Saturday, October 16, 2021

The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Sundays after Trinity

Here is the transcript to my latest podcast. The podcast is based on the end of the Gospel reading for the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity and the Gospel for the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity.

The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Sundays after Trinity

Reading: Mark 10:13-31

In the Gospel reading for my last podcast we read how our Lord, having taken a child into his arms, said that anyone who welcomes one such child welcomes him (Mark 9:36-37). Jesus said this in response to the disciples’ argument about who was the greatest. Jesus told them that whoever wants to become great must become the least of all and the servant of all. The child in his arms showed them what that looked like. Not the sweet innocent child we normally think of, but a child as a child would have been seen in Jesus’ own time: someone weak, despised, and powerless. If as Jesus’ followers we are to be Jesus’ representatives, that is how we too must become, in the same way he became such a one for us.

In our Gospel for this podcast, Jesus expands on this theme just as he will again in our next Gospel reading for the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity. This isn't something to the periphery of Jesus teaching; it is central to Jesus’ teaching about what it means to be one of his followers. Our gospel reading contains two well-known stories.

In the first story, people are bringing little children to Jesus, so that he might touch them. The disciples, who share the same general contempt of children as most people of the age did, try to stop this happening. They see bringing children to Jesus as a waste of Jesus’ time. Rather than being troubled with children, Jesus, they believe, should be allowed to get on with what really matters.

Jesus, however, is indignant, and he orders the disciples to let the little children come to him. Jesus then uses the children who come to him both as role models and to teach about the Kingdom of God and discipleship. It is, Jesus says, to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs. Jesus says to the disciples:

‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ (Mark 10:14-15)

Jesus has previously told his disciples that if they want to represent him as one of his disciples, they must become as a little child. He now makes an even stronger statement. No one can enter the Kingdom of God itself unless they receive it as a little child. Anyone who wants to enter the Kingdom of God must receive it in trust and obedience as one who has no right to it and no power in themselves to gain it.

Initially, the next story doesn't seem to be connected. It is, however, an example of the practical application of Jesus’ teaching concerning as it does a person who wants to find eternal life and enter the Kingdom of God. It is again a well-known story.

As Jesus is setting off on a journey, a man runs up to Jesus and kneels before him. The man wants Jesus to know he takes Jesus seriously. The man is not like the Pharisees who only ask Jesus questions in an attempt to trick him and catch him out. The man’s question is simple and straightforward:

‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ (Mark 10:17)

In answering, Jesus begins by questioning the man’s use of the word ‘good’. Surely, Jesus asks, it is only God himself who is good? Jesus then continues by pointing out to the man that the man knows God’s commandments. The man replies that he is kept all of them since he was a youth. Jesus doesn't respond by telling the man he is deceiving himself, or that he is lying, or by giving him a Protestant type sermon about the impossibility of keeping the Law. Jesus accepts that the man has kept the commandments just as St Paul is able to write that he kept the law blamelessly (Philippians 3:6).

Instead, St Mark writes that Jesus looks at the man and loves him. Jesus, in looking at the man, sees someone who is genuine in his desire to please God and find eternal life, but Jesus also sees the man’s need. Jesus tells him:

‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ (Mark 10:21)

What the man lacks is Jesus, and the obstacle getting in the way of him entering the Kingdom of God is his wealth. Jesus tells the man to get rid of his wealth and follow him. Jesus has said that the Kingdom of God must be received as a little child. That means a person must receive it as one with no wealth or status. This goes against everything the man has been brought up to believe. That Jesus has understood the man’s problem is to be seen in the man’s reaction. He is shocked and goes away very upset, because, St Mark informs us, he has many possessions.

It is not only the rich man who Jesus shocks; the disciples are even more shocked by what Jesus says next. In what is a well-known saying, Jesus tells them it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God. The disciples ask, if that is the case, who can be saved. If it is so difficult for someone who is righteous, respectable, and rich to be saved, who then can be? For humans, says Jesus, it is impossible, but not for God; ‘for God all things are possible’.

Applying Jesus’ teaching here is a real challenge. At first sight, at least Jesus’ teaching about letting the little children come to him seems straightforward enough.

It used to be the case that the church was rather like the disciples. Children, in the past, were not particularly welcome in church. Sunday School was often as much about providing somewhere for the children to go while the adults went to church as it was about teaching them about Jesus. It kept children out of the way, somewhere where they could do no harm, while adults got on with worshipping God.

