Today’s gospel passage opens with the disciples coming to Jesus and telling him that they saw someone casting out demons in his name—the name of Jesus—and the disciples tried to stop him because he was not one of them. Jesus explains that they’re wrong. The man is doing good in his name and those who do good in the name of Jesus are on the side of Jesus and God.
Put another way, the disciples might as well have come to Jesus and said “We found a tree growing and producing beautiful, delicious fruit that looked just like the trees you planted in your orchard. But, because this tree was growing outside of your orchard, we cut it down and burned it.” They didn’t harvest the fruit, they didn’t try to transplant the tree, they didn’t even think for a moment that perhaps good trees can grow outside the orchard. In the same way, they came across a man they did not know who was casting out demons—healing people—in Jesus’s name. They were so concerned with their self-imposed roles as the gatekeepers of God’s ministry in the world, that they actually tried to stop him from helping people—precisely the mission Jesus has charged them with.
Jesus goes on to use some truly shocking language to explain why the disciples’ behaviour is dangerous. He explains that if someone is doing good in his name, then that person is in the right. They are a part of Jesus’s fellowship and his followers, even if they have not been with Jesus and the disciples before. In John’s gospel we are reminded that Jesus has “many sheep who are not of this fold.” (John 10.16) The danger in the disciples’ behaviour comes from their interference with good and holy work, as though it is the disciples and not God who carry the qualifications to decide who is and is not behaving justly and in line with God’s will.
This behaviour is problematic for the one casting out demons, but it is especially dangerous for the disciples. They will, one day, have to answer for why they tried to stop God’s work of healing in the world. To emphasize just what a problem this is—the gravity of this sin—Jesus resorts to extreme language: If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. If it’s your hand or your foot, cut them off. He then reminds the disciples that they are meant to be salt and that if salt loses its saltiness, well, there isn’t much left, is there?
Last week, I mentioned that scripture must always be considered in its own context. We can’t take a verse or two and hold them up as though they are removed from everything else said around them. Jesus’s harsh words about the severity of sin and how it would be better to amputate offending limbs is a passage that has been used many times to justify horrific treatment of people. This passage has been used to justify all kinds of exclusion, exile, shunning, and horrible tortures such as conversion therapy. This misuse of Jesus’s words to the disciples is an impoverished view of scripture and reflects a misunderstanding of the Gospel as a whole.
Jesus’s ministry is focused on healing, restoration of wholeness, and reconciliation of people to themselves, to one another, and to God. It would be very strange indeed if the man who gives sight to the blind, makes the lame to walk, cures the woman’s chronic illness, and even raises people from the dead would suddenly turn about and advocate for amputations and disfigurement. Jesus is using these images for their shock value to drive home the importance of this lesson to the disciples, not as literal instructions to be followed.
Jesus concludes this lesson about what the disciples ought not to do with some words about what they ought to be: salt. Today we hear much in popular health media about the dangers of salt. It contributes to heart and kidney disease, high blood pressure, and causes all manner of problems. This is true, but only because most of us in North America get far more salt than we need. If you were to entirely eliminate salt from your diet, you would find yourself quite sick in short order. It is an essential part of what we need to live, in the appropriate quantities, and has other uses besides seasoning food. Salt is useful as an antibacterial agent: a simple saltwater gargle can be a great aid to sore throats. Salt is also a preservative. Meat that might begin to rot after a day or two can be preserved for months when packed in salt. Very useful indeed, just as the disciples ought to be in the world!
But in each of these cases, the salt disappears. Salt on food vanishes when mixed in, lending seasoning and flavour but being consumed in the process. The same is true with that salt water gargle. The salt helps but disappears into the water and can’t be readily retrieved. Not without great effort, at least. And this is why salt is the example used. It helps by giving of itself. Aid in health and healing through self-sacrifice. This is the work God calls the disciples to, both through the first century days of Jesus’s earthly ministry and now us, the disciples of the twenty-first century. We give of ourselves to help one another
This is no small task. It is the work of our collective lifetimes. Fortunately, the letter of James has some help to offer in this task. The letter is full of moral teaching in Christian life and it closes, appropriately, with a discussion on the importance of healing and what can be accomplished by prayer. James describes the suffering, the cheerful, and the sick and how their responses to their circumstance help one another. The suffering pray for themselves and for others because we are never alone and we are always praying for the whole Body of Christ. The cheerful sing praises so that we can share in the never-ending praise of God in heaven and remember God’s closeness to us in every circumstance. The sick call for prayers and anointing with oil because we understand that we are always a “we”. If you are sick, then I am sick. So we gather as a whole Church led by the elders and prayers given a physical touch and smell in the oil, to pray for the healing of our sibling; for the healing of the Body of Christ.
