26th September 2015 Mark 9.38-50
The Screwtape letters by CS Lewis, if you haven’t come across them, are a series of letters by a senior devil called Screwtape to his trainee demon Wormwood. In the last week I have been reminded by Letter 9 in which Screwtape tells wormwood how to handle his human’s new faith in Christ with a firm dose of apathy. Screwtape writes:
“If he is of the more hopeful type, your job is to make him acquiesce in the present low temperature of his spirit and gradually become content with it, persuading himself that it is not so low after all. In a week or two you will be making him doubt whether the first days of his Christianity were not, perhaps, a little excessive. Talk to him about “moderation in all things.” If you can once get him to the point of thinking that “religion is all very well up to a point,” you can feel quite happy about his soul. A moderated religion is as good for us as no religion at all- and more amusing.”
Moderation – a word I think the disciples were enacting when they found someone else, someone not of their group, doing the things they were doing, like casting out demons. They thought only they should Jesus’ name in that way, with restraint, caution and within the safety of belonging to their church. Only they, they thought, had the power. Or was it really that they were jealous of a man who healed in Jesus’ name because they were more concerned about their own group’s position than in helping to free those troubled by demons? Remember, only just in the last few passages have we heard about the disciples arguing who was the greatest among them. As NT Wright has said; John’s attitude “is a symptom of a disease that afflicts the church to this day. How easy it is for any of us, especially professional clergy and theologians, to assume that the church belongs to us. How easy, too, for people who have always worshipped and prayed within one particular tradition or style to feel that this is the ‘proper’ way. That isn’t to say, of course, that some styles may not be richer, or more satisfying, than others. But out there in the world, beyond even rudimentary theological education and training, there are millions of Christians whom Jesus may be referring to as ‘little ones who believe’. If those who have training and education do anything that excludes such people, they are in deep trouble.”
I agree with Wright that there is a disease in the church where some have very definite ideas of how church should be. However I feel there is also another dis-ease we Christians can suffer from. That is, trying to accommodate everyone in order not to rock the boat. This particular dis-ease was highlighted in a recent speech by the Archbishop Justin Welby who said “he could not leave his eventual successor in the same position of spending vast amounts of time trying to keep people in the boat and never actually rowing it anywhere”.
Both problems of excluding others and keeping people in our gang both stem from aspects of our humanness. We are all by nature social creatures and there is security by belonging to a group. Not only security but in groups one can find affirmation and a sense of fulfilment. This of course all depends on a person’s personality which brings me to the next part of the reading from Mark.
NT wright argues that “The sayings about cutting off hands and feet, and plucking out eyes”, “virtually all readers agree that these commands are not to be taken literally. They refer to precious parts of one’s personality – to aspects of one’s full humanness – which may from time to time cause us to stumble, which may, that is, bring about our ruin as followers of Jesus. The immediate meaning seems to be that John and the others had better watch out in case their desire for honour when Jesus becomes king prevents them in fact from being his disciples at all. Anything that gets in the way must go”.
Jesus is asking for careful examination of our personalities – something that is very hard to do! The best way to go about such examination is during prayer. Asking God to show us the things that are good and the not so good things. And then asking for God’s strength to aid us to change, to be transformed into the likeness of Christ.
God does not want us to be a holy huddle, a club for the likeminded doing things the way things have always been done. He doesn’t want us to blame outside influences for our so called declining church of England.
While speaking about the mission of the universal church, Pope Francis said “The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. … And you have to start from the ground up”.
God wants everyone to become the people he wants us to be, and that is, to be salt and light in the world. To show that the Kingdom of God is breaking in and does make a difference to people’s lives. “When we lose this desire to “salt” the earth with the love and message of God, we become useless to Him”.
The salt Jesus spoke about was not the refined, clean salt we have today but rock salt consisting of salt crystals clinging to rock. Once all the salt had been picked off, just the rock remained.
This can make us question whether we are salty enough? Is this church being salt in this locality? Are wounds being healed? Is the Kingdom of God breaking through?
Or is just the rock left over, making ‘little ones who believe’ stumble? As, after all “A moderated religion is as good for the demons as no religion at all- and more amusing.”