17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. ‘Good teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 18 ‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus answered. ‘No one is good – except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honour your father and mother.”’ 20 ‘Teacher,’ he declared, ‘all these I have kept since I was a boy.’ 21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. ‘One thing you lack,’ he said. ‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ 22At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. 23 Jesus looked round and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!’ 24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 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.’ 26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, ‘Who then can be saved?’ 27 Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.’ 28 Then Peter spoke up, ‘We have left everything to follow you!’ 29 ‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus replied, ‘no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields – along with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.’ Mark 10:17-31
Life consists of the haves and the have nots. We are very much the people who have. A house. A car, usually two. Lots of other things. An education. A job. We are literate, healthy, and well fed. In global terms, we are very much the haves. We are people who are greatly blessed.
Today Jesus comes across someone like us. A man who has it all. Pedigree. Piety. Property. In Luke’s account of the same incident, he is called ‘a rich young ruler’. He is a young man with the world at his feet, from a well-to-do and well-respected family.
But although he appears to have everything, he is conscious that something is missing from his impressive resume. This is the quest that has brought him to Jesus. ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’
This question fascinates me, not only because it is one of life’s big questions, but because of the way that this young man phrases it. ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Perhaps the question contains the answer, although the man doesn’t recognise it. An inheritance doesn’t come by doing anything, but simply by being born or adopted into a family. Let’s leave that thought hanging as the conversation progresses.
Jesus begins with the commandments, God’s statements about what constitutes the good, indeed the godly life. Jesus quotes only from the second table of the ten commandments, those that have to do with our relationship with others. Given that this young man is pondering the big questions, perhaps he presupposes that he knows the big three commandments about our responsibilities toward God.
This confident, poised young man considers that he is on solid ground with his piety. ‘Teacher, all these I have kept since I was a boy.’ How do those words strike you? An arrogant boast perhaps, or a sign of self-deceit, big time. Or maybe, just maybe, if this man understood obedience to be keeping the letter of the law, if he hadn’t murdered anyone, stolen anyone’s property, committed the act of adultery, then he was in the clear. He clearly wasn’t in the audience for Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
So far, so good, he might be thinking to himself. My pedigree and my piety stand me in good stead in the eyes of the good teacher. But what about his property? What does Jesus have to say?
Jesus looks him straight in the eye, and ‘loved him.’ What is this love? Perhaps it’s the love which yearns for the heart and the life of this man. It’s a love which wants even more for him than he already has, a love that wants to free him from everything that he has, and which we will see, has him. ‘One thing you lack… ‘Go, sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’
Did you catch all the action words there, in Jesus’ command? ‘Go, sell, give, come, follow.’ The man certainly heard exactly what Jesus said: asking him to give up everything in which he trusted and bring himself, naked of his pedigree, piety and property, to Jesus. No other teacher had ever asked this of him; at most the Rabbis suggested giving away one fifth of what one owned. But this teacher wanted all or nothing.
‘At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.’ He was gutted and went back to the things that had driven him to Jesus in the first place, back to that nagging sense of dissatisfaction, even when he had almost everything.
And it wasn’t just this young man who was stunned. The disciples were also shocked that such a prime candidate for the kingdom would be turned away. And they were even more disturbed when Jesus began to speak about how hard it was for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God. In their minds, wealth was a sign of God’s blessing. So how could wealth stand as a barrier
Jesus only compounds their confusion. ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God. 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.’ The disciples realised the dilemma. If the rich man’s pedigree, piety and property didn’t get him over the line, then what hope was there for the rest of them. Their question cuts to the chase ‘Who then can be saved?’ What hope have we got, Jesus? Who can pass your test? Who is good enough to measure up to your standards? Is there any point keeping on following you?