This has largely changed. We now in the church try to be welcoming to children. I would like to think this is because we are taking Jesus’ words in our reading seriously. It is, however, as much about general trends in society as a whole as it is about faithfulness to Jesus’ teaching.

You often see restaurants and hotels advertising themselves as ‘child-friendly’ or family-friendly’, and we in the church, not to be outdone, also want to be ‘child-friendly’ and ‘family-friendly’ in our approach. Frankly, our new openness to children is largely because we have somewhat belatedly come to realise that if we aren't, then no one is going to come to our churches. Many churches are paying the price in the present for the church’s failure to be ‘family-friendly’ in the past. Congregations, in many places, are now predominantly elderly and ageing. Our past unfriendliness is not, by any means, the only reason why families don’t come to church, but it is a part of it.

Thankfully, there are churches that have managed to change, and which have been successful in attracting and welcoming families. But there is more to being child-friendly than becoming a religious version of Disney. It is all very well giving children a welcome, telling them stories, and keeping them entertained. We need, more importantly, to bring them to a place where they can be touched by Jesus.

Yes, we need to teach children the stories of Jesus, and it is certainly true that if they don't hear them from us, they are not going to hear them anywhere else. Schools, even church schools, don't give much time to teaching Bible stories, even though they are an important part of human history and culture apart from any spiritual value they may have.

Sadly, more often than not, the best we can hope for in schools is the occasional Scripture lesson. Schools are too busy teaching what they consider are the more important subjects to be bothered with what they see as something that children can get on a Sunday, if that is what their parents want. Unfortunately, however, even parents who consider themselves church members often think there are more important things for their children to be doing on a Sunday than going to church. If it’s a competition between a parent taking their child to church or their child receiving football coaching, I wouldn’t bet on church winning.

Teaching Bible stories, then, is important, and it is a responsibility not to be taken lightly. There is, however, an even greater need to teach, not only the stories of Jesus, but also the values and attitudes of Jesus which the stories convey. The values and attitudes children are learning at school and in the world, as well as not being the values and attitudes of Jesus, are often quite the opposite and are even hostile to our faith.

The rich man who lived a good life and was materially successful is far more likely to be held up as a role model for children growing up than the ‘little ones’ who have left all to follow Jesus. How many church schools, for example, in giving career advice, warn children that pursuing certain careers in order to become materially well off and successful will make it harder for them to enter the Kingdom of God?

Worse still, children are being constantly exposed to material that is both dangerous and damaging. For example, kids encounter pornography at a frighteningly young age. We want a world that is safe for our children, but the online world, which is as real to them as the physical world, is anything but safe.

Welcoming children and taking them in our arms as Jesus did needs also to be about protecting them from everything that may harm them and keep them from entering the Kingdom of God. It will also mean teaching the values and attitudes of Jesus, so that they have a firm foundation for their lives. This is a huge and important topic, and much more could and should be said. Suffice it for now to say that we must do more, and do it better, if we are to take seriously Jesus’ words here about letting the little children come to him.

Welcoming children in the way Jesus wants us to welcome them is itself then a big challenge, but Jesus wants us to do more than welcome children; he also challenges us to learn from them. Having told the disciples off for preventing children from coming to him, Jesus turns the tables on the disciples and tells them they must learn from children how to enter the Kingdom of God.

This would have been a completely alien concept to the disciples just as it still is to us. We teach children, not learn from them. In the last podcast, we saw how Jesus teaches that we can learn what true greatness is from children. If we want to be a follower of Jesus, we must become a little one like them. Now, in our Gospel reading, Jesus teaches how we are to gain entry into the Kingdom of God. Jesus again says that we must receive it like a little child, that is, as someone in no position to earn or deserve it.

In some ways, this makes it sound easy and most people think that it is easy. Many think that all you have to do is simply turn up at church when you feel like it and generally be nice to people, and then when you die you will go to heaven. So what Jesus says to the disciples after the rich man has gone away sorrowful really does come as a shock. Jesus says:

‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!’ (Mark 10:24)

It is hard for anyone to enter the Kingdom of God and not just for those who are rich. This is something that Jesus emphasizes on other occasions. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, Jesus says:

‘Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.’ (Matthew 7:13-14)

In many ways, entering the Kingdom of God as a child should be easy. Children, after all, are not in a position to earn anything. Eternal life is to be received as a gift in trust and obedience. But receiving it as a gift, trusting Jesus enough to obey him, is not so easy, and the rich man in our reading shows us just how hard it is.

