Sermon - 27th September 2015
The Name of Jesus
Scripture - Mark 9:38-50
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
Jesus! It is sad reflection on the English-speaking world that when we hear the name of Jesus spoken today, it is seldom used to refer to our Lord and Saviour. Indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary has the following entry under ‘Jesus’: “a strong exclamation of surprise, disbelief, dismay, or the like; also in various phrases: ‘by Jesus’, ‘Jesus (H.) Christ’, ‘Jesus wept’”.
By education, I am a linguist and studied both German and Russian at university, albeit some 25 years ago. While both of these languages and most others do use the name of God as exclamations and mild-expletives, the name Jesus remains preserved for use by those of faith. Similarly, those of other faiths do not use, or perhaps, more correctly, do not abuse names connected with their faith. Jews are very careful in how they refer to God, even in writing; a Muslim would not use the name of Allah or the Prophet Muhammed in the same way that the name of Jesus is commonly used.
Looking back into semantic history at why the name of Jesus is used in this way yields a number of possible explanations, but perhaps the one most likely is that to call out the name of Jesus when confronted with shock or surprise was a way of calling on God’s blessing or protection. The media also have a role to play in that while censorship rules have prevented words considered to be too explicit, the milder, religious ones have been used disproportionately.
But what does all this matter? Does it matter if people use Jesus’ name in this way? Does it offend you? Do you use the Jesus’ name in the way that has become common-place? Why might we take the commandment “Do not murder” more seriously than we might “Do not take the name of God in vain”?
And so, we turn to today’s text from Saint Mark’s Gospel. This week’s reading follows directly on from the one we heard last week, in which Lee spoke about suffering, and Jesus is continuing to teach his Disciples.
The reading can be broken down in to three sections: answering the Disciples’ question about casting out demons; dealing with temptation; and, finally, being as “salt in the world”.
The problem with Christianity for many is that while people feel comfortable with the social justice elements of Jesus’ teaching, sooner or later, you are going to bump into the elements of Jesus’ teaching which speak about good and evil, sin, sacrificial atonement, death and resurrection, and even, eternal life. These are the matters which are on a completely different level.
Our modern world is obsessed with other-worldly matters. Last week, ITV began a new three-part drama called ‘Mid-Winter of the Spirit’ about a woman vicar in the Church of England called to be the Diocesan exorcist. Documentary and drama series which investigate so-called haunted houses, UFOs and other strange happenings fill our TV channels. So perhaps we are not so different from the world of Jesus’ time, some 2000 years ago.
Whatever we might think about the demon possession mentioned in today’s Gospel reading and whatever explanation we might try to give it in the context of the 21st Century, the core of the issue is this: someone was suffering, and someone tried to bring healing, and that person was doing so in the name of Jesus, even though he was not one of Jesus’ followers.
Jesus’ response is to encourage the Disciples not to stop the healer. And this gives us insight into perhaps one of the issues Christianity faces. There are so many different churches across the world, many of which have come into being because at some point in the past, one group of people felt that their way was right, even better. While I am sure it saddens God’s heart to see His church often turned inward and consumed by internal division, let us to learn to celebrate and explore our diversity. An old school friend of mine has a wonderful way of explaining: the Church is all yoghurt but with lots of different flavours. So whatever our take might be around the modern interpretation of demon possession, let us remember Jesus’ calling to help the one afflicted. Unlike His Disciples, Jesus did not have an issue with the one acting in His name.
As a counterpoint, Jesus uses the metaphor of helping someone by bringing them a drink of water. We can readily identify with this and it fits with the social justice Gospel; nevertheless, for Jesus, helping and ministering to those with spiritual needs is one in the same with helping those with physical needs. As followers of Jesus, working in His name, we need to be ready to do both.
The larger, central part of today’s reading contains some very powerful and extreme imagery. The word ‘millstone’ for us means very little, except the abstract concept of it being a very heavy stone. In Jesus’ time, a millstone was a daily reality. Every home would have had a millstone to grind cereal to make flour to bake bread. Larger millstones, like the one referred to in the reading, would have been turned by animals such as donkeys.
Verse 42 of this reading begins some of Jesus’ harshest teaching: He clearly has no time for those who set out to undermine the faith of others. “If anyone should cause one of these little ones to lose faith in me, it would be better for that person to have a large millstone tied around the neck and be thrown into the sea.”