Does the same question enter your mind today as you hear this story? ‘Who then can be saved?’ How can we get across the line? To think this way is to view our relationship with God as if it based on our pedigree, piety and property. Pedigree could be a heritage of Christian ancestors. It could a lifelong association with the church. Piety could be the efforts we make to ensure that when it all boils down, God will be impressed with us. And while we might confess that it weas God’s grace that brought us into his kingdom, we haplessly fall into the trap of making it all about us and our efforts from that point onwards. And we all like to think that we make a good fist of living according to God’s will, or at the very least, following the golden rule, doing good to people around us, and expecting good in return. Being a decent neighbour, a law-abiding citizen, a considerate friend. But 100% obedience. Each and every time. Not a chance. Never. It’s so hard to get rid of the self-righteous impulse.
Then there’s our property. In a society of haves, what we have has become so crucial in forming our identity and maintaining our status. Surely we understand this man’s sorrow. We build, we buy, we save, we invest. All these things are not bad in themselves. But when we invest them with ultimate meaning, we have crossed the boundary from gratitude to greed.
Jesus said to the rich young man. ‘You lack one thing.’ You have plenty of things. An enormous number of personal qualities and advantages. But the problem is that they have you. Jesus could as easily say this to us, couldn’t he? You have plenty of things. Personal, physical, material advantages. Do you have them, or do they have you? If they have you, who are you trusting for meaning and hope in life? Me, or them?
What’s your answer? Jesus wants the honest truth. He got it from the disciples. They realised the drastic implications of their faulty discipleship. ‘Who then can be saved?’ Your pedigree won’t save you. Your piety will never be enough. And your property is no hedge against eternal death.
Jesus looked his disciples straight in the eye, with the same love that he directed toward the man. Jesus’ disciples think to themselves, ‘We’ve run out of options.’ But Jesus says: ‘With human beings this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.’ Entry into the kingdom demands all that we have, our best obedience, and yet all we can do, or have, is never enough. Life with God is always and only God’s gift. That’s the ultimate security. Trusting in the promise of God, who makes the impossible possible.
This is seriously scary. Peter wants to hedge his bets. ‘Lord, we have left everything to follow you.’ Is there a hint here that Peter’s angling for a reward for what he and other 11 have done, in responding to Jesus’ call? A little later the 12 are jockeying for position in Jesus’ cabinet room. But life in the kingdom is not about rewards for services rendered. It’s about being rewarded by God the Father for Jesus’ life of service, rendered to us. Note how Jesus looked at the young man and ‘loved him.’ Loved him despite his self-trust, his inability to follow. We can’t love God first. We are incapable. The good news is that God loves us first in Christ, that Jesus in the very next breath tells the disciples that he must continue his journey to Jerusalem and the cross. ‘How hard it is to enter the kingdom the kingdom of God. So hard in fact, that only God through Christ can make it happen.
Let’s go back to the rich man’s question, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Nothing. You only receive an inheritance because you are a son or a daughter. There’s a better question, ’Who do I trust to receive eternal life?’ Jesus says, ‘Trust me. Follow me. I’ve blazed the trail. I’ve done what you were incapable of. I’ve lived a perfect life of love. Through my cross I’ve made you my brothers and sisters. A place in the kingdom is the gift that you inherit, because you’ve born into the king’s family through baptism. Eternal life is my gift to you through faith.’ Leaving behind trust in our piety, our pedigree and our property and following Jesus connects us to a whole new family, a much richer, more meaningful life.
Jesus’ words today strike a jarring note in a world of haves, because trust in him involves untrusting our pedigree, piety and possessions. Through making himself the last, and the servant of all, Jesus gifts us with a relationship with God based on who he is and what he’s done, not on us. It’s not about trying to impress God. That’s impossible. It’s about the fact that God has us. And because of this ultimate security, we are now free to use our pedigree, piety and possessions to love this gracious God, and our neighbour, because of his love for us. Who we are, and what we have, now that God has us, is for his glory and the good of others. Amen.