Firstly, receiving the Kingdom of God as a child means humbling ourselves and accepting our weakness and powerlessness. It means denying ourself. Denying ourselves, as Jesus requires, means more than going without, it means rejecting the idea that we can achieve anything by believing in ourselves. We may constantly hear in the world around us that by believing in ourselves we can realize our potential. Jesus’ followers, however, respond by denying that they have any potential to realize. What we have, we have only in Christ.

Having to receive the Kingdom of God as a gift is a humbling experience. It is humbling to discover that there is nothing that we can contribute to our salvation and that we have to let go of our pride and our confidence in our own self-sufficiency. But unless we do, we will not enter the Kingdom of God.

Secondly, if we are to enter the Kingdom of God, we need to get our attitude to money and possessions sorted out. The church, I think it is fair to say, has found it hard historically to strike the right balance in its attitude to material wealth.

On the one hand, there have been those who have argued that the church should take a negative view of wealth and riches. St Francis, for example, famously renounced earthly possessions and voluntarily embraced a life of poverty, surviving by begging.

On the other hand, there have been the so-called televangelists and the preachers of what is known as the ‘prosperity gospel’, who argue that believing in Jesus will make you happy, healthy, successful, and rich. They boast of their extravagant lifestyle, which, they claim, is a reward for their faith.

Those who are sympathetic to the approach of St Francis can point not only to what Jesus said to the rich man in our Gospel reading, but also to what Peter says to Jesus. Peter says:

‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ (Mark 10:28)

Ironically, those who are sympathetic to the second approach can point to Jesus’ response. Jesus replies to Peter:

‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.’ (Mark 10:29-30)

Jesus words could be interpreted as Jesus saying ‘give to get back’. In other words, if you give what you have to Jesus, you will get much more back, and in this life not just the next. Indeed, this is what the preachers of the prosperity Gospel do say.

To understand Jesus’ teaching, we need to look at the whole of Jesus’ life and teaching, and not just quote isolated sayings from it. It is impossible once you do that not to see that Jesus warns his disciples repeatedly about the dangers of wealth.

Nevertheless, there were rich people with possessions among those who believed in Jesus. Jesus didn't ask everyone to give up everything. Jesus and his disciples were themselves supported by women of significant material means and the early church was financed by rich benefactors such as Philemon, for example, who often also hosted church meetings in their houses.

We need, however, to be careful not to use this as a way of justifying greed and the pursuit of riches and wealth. Jesus has some harsh things to say about those who do just that. Jesus not only says ‘blessed are the poor’, he also says, ‘woe to you rich’. And the fact remains that, as Jesus says:

‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ (Mark 10:25)

As we see in our Gospel reading, Jesus does call some to a life of voluntary poverty. Some are called to sell all that they own. Equally, however, all are not. But even those of us who are not need to take seriously the spiritual danger posed by money and possessions, and be on our guard against it. As St Paul puts it:

‘… in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.’ (1 Timothy 6:10)

Thirdly, and finally, you cannot receive a gift while you are holding on to something else. What we hold onto varies from person to person. For many, like the rich man in the Gospel reading, it is money and possessions. Or, if not the money and possessions themselves, the desire for them. The time spent trying to acquire material wealth can itself be the very thing that keeps us from entering the Kingdom of God.

Invariably, we all have something in our life that threatens to get in the way of following Jesus and which creates an obstacle that prevents us entering the Kingdom of God. We each need to ask ourselves, ‘What is there in my life that is holding me back from following Jesus?’. As Jesus said:

‘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 …’ (Mark 9:43-47)

And so again we need to ask ourselves, ‘What do I need to cut off or tear out in my life?’

We need to stop suggesting that following Jesus is easy and, like Jesus, start explaining to people how hard it really is, even if it means that only a few will join us. The reality is that many of us have bought into a version of the prosperity Gospel. Not the crass version that sees faith as a way to get more money, but one that assumes that faith gets you more happiness.

We often talk as if God wants us to be happy, whereas the reality is that he wants us to be holy. Not the sanctimonious holiness that is often parodied and mocked in the media, not the hypocritical holiness of the Pharisees and scribes that Jesus criticizes and condemns, but the holiness of being wholly committed to him and which means that we give the whole of ourselves to him.