Sadly, despite Jesus’ harsh words, the reality is that the Christian Church, particularly the attitudes, doctrines and actions of many parts of the church throughout the centuries, have done nothing but to alienate people from their faith in God. Many of us here, myself included, will have felt rejection and exclusion because of our sexual orientation or gender identity. Last week, Lee spoke about how on her recent trip to Israel, she experienced harsh homophobia from one man in particular. I remember when I came out as gay, and I was rejected by many Christians I considered friends who cut me off, and I was disowned by an aunt. And many of you here in our church have been forced to flee for your very lives: from African countries which consider themselves ‘very’ Christian, yet have deprived you of Christ’s love and given you only hate; those of you from Islamic countries, where they choose to forget the name of Al-Wadoud (God is All-Loving). Such actions wound, and such wounds cut deeply and perhaps never properly heal, always leaving some pain.
Jesus is harsh, very harsh. His view is clear: that people who cause others to lose faith deserve nothing more than death. And it is at this point that we must be very careful. How easy it would be to take a tiny step of misunderstanding into the realm of revenge. So, in the next verse, Jesus turns His teaching around 180 degrees and asks us to look inside ourselves.
In the following 3 verses, Jesus uses more hyperbole. A hyperbole is a way of speaking in the extreme to make a point. Jesus challenges us to think about how we use our hands, our feet and our eyes. Jesus is certainly not asking us to go around mutilating ourselves, cutting off hands and feet and gouging out eyes. His point is surely this: we should examine ourselves and consider how we use our hands, feet and eyes.
We use our hands in so many ways. While Jesus’ audience some 2000 years ago might have considered sinful hands to be stealing, times have changed. A few years ago, when I was a senior teacher in charge of IT, I used to lead assemblies and challenge the young people to think about how destructive our hands can be with technology. It is so easy to send an angry text or email, or post or tweet something cruel and nasty. Until only a few years ago, our emotions and outbursts were limited to those in our homes and work-places; now, we give them a global audience.
At the end of each of Jesus’ statements about the hands, the feet and eyes, the second part of His hyperbole – or extreme statement – is that it is better to lose part of oneself than to be thrown into Hell. The word used in the text for Hell refers to Gehenna, which was the name of the western valley outside the old city of Jerusalem which was the city rubbish dump. In more ancient times, it was where the Canaanites uses to sacrifice children to the Canaanite god Molech. Clearly, it was an area to be avoided!
So in these four verses of hyperbole, Jesus’ teaching can be summarised. Don’t undermine the faith of others, and watch out how you behave, or it will not go well for you.
With verse 48, you can see where the medieval painters and authors like Dante got their ideas about what Hell might resemble. Here’s an alternative take on it – if you behave in the manner Jesus, through his hyperbolic language, teaches against – that sort of behaviour will consume the best of you, will rot you and eat you away.
And so we come to the final two verses in today’s reading, where Jesus talks about salt. We all know that salt has a preservative effect in food and enhances flavour. We know that 6 grams of salt is our daily recommended intake. It is tempting to try and understand these verses as they stand, separate from what we have just read.
Jesus exhorts us to stay salty: in keeping with the Jewish way of teaching, having explained something one way, Jesus explains the same thing in a different way. Having scared us with images of cutting off limbs and ending up in a fiery hell, Jesus reinforces His teaching with the gentler metaphor of comparing the pure and cleansing nature of fire and the cleansing effect salt has on food. We understand the importance both salt and cooking have to provide us with food safe to eat, so we understand that we need to conduct ourselves and with others in a good, pure and healthy way.
In the closing words of today’s reading, Jesus calls us to “live in peace with one another”. I am sure on hearing this teaching from their Master, particularly given the vivid language, the Disciples would have been quite animated. Maybe Jesus foresaw the division of His church: after all, He did create us in all our diversity!
In conclusion, I return to where I began, reflecting on Jesus’ name. Let us pray:
Jesus, our Lord and Saviour, you taught us to pray and say the words, “Hallowed be your name”. You are holy, and You call us to be holy, that is set apart to do Your work. We thank you for the gift of Your Word to us, and as we reflect on Your teaching, help us to reflect You in all that we do. As we use our hands, may we do so in Your name, in Jesus’ name, so that others might see You in our actions. As we use our feet to take us to different places, may we do so Your name, so that others might see You, wherever we are. And as we look through our eyes and see Your world and others, may we see as You see: let us minister to those we see who need You and do so in Your Name. And help us to live in peace with one another, so that at the last, we may gather before You.