35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we want you to do for us whatever we ask.’ 36 ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ he asked. 37 They replied, ‘Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.’ 38 ‘You don’t know what you are asking,’ Jesus said. ‘Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with?’ 39 ‘We can,’ they answered. Jesus said to them, ‘You will drink the cup I drink and be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.’ 41When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42 Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ Mark 10:35-45
Brian Keenan went to Beirut in 1985. He was looking for a change of scenery from his native Belfast. He went to lecture in English literature at the American University of Beirut. Having grown up in Ireland, he was well aware of danger. But a sense of adventure and the desire to experience a different culture drove him to this once beautiful but now violence wracked city. Arriving in Beirut, Brian was frustrated by his lack of freedom. Being non-Lebanese, he was an obvious target for kidnappers. So if he was to visit friends, he would first ring them, outlining the route he intended to travel and the time he expected to arrive. Nevertheless, there was always an element of risk to going anywhere.
Then one day, only a few weeks after his arrival, he was kidnapped. A Mercedes passed him in the street and then blocked his path. He recounts, “Out jumped four men, the driver with a pistol and three other men in their mid-twenties, each with a Kalashnikov in his hand and a handgun in his belt. Exchanging glances, he was quickly pushed into the back seat of the car…I was taken by four men to a small cell... A mattress was laid down on the ground. The room was smaller than an average bathroom.” This was to be the beginning of his captivity in Beirut for four and a half years.
Keenan details his horrifying experience in this book, ‘An Evil Cradling.’ Keenan tries to explain the experience of being held hostage: “My first hours, then days and then weeks, I found myself constantly having to deal with the slow hallucinations into which I had been dropped. I had been removed from a known reality. The four concrete walls of my shoe box sized cell formed my only vista. Beyond these I could see nothing, only my imagination gave me images, some beautiful, some disturbing and unendurably ever present...Exaggerating this distorted sensitivity were the voices of my captors in a disembodied language...There were the cries, too, of the other prisoners...some of them weeping and in the long hours of darkness some of that weeping became screaming.”
Keenan endured four years of isolation from the outside world, not knowing whether it was day or night, solitary confinement, being moved from one safe house to another, beatings, and cruel rumours of imminent execution. Then, without any warning, it was over. “A man kneels in front of me, his hand gentle on my shoulder. It is the voice of one of the chiefs. Quietly, he says “Brian, you go home.’ I am silent and unstunned. ‘Home, you mean another place?’ I ask, for I have heard these words before. Again the hand at my shoulder and the voice: "You go home, family, Dublin." And just like the kidnapping, so is the release. Driven in a Mercedes to the rendezvous point. Hidden and secret negotiations had brought an end to four and a half years of suffering I cannot begin to grasp.
Brian Keenan doesn’t go into what led to his release. Perhaps there was a ransom. Perhaps a release of prisoners led to his release. A life for a life. This story is in one sense so foreign to our lives that we could never understand the torment of Brian’s mind, or the pain of his isolation. But, in another sense, the story of being held captive, and then released, is our story.
One of the forms of the confession of sins that we use begins, “We are born in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” These words are an affront to our sense of human agency, the idea that we are in control of our lives and free to make of ourselves what we will. But the objective evidence, which we see played out every day, in events large and small, is that we human beings make the wrong choices. We inevitably place our needs first, and this leads to a clashing of wills and a zero-sum game. The former Prime Minister Paul Keating once said, “In the race of life, always back self-interest - at least you know it's trying.”
In Luke 4, Jesus speaks about the purpose of his ministry, using the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners … to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” As we journey with Jesus through Mark’s gospel, we see that he does exactly this. A man captured by an evil spirit is set free, a person with leprosy is healed and reintegrated into his community, a woman rendered socially and ritually unclean by a 12-year illness is healed and enters the freedom of a normal life.