All of this, both Jesus’s words to the disciples and James’s letter tell us that Christian faith is more than an idea. It is an active state. It is not merely a checklist of metaphysical suggestions with which we agree, it is a way of being in the world. It may contain many thoughtful, intellectual conversations, but it also demands that we jump into the River Jordan and swim along with God’s current, that we might be healed in those waters and then carry that healing with others.
Our faith, with so much emphasis on healing, also demands that we reckon with brokenness. We must reckon with sin. As soon as James finishes exhorting us to praise and prayer, he reminds us that we must confess our sins to one another. We help one another by responding to needs, but we also help one another by healing wounds and closing rifts. This is an active faith. Admitting when we have hurt our siblings and seeking to repair the relationship is so difficult but it is essential. It is helpful to the one who was hurt to know that they have been seen and heard and understood; it is good for their healing. It is essential for the one who did the hurt; if we refuse to acknowledge our own hurtful actions—intentional or not—we cannot heal from the damage they do to us and we are likely to repeat them in the future. Just as the disciples who interfered with the man doing holy work in Jesus’s name, we sometimes make mistakes, draw lines to exclude others, cut down trees which bear good fruit because they’re growing in the wrong place, and need to acknowledge our mistakes and work to do better going forward. Confession, repentance, and prayer all the way through is part of healing and conversion of life.
There is a Japanese practice called kintsugi. When a piece of pottery or porcelain breaks, rather than discarding it as trash, it is repaired. We might see a bowl broken in two pieces and think that because it can no longer hold anything well, it ought to be replaced. But in kintsugi, the object is not repaired simply with glue or another mortar, but with molten gold. The damage—the wounds—that left a bowl unable to live as it was intended are repaired and, gleaming with gold, become veins of beauty running through its body. Better that the bowl would not have broken in the first place. Better that none of us would ever be hurt and none of us would ever hurt ourselves. But even a little while in this life teaches us that we will pick up scars and breaks along the way. It may be the heavy, painful work of an entire community over who lives and generations, but God offers us a way to heal and to take our fractured lives and knit them back together, to take the breaking points and make them shining, golden testaments of beauty.
Some of today’s hymn texts are probably unfamiliar, though I hope the tunes are recognizable. I chose these hymns because they speak powerfully to God’s invitation to work together for health and wholeness in creation, even with people we have not met before. When we assemble at God’s banqueting table, we strive to bring our very best selves and our very best gifts, giving to one another and back to God of the abundant blessings God has given us that God might transform those gifts into still greater blessing. But we are also called to bring our hurts and our grief and our sadness and our broken parts and lay those, too, in the place of offering, that God might begin to transform them into goodness and beauty.
We, as a nation, have an opportunity this Thursday, on Orange Shirt Day, to take one small step in a generations-long journey of healing. The day’s organizers describe it as “an opportunity to create meaningful discussion about the effects of Residential Schools and the legacy they have left behind. A discussion all Canadians can tune into and create bridges with each other for reconciliation. A day for survivors to be reaffirmed that they matter, and so do those that have been affected. Every Child Matters, even if they are an adult, from now on.”
We have countless examples of the hurt that is caused when we take it upon ourselves to judge what is good and what is not. The disciples judged that the man casting out demons in Jesus’s name was not good and they caused harm in doing so. Jesus recalled them to the work of discerning God’s presence and helping, healing, and uplifting holy work wherever it is found, even if it is unexpected. To give of themselves, like salt for the benefit of all.
God loves us and all of Creation more than we can imagine. So much, in fact, that to persuade us to look outward, to look toward God rather than inward at our own selfishness, Jesus was willing to be crucified and pour out of himself more mercy and grace than the world could contain, that all might be forgiven and healed.
Today, when we confess our sins, do not just acknowledge them before God, but pray that you will be able to leave them behind with God, who will put every one of them away for ever. Then come to God’s great feast, bringing your hope and your joy as salt for the table. But also bring your hurts and your grief; bring it all to the table that it may be healed, that you may be made whole, that you may leave this gathering refreshed, restored, and with glints of gold where there were once scars.
Come to the table.
Preached at Holy Trinity Church, Winnipeg.