living as Christians for several weeks. This week we can look back and see how he describes the ideal life of faithful disciples and congregations. Jesus would describe this as being salty disciples and salty congregations.

· We are to ask God for whatever we need. We can ask for wisdom, for economic equality, for help in withstanding temptation, and for help in generous giving and receiving. Whenever we are in need, we can turn to God with our concerns, and trust that God will hear our prayers.

· We are to speak kindly to and about one another, listen to each other with care and respect, and live out our faith by doing good works, for example taking care of the widows and orphans. When we communicate directly and fairly with each other, the Holy Spirit has apace in which to help us work together even when we disagree on some topics. We do good works in a number of ways: providing food and gift cards for the hungry, shoeboxes for needy children, and we’re getting ready to be involved with Angel Food Ministries.

· We are not to judge one another or to play favorites. This means living on a level playing field, and not assuming we are better or worse than anyone else. The poorest among us is as worthy of respect and love as the wealthiest. For example, I am proud of how warmly we welcomed two boys from the neighborhood last spring, and how excited we were to have the Dade City kids with us during VBS.

· We are to pray for one another. We do that every Sunday, of course, and some of us include the church’s prayer list in our daily prayers at home. Prayer may also include the rite of laying on of hands and anointing. An ancient ritual, this form of prayer for the healing of hearts, minds and bodies is still used today. We offer a monthly healing service on the first Wednesday of every month. To expose more people to the blessings of this service, we will offer the order for healing after each service on October 11.

· We are to do whatever we can to help others know Jesus and come to believe in him, and we are not to put any stumbling blocks to faith in the path of those who are beginning to believe, or whose faith is fragile. We do well to not draw lines in the sand where Jesus would erase them. However people come to us, we welcome them and their ideas and ways of doing things.

In short, we are to be salty disciples, seeking a growing relationship with Jesus, and doing whatever we can to help others believe in him. This growing in faith will look different in each person, and at different times in a person’s life. Being salty includes accepting the differences among us, and seasoning our lives with a variety of activities that express our faith.

Your challenge this week is to watch to see how salty you are. How do you pray? How do you welcome people who are different? How do you take care of those in need? How do you help others know Jesus? How do you, like Jesus, erase the lines others have drawn in the sand?

Please pray with me. Holy and gracious God, we come before you as imperfect people, yet trusting in your love and acceptance. Help us learn from Jesus to accept others as they are, knowing we are all your beloved children. Amen