Brian Keenan was completely shocked when his moment of release came. For many of us, the moment of release burst upon us so unexpectedly too, even unknowingly, when the water of baptism was poured on our head, when the words proclaiming freedom were spoken over us. “I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” We were wrenched from the captor Satan’s hands, and placed into the safe, loving hands of our heavenly Father. Behind the scenes, much had taken place to secure this freedom. God decided, even before the beginning of time, that he could not bear the imprisonment of those he created in his image, now enslaved by their desires, their power, their ideas. What we human beings thought was freedom, the ability to pursue our own interests, unencumbered, was poison to us and our common life.
So God purposed to rescue us who were held hostage to sin. He would send his Son, Jesus into this world, to be our substitute. Through his perfect life and obedient death, he would take the place of all those imprisoned in their sin-cells. The life of Jesus, given up on the cross, would be the ransom., the price paid to redeem us from our captivity. “This is what the Son of Man has done. He came to serve, not to be served- and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage.”
This is the most powerful hostage drama of all. The one who was free of sin, the one who was God himself, submitted to capture, to torture, to execution, all to take our place and to release those whose lives were diminished by the father of lies, and who lived under the ultimate fear of death.
This rescue story was foretold by the prophet Isaiah: “The Lord says, ‘It was my will that he should suffer; his death was a sacrifice to bring forgiveness. My devoted servant, with whom I am pleased, will bear the punishment of many, and for his sake I will forgive them.” Isaiah was speaking of the servant Messiah that God would send. Jesus didn’t exercise his divine authority to control and dominate us, but to serve us and all people Baptism was our point of release. This is where God exchanged our sin and selfishness for Jesus’ perfect life. This is the point of no return, no looking back.
When Brian Keenan was first captured, he thought, “If I'm going to die here [in captivity], my biggest regret is that I haven't had any kids. The feeling quite overwhelmed me." Three years after his release, he married and had two children. He reflects, "Having kids is all about the here and now; there's no time to focus on the past. The years I was locked up were an incident in my personal history. They're not all of me."
Our captivity to sin is part of our human story, but it no longer defines us. We are now defined by what Jesus has done for us through his sacrificial death on the cross, and his resurrection. This is what Paul reminds us in his great chapter on the gift of baptism, Romans 6: “We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”
This new life looks is the servant-life of Jesus released in us and through us. Again and again, Jesus’ disciples come unstuck as they seek to follow him according to their own conception of his mission. They thought of glory; he spoke of suffering. They hoped for prestige and influence; he spoke of suffering and servanthood. Today James and John want the place of honour; Jesus was enthroned as Messiah on the cross. We are no different from them. Jesus patiently and lovingly calls his disciples together, the first 12, and us too, and offers this divine corrective, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”
We have been set free to flourish. Our freedom brings life and hope to others. We are not defined by our past, but transformed by the presence of Jesus’ risen, servant life in us. Amen.
10 As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, 11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth: it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. 12 You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. 13 Instead of the thorn-bush will grow the juniper, and instead of briers the myrtle will grow. This will be for the Lord’s renown, for an everlasting sign, that will endure for ever.’ Isaiah 55:10-13
In the words of the prophet Isaiah, God speaks to us:
Rain and snow fall from the sky. But they don’t return without watering the earth that produces seeds to plant and grain to eat. That’s how it is with my words. They don’t return to me without doing everything I send them to do.
It’s a simple illustration. Rain falls on the earth. The earth produces food, because that’s what it does.
Similarly, God sends out his Word to do his will. We hear it and it produces life in us, because that’s what the Word does.
It’s straightforward. We don’t earn or create salvation for ourselves any more than the barren earth produces a crop on its own. That only happens after rain. It is the same with us. On our own, we can do nothing. We can only wait for God’s Word, which he unfailingly sends us.
Now, this is actually good news – gospel. We rely on God for everything. Not just physical stuff like rain and seasons, food, health and so on, but life itself, with a capital ‘L’. Without God’s Word, nothing happens, just like earth cannot produce seeds or food on its own.