How we pray shows how we think. If we think that what matters most is that we are happy, we will pray for those things that make us happy. If we think that what matters most is our relationship Christ, we will pray for what brings us closer to him. This, of course, is not to say that being happy and being holy are always incompatible, but that our priority should always be to follow him - wherever he may lead.

Put like this it can sound not only hard but impossible. And if we try do it on our own it is impossible. But, as our Lord says, it is not impossible for God; ‘for God, all things are possible.’

May God make the impossible possible in our own lives.

Amen.

Friday, October 15, 2021

On Women Being Kept Silent in the Church

On this the Feast day of St Teresa of Avila, the following is a post I have written for my Church Facebook Group. I feel it is about an issue of such importance that I also want to share it here.

The Feast Day of St Teresa of Avila

The title 'doctor of the Church' is the title given by the Roman Catholic Church to people in the history of the Church whose work is considered to be exceptional and of great importance for our understanding our faith.

'Doctors of the Church' include such well-known figures as St Irenaeus, St Augustine, and St Thomas of Aquinas. In the Church more widely, there are theologians whose writing is also considered of great importance for the Church. People such as Luther, Calvin, and Karl Barth, for example. Studying the life and thought of these theologians is an essential part of any theology degree and in the training of people for the ordained ministry.

What is obvious at once is that they are all men. The explanation given for this is, of course, that in the past theologians were all men. In the Roman Catholic Church, there are, however, four women doctors of the Church. They are St Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), St Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), St Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), and St Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897). Outside of the Roman Catholic Church, you will find it hard to find any women theologians who are considered to be of similar importance to the men, if you can find any at all. This, you may think, makes the work of those women who are recognized by the Church as important theologians all the more significant.

I have recently read, The Dialogue, a book by St Catherine of Siena. It is a book I have found not only helpful, but life-changing. I thought, then, that it would be interesting to read her letters of which some 380 survive. Much of St Catherine's thought and teaching is to be found in her letters. These have been carefully translated into English in four volumes by a scholar who is an expert on St Catherine, and her translation is generally considered the best and most reliable available. So far so good!

When I searched for them on my normal online book provider, I found that they had volume 1 at a much reduced price. More good news! Thinking that it would be worth purchasing all four volumes, I then discovered that, of the other three, only volume four was still in print. Trying other suppliers, including on eBay, I discovered that volumes 2 and 3 are completely unavailable either new or second-hand.

This led me to see whether I could obtain any of the works of St Teresa of Avila. Her work has also been translated into English in three volumes by a scholar who is an expert on her life and work. His translation is generally considered the best and most reliable available. Again, however, the volumes are not easy to obtain. Volumes 1 and 3 are basically unobtainable new, and not easy to find second-hand.

The situation is somewhat better with St Hildegard. This is largely because her writings are of interest more widely outside the Church, given that she was a composer and also wrote extensively about subjects that are important to people who are not themselves believers. Some of her writing is of particular interest to those in what is often referred to as the 'green movement', a movement that is currently having its day. You will, however, struggle to find an authoritative and reliable biography of her by anyone who understands her life and work as a theologian and doctor of the Church.

St Thérèse of Lisieux died when she was just 24, and so does not leave quite the same body of work as her three sisters, but, again, what she did write is not readily available in reliable and accessible editions.

Contrast this with the major male theologians of the Church. Their work is available in multiple scholarly editions in both their original language and accurate translations. Biographies and books about their lives and writings are plentiful. There are also many popular guides to their life and thought written by experts who have spent their own lives studying them.

So, is this another case of sexism in the Church? I think partly it is. But it is not just about sexism. Saints Hildegard, Catherine, and Teresa were all what is known as 'mystics'. That is, they prioritised a direct and personal relationship with God. Theology for them came out of their encounter with, and experience of, knowing God. For them, it was not simply a matter of academic study. 

I recently listened to a radio programme about St Catherine. The way that the people in the programme were talking about her (and they included women) was almost comic. They simply couldn’t understand her. They resorted to reducing what St Catherine had to teach us today to the idea that we all need to stand up for what we believe in. I don’t for one moment think that St Catherine herself would summarise her message to us in that way!

So what am I saying?

