Mark 9:38-50 / Proper 21B / 30 September 2012 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA
“Salt is good.” It seasons, it preserves, it tickles the taste buds and stimulates the appetite. Dishes that are not salted taste bland and boring. The first thing that many people do when the steak arrives at the table is shake that salt shaker. Even when the doctors have you on blood pressure meds and tell you to lay off the salt, it’s hard to convince the tongue. Sweet and sour and bitter just don’t taste right without salt.
Sacrifices were salted in the OT. Even the grain offerings were salted before they were burned up before the Lord. Apparently the Lord likes salt too. There never is an explanation for why sacrifices are salted, just that they are. That’s how it is with most of the OT. Don’t ask why, just do it. I am the Lord, your God.
“Everyone will be salted with fire,” Jesus says. It that good news or bad? If it’s the unquenchable fire of hell, then it’s extremely bad news. Not the sort of fire you would want to be salted with. If it’s the fire of the Holy Spirit, then good news. Pentecost fire. Burning bush fire. Gospel fire. And Gospel salt.
Salt stings when it finds it’s way into open wounds, and this morning’s salty Gospel reading opens a few wounds. First, a bit of closed-mindedness on the part of the disciples. “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” Good for you, boys. Put a stop to that right away. He didn’t have the synodical seal of approval, and we can’t be having people going around exorcizing demons without the proper credentials now, can we? He’s not of us, Jesus, and who knows what he’s going to do next. He’s wasn’t following us, so we put a stop to that right away.
The old Adam in each of us is a control freak. You need to know that. He likes to have things his way. He doesn’t like it when God is messy at the fringes. He wants all his doctrinal ducks marching in tidy little rows. He doesn’t trust or tolerate things that don’t fit into his set of rules of “how things ought to be.” You see that whenever the Gospel breaks out somewhere, when sinners recognize they are free from the condemnation of the Law, when people held captive to Sin and Death and darkness are freed to walk in the marvelous light of Christ and enjoy true life and freedom, and along come the rule makers with their new list of dos and don’ts now that you are free because we wouldn’t want you to abuse your freedom.
You see it in the “us” vs “them” way we have about speaking. The good guys and the bad guys. The insiders and the outsiders. The entitled and the disenfranchised. The deserving and the undeserving. And, of course, when we do that, by way of our old Adam, we always naturally put ourselves on the winning team. Only someone who perceives himself to be an “insider” would raise an objection to an “outsider.” It’s kind of like being a Calvinist who says God chooses some to be saved and leaves the rest to go to hell. You have to believe that you’re in, that you’re among the elect, that there’s no way in the world you just might be mistaken, in order to speculate that way.
“We told him to knock it off,” the disciples reported, expecting to be praised by Jesus, like a bunch of hall monitors expecting the praise of the vice-principle for catching some kids cutting class. But Jesus turns the tables on them, and on our old Adam too. “Don’t stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” In other words, “Don’t you guys get it by now? It’s not you but me that’s working. You guys are just the instruments, the conduits, a pair of hands and a mouth. The power belongs to me and to my Word. Remember that demon you couldn’t cast out last week? The one that couldn’t be cast out except by prayer? Didn’t you learn anything from that? You don’t run the show. I do. And if I have some guy freelancing for me out on the fringes, well that’s my business, not yours.
“For the one who is not against us is for us.” Funny, we always say it the other way around, in the negative. “He who is not for us is against us.” That’s the way the old Adam thinks. Exclusively. But Jesus runs things inclusively – He who is not against us is for us. And even a cup of cool water on a hot day for one who belongs to Christ is not without its reward.
What infuriates Jesus is stumbling blocks to faith. I translate the Greek word skandalizo not as “cause to sin” but “cause to stumble,” that is, cause to stumble from faith. So that whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me – and Jesus is not referring to children here but the “little ones” of faith – it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. Nasty business. Take home lesson: Don’t mess with someone’s trust in Jesus. Don’t cause someone to doubt their salvation in Christ. Millstones are decidedly not buoyant, and you’re not going to fare well with one tied around your neck.
That means when that control-freaky old Adam kicks up and we start hearing stuff we don’t like or approve of, we take a deep breath and be very careful that we don’t cause someone to stumble in their trust in Jesus. That was one of Luther’s big pastoral principles. It was like the first rule of Hippocrates in medicine. “First, do no harm.” With Luther, that went, “Don’t cause the pious faithful to stumble in their faith.” That’s why Luther was so slow and intentional and careful in instituting changes, even changes like receiving both the Body and Blood of Christ in the Supper. He didn’t want anyone to think that God was now pleased with them because they were “doing it right.” Or that God was pleased with them for ignoring the Pope. Or that God was pleased with them for any reason other than the death and resurrection of Jesus.
We take the gift of faith for granted, I’m afraid. And it is “granted” by God’s undeserved kindness to us. But are we able to hear how radically serious this matter of faith is? If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. If your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out. If what you do with your hands or where you go with your feet or what you see with your eyes causes you to stumble and fall from faith, it’s better to enter the kingdom one-eyed, one-footed, and one-handed and go whole hog to hell.
Obviously, gouging out eyes and lopping off hands and feet isn’t going to help our spiritual situation one bit. Amputation doesn’t change the heart. But it illustrates how utterly radical faith in Christ is. It is the greatest and sole treasure. There is nothing else in your life quite like it. This is what brings resurrection to eternal life, and yet we go through life as though it were nothing. We’re hardly willing to give up the slightest comfort. We even want to be entertained along the way. Never mind cutting off hands and feet and gouging out eyes. That’s not the sort of “faith” that appeals to our old Adam, but he needs to die.
And if you think this is all overstated or just some rhetorical excess, remember where Jesus is going as He is saying these things. He’s going to the cross. He’s going to suffer for the world’s sin. He’s going to have His hands and feet pierced. He’s going to be blinded in the darkness of Death itself. He’s going there to save you, to prepare a place for you, to take that stumbling carcass of yours through death to life, to win for you a salvation that your hands and feet and eyes could neither conceive of nor accomplish for ourselves.
Your life, your forgiveness, your salvation, your faith cost Jesus His life on the cross. That’s why He’s so protective against anyone who would cause you to stumble. That’s why He’s so radical about your faith. Losing a hand or eye or foot is nothing compared to gaining Christ and His salvation.
Faith in Christ is what makes you salty. What seasons and preserves you. What makes the offering of your bodies as living sacrifices acceptable to God. Faith in Christ makes you the salt of the earth, seasoning everything with the perfect life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Salty disciples and a salty church is what the Lord is working by His Spirit as He calls us and gathers us and teaches us and sanctifies us in Jesus. In this bland and tasteless world, Christ scatters us to be salt in this world. To season it with His death and resurrection and forgiveness. And whether it’s casting out demons in His name or simply giving a cup of cold water to a thirsty fellow Christian, it is all the seasoning work of Jesus.
Have salt in yourselves. Have faith in Jesus. Trust Jesus for your forgiveness, life, and salvation. Treasure that gift like no other. It’s literally to die for. And be at peace with one another, because God in Christ is at peace with you.
In the name of Jesus,