There’s much we don’t understand about this, both physically and spiritually, but the principle is clear. God is the source, and we rely on him. Martin Luther wrote about these verses, ‘For all the enemies say, “Do you really think that everything depends on the Word? We must act, work, and think.” Here the text confounds their thoughts. He does not say, “Our works and our thoughts do this,” but, “My Word.” It is therefore a consolation for the purpose of lifting up the weak, lest they be offended at the lowliness of God, who has every victory in His Word.’
Thank God, the universe doesn’t wait for us to understand how it works before the sun shines and the rain falls. There are far too many wonders in creation for us to know them all! These days we might think we know more than Isaiah did about rainfall, but we certainly don’t know everything about how climate works. Behind every discovery lies mystery after mystery. Maybe Isaiah understood a few things about creation and how it works that we, with all our science, have actually forgotten.
Even more so, then, what a great relief it is that we don’t need to understand everything about God’s kingdom. But God’s Word does tell us what we absolutely need to know. We call it the gospel. God loves us, loves the world, so much that Jesus gave his life to save us. He is the Word come down to earth, to water it and give it life. Come to him, listen to him, and live!
The Lord has done this. No doubt about it.
Luther, in his usual practical way, points out that Isaiah is not just painting a beautiful picture. It is practical comfort for those who fear that the Word of God is too weak to help us in our current state. He wrote, ‘the Word seems so weak and foolish that there appears to be no strength in it. How can it be believed that all the power, victory, and triumph of God are in the word of a feeble human mouth? And so He comes to meet this scandal of the weak and the stubborn.’
Like Isaiah, Luther points out that the Word of God comes to us in physical ways. Isaiah speaks of the word that comes out of God’s mouth. In his case, that was the mouth of the prophet. For us it is the mouth of preaching and teaching, which God does through real people in real times and places – even when it is over the internet.
And this is why the church exists! If it is not speaking the Word of God, then it is empty and meaningless. Without the Word of God, it wouldn’t matter how pious, correct, and holy we are. We could fight all the evil in the world, battle demons, conspiracies and heresies, but without the clear word of the gospel, God’s saving, all inclusive love for us and the world, we will achieve nothing, be nothing.
We are to be the mouth of God, through which God’s Word goes out to do what God wants. And what does God want? That everyone who believes in Jesus may not perish but may have eternal life. Therefore, the words we speak must be words of compassion and love.
This is why God created his church. And this is how the LCANZ plays a part in God’s great, universal plan for his creation. We might be small. We might seem weak. We might not be as up to date and modern as some others are. Those things would be nice, and we keep working at them, but they’re not why we’re here. We’re here for the Word, and the Word comes to us in weakness, even like a single drop of rain that lands on the parched earth.
Come! Listen! Live!
Writing to the exiles, Isaiah describes a world transformed. It is no longer a world captive, but a world released:
When you are set free, you will celebrate and travel home in peace. Mountains and hills will sing as you pass by, and trees will clap. Cypress and myrtle trees will grow in fields once covered by thorns. And then those trees will stand as a lasting witness to the glory of the Lord.
Once more, this is picture language. Trees don’t have hands with which to clap and mountains don’t sing – at least, in as far as we know! But the point is clear. God’s people are free. Their exile is over. Even creation is transformed as a sign of the joy and peace that comes with the Lord. We see everything in a new way. Where once we saw darkness, now we see light. Where once we were confused, now we have clarity. Where once we were afraid, now we are confident. Our exile is over – we are home.
The Lutheran Confessions link these verses directly to the ministry of Christian proclamation – what we call ordination. It all links to the purpose and promises of God, the gospel which, as St Paul writes, is ‘the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes’ for ‘the righteous will live by faith.’
This is not just a future hope, but a truth which, through faith, we experience now. Christian faith is not a waiting game in which we juggle the odds of an uncertain future, placing our bets this way or that. We aren’t trying to appease an angry God or prove God’s existence. We don’t need to second guess God because faith is a lived experience, something we know at first hand. Knowing God changes our world. Our external circumstances may look the same, but we now have peace, joy, and comfort where before there was unrest, sadness and fear. Through the Word, through Christ, God’s kingdom has come, just as we pray. Today, by faith, we already live in a new world of love, peace and joy.