Well, firstly, that the neglect of the work and writing of these four amazing theologians of the Church is a terrible loss to the Church. It is all very well for the Church to promote the work of women today when we so ignore the work of women in the past. Is it because we don’t like what they teach? Is it because they are not the right sort of women?

Secondly, and more broadly, we need to stop seeing theology as an academic subject that is separate from our faith in God and our experience of him. Each of these women will not allow us to think about God without also thinking about our relationship with him.

What is needed in the Church is not less theology, but theology that emerges out of an encounter with the living God and which seeks to help us in developing our own relationship with him. Theology is about God, and not about academic careers, university courses, and degrees. Or at least it should be. Saints Hildegard, Catherine, Teresa, and Thérèse show us what theology should look like.

I just wish that what they have written was more easily available for us to read and to learn from.

St Teresa of Avila,
pray for us!

Saturday, October 02, 2021

The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Sundays after Trinity

Here is the transcript of my podacst for the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Sundays after Trinity.

The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Sundays after Trinity

Reading: Mark 9:30-50

[The lectionary divides this passage into two and reads it over two Sundays. The assumption behind dividing the passage in this way seems to be that the various different parts of the passage are only loosely connected without a coherent theme or argument to hold them all together. In my podcast, I take a dissenting view. While the connection between the different parts of the passage isn’t spelled out by St Mark, there is, nevertheless, a coherence to the passage that makes it important to look at it as a whole.]

In the podcast for the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity, I spoke of how, at Caesarea Philippi, Peter recognised that Jesus was the Messiah. This was a significant moment, one of inspired insight into who Jesus was. Despite this recognition, Peter had not, however, grasped what being the Messiah meant for Jesus. For Peter, being the Messiah meant freeing Israel from her enemies and establishing the Kingdom of God on earth. It was about power and glory.

For Jesus, however, being the Messiah was about suffering and death, and he told his disciples that this was what was going to happen to him. Peter simply could not accept it, and, in trying to convince Jesus that this could not happen to him, Peter became the mouthpiece of Satan and was severely rebuked by Jesus.

Jesus then spelt out to both those who were his disciples and to any who were thinking of becoming one, what it means to be his follower. It means having to live as one who has died, as one who is willing to abandon their own goals, ambitions, and dreams in order to follow Christ on a path of self-denial and suffering. Jesus’ words were no more popular then than they are now.

The disciples can't be blamed for not understanding Jesus. We today have the benefit of living this side of the crucifixion. We have Jesus’ own words in the Gospels and the example of the saints, but, like the disciples, we still don't get it. There are churches that have built their success on telling people that believing in Jesus will make things better for them, and even that it will lead to riches and success. The idea that Jesus is there to help us find self-fulfilment and happiness runs deep in the church. We need to cast the beam out of our own eye, before seeking to cast the speck out of the eye of the disciples.

The disciples at least had an excuse. Everything they had been brought up to believe, and everything they had been taught and heard, led them to believe that the Messiah would be a heroic figure and the coming of his Kingdom a time when all God’s enemies would be defeated. Jesus’ own ministry, in which they now shared, was itself somewhat ambiguous in the message it gave out. Jesus healed the sick, cast out demons, calmed the storm, and fed the multitude. What could he not do? With this evidence and experience before them, how could they think Jesus would suffer, be killed, and his life end in defeat?

What is more, what happened immediately after Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi only confirmed that they were right in their understanding and that Jesus was wrong in his.

Just six days later up a mountain with three of his closest disciples, Jesus is transfigured before them. Moses and Elijah also appear and talk with him. A voice from heaven declares:

‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ (Mark 9:7)

Surely God’s Son is not going to suffer and be killed? Who will listen to him then?

Our Gospel reading begins, ‘They went on from there …’ After the transfiguration and what follows it, Jesus turns his attention specifically to the disciples and to preparing them for what lies ahead. He repeats that he will suffer and die (Mark 9:31), but they are just unable to understand him. They are convinced that Jesus is God’s Anointed, the One they have been hoping for. It is simply beyond them to understand that God’s Anointed must suffer and die, and they effectively block out what Jesus is saying to them. Again, much as we do today.

As far as the disciples are concerned, Jesus is the Messiah. He is going to lead them in freeing Israel from the Romans, just as the Taliban in our own day have freed Afghanistan from the West. This certainty of victory leads them to the same discussion all human groups have. Who is the greatest and most important among them, his followers? Jesus is aware of their discussion and argument, even though they refuse, when he asks them, to tell him what they were talking about.