As I think about our lives, and about our church, and as I listen to these verses, I am astounded at what I see. So much is similar. We might live in physical safety and comfort, but the longing for freedom remains. Human machinations to build a lasting, stable world have failed or seem to be failing. Society has turned a corner, away from faith. Ironically, in the western world we have never had so much stuff, but we feel our resources are stretched. The church is ageing – who will carry it forward? Personal ethics and morality are being replaced by virtue signalling and posts on social media. We can’t free ourselves from the things that threaten to overcome us. We are burdened, anxious, even trapped by events, by our lives, and by time itself. We feel like exiles, strangers in a strange land. Who will restore us and lead us home?
What better time can there be to hear God’s invitation once more? Life in this world is temporary, we know that, but life in God is eternal. Salvation is freely available. Jesus sets us free. We are redeemed. Our captivity is over, because God’s Word never goes back to him without having done everything he sent it to do, and he sent it for the salvation of the world.
Come! Listen! Live!
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
38 ‘Teacher,’ said John, ‘we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.’ 39 ‘Do not stop him,’ Jesus said. ‘For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, 40 for whoever is not against us is for us. 41 Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward. 42 ‘If anyone causes one of these little ones – those who believe in me – to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung round their neck and they were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. 45And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. [47And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, 48where ‘“the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.” 49 Everyone will be salted with fire. 50 ‘Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.’ Mark 9:38-50
“What will the neighbours think?” This is a good question for St John’s to ask? What do our neighbours think of us? We can answer that question in the widest possible way by looking at some data from McCrindle Research in which over 1300 Australians were surveyed about what they thought about the church.
44% of people who interviewed said that the church was beneficial for their community. 47% weren’t sure, while 9% were definitely negative. On balance, most of our neighbours don’t mind that the church is there, and that it helps people in need, but few of them feel any need to engage personally.
When non-Christians were asked for the top three negative things were about Christianity, church sexual abuse came out on top. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus speaks about those things which cause “these little ones-those who believe in me-to stumble.” The word which is translated as stumble comes also means “to scandalise.” We know how the church has scandalised little ones in its midst through the evil of child sexual abuse. People have abused the truth placed in them by God and their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Our neighbours think so much less of us, rightly so, because the church has failed to live up to its own standards, and has not loved as Christ loved.
Non-Christians also felt that the church was outdated, and judgemental. Many of our neighbours no longer share the moral foundations on which the Christian faith is based: a purposeful creation made by God, human beings created in God’s image, a sexual ethic which sees marriage as the right space where a sexual relationship is expressed, and indeed, marriage itself as the lifelong union of a man and a woman. I’m sure you can think of other points of divergence. Our neighbours have moved on, and we feel left behind.
Mark McCrindle, who collated this research, makes this clarification: “People haven’t rejected the product, just the retail outlet (or their perception of it which then becomes the reality).” The product is Jesus and the good news of the kingdom he proclaimed. The retail outlets are churches like this one, and we hear loud and clear what the neighbours think. Their view is summarised in these three words: “Exclusivity, Authority, Hypocrisy.”
Now we might want to protest that this isn’t the case at all. But we have to grapple with this perception and work out how to respond to what our neighbours think of us. Today Jesus’ disciples are forced to think about their attitude to those who are not part of their inner circle. Jesus has just cast out a demon out of a young boy, after they tried but didn’t succeed.
Imagine the disciples’ annoyance, then, when they came across someone else who was “driving out demons in Jesus’ name” where they couldn’t. In their pettiness, they “told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” Look at how quick the disciples were to make judgements about other people and their motives. They didn’t think much of the neighbours. Jesus didn’t think much of their response either. He had a totally different, much more generous view of the situation. “Do not stop him…no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me.” God is up to much more than we give him credit for, in and through people we don’t even know.