Jesus tells them that rather than aspiring to greatness, they must aspire instead to lowliness. Jesus says bluntly:

‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ (Mark 9:35)

Jesus then teaches them about what true greatness in a disciple looks like by using what is an enacted parable. Jesus takes a child and stands the child amongst them. He then takes the child in his arms and tells his disciples that whoever welcomes one such child welcomes him.

This is popularly understood as Jesus telling us that we must welcome children, which we should, but that is not Jesus’ point here. Part of the problem in understanding what Jesus is saying lies in our somewhat romanticised view of childhood. Childhood was somewhat different then to now. Children were property and had no rights. Just as they have no rights today in parts of our world. Many children died in childhood. Children were weak, vulnerable, and powerless. But yet again, we, like the disciples, just don’t understand what it is Jesus is saying.

Commentators find it hard to make sense of what follows this. It isn’t immediately obvious how what St Mark writes all links together and commentators resort to seeing it as simply being about what they call ‘catchwords’. One word in a saying suggests another saying that uses the same word. There is, however, more to it than that, and there is a clear theme running through Jesus’ teaching in this passage that goes beyond the mere use of catchwords.

This passage is about discipleship. The disciples argue about who is the greatest disciple. Jesus explains that if true greatness is their goal, they too must become a ‘little one’. If they do, Jesus tells them, then they really are his disciples. St Mark writes that Jesus says:

‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’ (Mark 9:37)

What Jesus is in effect saying is that someone who becomes a servant becomes like him, and what could be greater than that? As Jesus will tell the disciples later:

‘… whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10:43-45)

In what at first appears a strange thing to say after Jesus has told them that anyone who welcomes one such child welcomes him, John, one of his closest disciples, tells Jesus about someone whom the disciples have seen casting out demons in Jesus’ name. The disciples have tried to stop this unnamed exorcist because he is not following Jesus as part of Jesus’ group of disciples. Jesus’ words are usually understood to mean that we are to be more inclusive in our approach and that we are not to think that just because someone is not ‘one of us’, they are not a true disciple.

This, however, isn’t the issue here. Jesus has said that anyone who welcomes them welcomes him. Jesus is not wanting to weaken their sense of group identity by encouraging them to have a more inclusive attitude to those outside the group. His aim is quite the opposite; he is instead trying to strengthen it.

Jesus has now stopped teaching the crowds and has turned his attention to teaching the disciples. His disciples are the ‘little ones’ who represent him and who will continue his work. This inevitably raises the question of what Jesus’ disciples’ attitude should be to those who are not one of them. How should they view those who, while not exactly welcoming them, are not opposed to them either, that is, who are not against them?

Jesus takes a pragmatic approach. Jesus quotes a proverb, ‘whoever is not against us is for us’. In referring to himself and his disciples as ‘us’, Jesus again identifies with his disciples. Jesus, however, explains that while the unnamed exorcist is not a part of Jesus’ group of disciples, anyone using Jesus’ name in a positive way, will find it hard later to speak against Jesus. Indeed, Jesus says, anyone who gives even a cup of water to the disciples, because the disciples bear the name of Christ, will be rewarded. The unnamed exorcist may not have given any practical help to Jesus’ followers, but, by his positive use of Jesus’ name, he hasn’t hindered them either and that in itself is something to be thankful for.

Jesus is teaching his disciples how they should regard those who are not followers of Jesus, but who, by their actions, support those who are his followers in their work of telling people about him. Jesus’ followers are to be grateful to those who, while not disciples themselves, support the disciples in preaching the Gospel because the disciples bear the name of Christ; however small, or even unintended, that help may be. When Jesus speaks about how people who help his representatives will be rewarded, he isn’t talking about their salvation, but about the recognition their support will receive. That support may simply take the form of a positive attitude towards Jesus himself or, more substantially, by the giving of material help to his followers.

While such support is to be recognized and appreciated, anyone who causes problems for Jesus’ followers, can, however, expect to suffer the consequences. Anyone who obstructs one of these ‘little ones’ who believe in Jesus will be severely punished. Jesus says it would be better for them if they were to have a very heavy stone hung around their neck and for them to be thrown into the sea.