I’ve spent my whole life as part of the Lutheran Church. I have needed to learn that God is up to much, much more than what is happening in this denomination dear to me. My neighbours in other churches are doing the work of the kingdom too. So I have to confess that I have not always loved my Christian neighbours as myself, and certainly not as much as I have loved my own church.
But what about other neighbours, the people we live next to, work with, who pass by this church building every day? Jesus makes a thought-provoking statement: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Jesus challenges the disciples to have an open mind about those who have yet to make their minds up about Jesus. I’m sure that the disciples were wary of what other people thought about them and guarded with those who were outside Jesus inner circle. Was their attitude one of “exclusivity, authority and hypocrisy?”
Jesus certainly wasn’t like that. See the trouble he got into from the Pharisees, for example, who sought to ring-fence God’s reputation and protect God from sinful people. They criticised Jesus for mixing with the tax collectors, the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill, those suffering spiritual oppression. What would the neighbours think? But what was more important to Jesus was what God thought of the neighbours. God 3 wanted them to know that they weren’t rejected by him; rather, he loved them, cared for then, wanted them to return to him, wanted to lavish his fatherly love on them. Jesus’ life and ministry was proof positive of God’s love for all.
We see how open Jesus was to receiving his neighbour’s hospitality. We see how he engaged with those who didn’t know him or understand his message. He was happy to receive “a cup of water” from them, and their reward was to encounter the living God. How have you been blessed by the hospitality of another person, someone who wasn’t a Christian, but showed you grace and love? Perhaps more often than you think.
I think many of us feel that we are coming under increasing attack as Christians. We certainly face a hard-line secular agenda which wants to remove all faiths from the public square, but particularly Christianity, because it has been the majority faith and has for many years had considerable influence in shaping our culture. We appear to have lost the public debate about marriage, abortion, and euthanasia. It’s easy to become cynical, disheartened and even bitter about this. But Jesus doesn’t allow us this option. He calls us to generous-hearted love, the kind of love that he has poured into our hearts through his cross and resurrection. He bore all human hatred, apathy, opposition, and anger in the cross, and replaced it with his tough, unyielding love.
Jesus also calls us to turn whatever antagonism or apathy we receive into an opportunity for us to do good. We know well Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount. “You are the salt of the earth.” Salt was a precious commodity in the ancient world. It was used to flavour food, and in that context, it was shared as a sign of hospitality. So to be salt was to be hospitable, generous, committed to the well-being of friend and stranger.
Salt was also a preserving agent, keeping food fresh before the advent of refrigeration. Jesus uses this meaning when he says to his disciples today: “Everyone will be salted with fire.” He is warning his disciples of the hard times ahead of them as they confess Jesus as Lord in a world in which the title “Lord” was reserved for Caesar alone. I think we are beginning to understand the cost of making this same confession today, where living and speaking as a faithful Christian might see us labelled as troublemakers. We are learning that sometimes we have to say no when others are saying yes, and the other way round too.
What will the neighbours think of us? That’s a good question. And a critical one for St John’s as we ponder our place in this particular neighbourhood. But the prior question we need to ask is, “What do we think of the neighbours?” Jesus calls us to live like him, to approach our neighbours with a generous heart and a light spirit. And Paul encourages us to “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Colossians 4:5,6)
I came across this quote recently. How do we deal with a growing animosity toward the Christian faith? “What we and our society now need most is Christian discipleship-men and women who love Jesus and seek to conform their lives to him…in ordinary ways…not in big campaigns but in small daily choices made by people insignificant in the eyes of the world…in hope, mercy and communities of friendship.” In particular, he lifts up mercy: “When Christianity occupied a more dominant place in our culture, we were allowed to overlook mercy many times. Losing that dominance gives us many occasions in which to show mercy.”
What do you think of the neighbours? Amen