All support is to be welcomed, wherever it comes from and whatever form it takes, but opposition will be punished. The commitment of Jesus’ followers themselves is to be absolute. Nothing must be allowed to get in the way of what Jesus has entrusted them to do.

As well as warning what will happen to anyone who causes one of his followers to stumble, Jesus challenges everyone to take seriously anything in their own life that causes them to stumble and to deal with it ruthlessly.

Using graphic imagery, Jesus tells them that if their hand or foot causes them to stumble, they should cut it off, or tear their eye out if it is responsible. It is better, says Jesus, to be maimed and enter eternal life and the Kingdom of God than to burn in hell. We should, Jesus is telling us, prioritize our eternal destiny whatever the cost to us now. The word Jesus uses for hell, in Greek, is ‘gehenna’. This was the rubbish tip in the valley of Hinnom to the south of Jerusalem where refuse was burnt. It provided a vivid image of the fate of those who don’t find the eternal life that Jesus offers in his Kingdom.

Jesus closes his teaching here by talking about salt. Everyone he says will be salted by fire. Salt was used as a purifying agent. God will use the fire of hell to deal with any who put obstacles in the way of people who are seeking to bring his Kingdom, but he will also use fire to purify those who belong to it.

There are two possible ways of understanding what Jesus means. St Peter uses the image of fire in his first letter. He writes:

‘… even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.’ (1Peter 1:6-7)

St Mark’s community was experiencing severe opposition possibly the same opposition that St Peter is referring to in his letter. Jesus could be telling the disciples that they are to expect persecution that will both test and purify their faith.

Jesus could also be using the image in the way that St Paul uses it. In first Corinthians, St Paul writes of how the work of God’s servants will be tested on the day of judgement:

‘… the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.’ (1 Corinthians 3:13-15)

Jesus has just spoken of how it is better to enter life maimed than to be thrown into hell. It makes sense, then, to see Jesus’ words about everyone being salted by fire as a reference to the Day of Judgement.

It is perhaps possible to combine these two ways of understanding Jesus’ words. St Paul writes, again in his first letter to the Corinthians:

‘But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.’ (1 Corinthians 11:31-32)

All will one day experience the ‘fire’ of God’s judgement. God in his mercy uses the fire of persecution and suffering to purify our faith now, so that we may be saved from the fire of hell on the Day when all will be judged.

Finally, Jesus tells his disciples they are to have ‘salt in themselves’. They must take seriously the need for their faith and service to be purified. In taking seriously the need to get themselves and their attitudes right, they are to be at peace with one another rather than arguing with one another about who is the greatest.

In this passage, then, Jesus is saying that if his followers want to be great, they can only become great by becoming one of his ‘little ones’, who, like children, have no rights of their own, but who instead live to serve others. Such a one truly represents Jesus and anyone who welcomes such a one welcomes not only Jesus, but the One who sent him. They are to regard positively anyone who speaks well of Jesus or who offers them help in speaking of him.

Anyone, however, who puts an obstacle in their way as followers of Christ will be severely punished. Furthermore, everyone should seek to remove any obstacles in their own life, whatever it takes and however much it costs. God will ensure the purity his Kingdom either by the fire of hell or the purifying fire of persecution or judgement. His followers should, then, purify themselves and be at peace with one another.

But how does all this apply to us today?

Firstly, it reminds us that Jesus has a very different view of what constitutes greatness to that of the world around us. Greatness in most people’s minds is about the success we achieve for ourselves; it is about position, power, and privilege, and it is always tied up with money.

Our role models are the rich, famous, and powerful whose images are everywhere. And as long as they are rich, famous, and powerful, we don't much care what they do to achieve their success. They can actually do something that requires hard work and dedication, or they can simply become famous for being famous. Just like many of the social media stars of our online world!

They might be extreme examples, but they embody and personify the values and attitudes of the society that makes their fame and success possible. These may be our attitudes and values, but they are not our Lord’s. As we shall see, Jesus tells the rich man to give away all that he has to the poor and follow him (Mark 10:21). He tells his disciples that the first shall be last and that the greatest in his Kingdom is the one who is the servant of all.

For Jesus being great is not about what we achieve and what we get, but what we lose and give up. The greatest is the one who is willing to become the least and a servant of all.

Jesus held up a child as a model of what being his follower should look like. Not the sweet innocent child of social media pictures, but the poor, despised, and powerless child that our Lord himself became. As Jesus’ followers, we are to become one such a ‘little one’ like him, and in becoming such a one we represent both him and the One who sent him.

Jesus is not saying that when we welcome anyone who is poor, despised, and powerless that we are welcoming him, as is often argued, but that when we become one of his little ones who believe in him, anyone who then welcomes us welcomes Jesus and the One who sent him. Jesus is talking about what we need to become in order to represent him.

Yes, we must love our neighbour as ourself, and, as the Parable of the Good Samaritan shows, our neighbour is anyone who needs our help, but this is not what Jesus is saying in this passage. Here Jesus is talking about what a disciple should look like, not what those who his disciples minister to should look like. The question here is not, ‘Who is my neighbour?’, but, ‘Who is Jesus’ disciple?’. Again, the answer Jesus gives is that it is ‘one of these little ones who believes in me’. Jesus is not referring to someone who is born poor, despised, and powerless, but someone who, because they believe in Jesus, becomes that way for his sake.

Secondly, it is because such a little one represents Jesus that anyone who helps such a one will be rewarded, but, equally, anyone who places an obstacle in the way of such a one will be severely punished. Jesus’ followers will experience opposition and will be persecuted. We will suffer because of our faith in him and because we reject the world’s standards and way of thinking, but Jesus promises that those who suffer for him will be blessed. Those, however, who cause the suffering can expect the gravest of punishments.

As believers, it can at times feel very lonely and that those who despise our faith are very much in the ascendancy. Society is moving further and further away from the values of Christ and turning at the same time on those who hold them. Jesus tells us that none of it will go unnoticed or unpunished.

We are, then, for our part to be grateful for whatever support we get even if comes from an unexpected source. There are those who are not yet followers of Christ, but who recognize in Christ someone special and significant. They know he has the power to cast out demons. They haven’t joined us yet, but they know enough about Jesus, so that they cannot easily speak ill of the One we follow.

Thirdly, there is, though, no room for complacency. Obstacles come not just from the world outside us, but from within us. Jesus speaks using powerful language about cutting off our hands and feet or tearing out our eyes if they cause us problems in following him. What Jesus is saying is that if anything we do, anywhere we go, or anything we see causes us to sin or prevents us from being obedient to him, we are not to do it, not to go there, or not even to look at it.

Some obstacles to faith are obvious. We know we shouldn’t do certain things because they are wrong in themselves: lying, stealing, killing are all sins, and we know we should avoid committing them. As indeed we should the more socially acceptable sins of anger, impatience, and jealousy. Jesus, however, is not primarily talking about giving up sins, but renouncing and avoiding even those things that are otherwise good in and of themselves if they get in the way of our relationship with him.

Anything that stops us from serving Christ whether it is time spent on leisure activities and interests, or the places we visit, or what we watch on our screens - and the time we spend watching it - is to be sacrificed for him. We are to sacrifice these things knowing that it is no real sacrifice. For it is far better to enter life eternal with him than to enjoy life now without him.

This is a very different type of faith to that being advocated in many of our churches. Preachers encourage us to experience the joys of this life and to make the most of it. Their emphasis is often on the goodness of creation and how it is to be celebrated rather than on its dangers and how it is to be renounced. Yes, God’s creation, and all that is in it, is indeed good in itself, but it may not be good for me, and time spent enjoying it may prevent me from doing the good that I should be doing.

We seek today self-fulfilment and fear self-deprivation. Jesus is challenging us to get our priorities right. St Paul compares the believer’s life to entering a race in which an athlete’s focus is on running the race so as to win the prize, and doing what is needed to run in it, even if it means a believer depriving themself of otherwise good things to do so (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).

God has given us role models to encourage us and for us to look to and learn from. The writer to the Hebrews after listing examples of faith in the Hebrew Scriptures writes:

‘Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us …’ (Hebrews 12:1)

We not only have the example of the saints in the Bible, but also of those in the history of the Church who now live with Christ in heaven. Men and women ‘who loved not their lives unto death’ (Revelation 12:11), and who now surround us, praying for us and urging us to victory.

We may feel lonely, but we are not alone. Christ tells us to take up our cross and follow him. The way he asks us to follow is the way he gone before and in following his way we follow him who humbled himself, took the form of a servant, and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:7-8).

May we too humble ourselves and, in his service, find our freedom, and in his death, our life.

Amen.