When I lived in napier I took up bike riding for my major form of exercise. I would ride round Westshore and out to Bayview on an old Avanti racing bike that someone very generously gave me. I’m enjoying it. Well to tell you the truth there are parts of my anatomy that wished I had stuck to swimming because they find themselves stuck to something rather hard. As I headed off the first few times I thought you know this is easy, there is nothing much to this, I can sit back pedal away and enjoy the scenery and I’d get to the end of the road past the walk way and turn round and suddenly it hit me and I realised that this wasn’t as easy as I thought, after a few minutes I had to admit that it was a lot harder than I had imagined, no more looking at the scenery and sitting back, I was full out puffing looking down at the road just in front of the bike and trying to keep going. It hit me, I had turned round and was cycling into a head wind. The air itself was opposing me from getting to where I was going. I just think what can I get rid of to make it easier to go in this direction. Admittedly the first thing that comes to mind is getting rid if the bike. I don’t have this sort of trouble in the van. But doing that would be giving into temptation. Good cyclists will get down and diminish their silhouette and become sleek. I’m not the most aerodynamic person you’ve ever meet.
My biking came to mind as I wrestled with the passage we had read out to us this morning. Because it t0o looks at dealing with things that would hold us back from following Jesus Christ. From being a disciple and on the surface it seems to propose a similar solution to riding into a head wind: get a smaller profile. In fact Jesus is pretty upfront and outrageous by suggesting if something even a body part tempts you to sin you should cut it off. Because it’s better to enter the kingdom of God minus a few limbs and appendages than to end up on the rubbish heap where the fires never stop.
How can we encounter Jesus in these teachings? It feels like the old hellfire and brimstone-preaching stereotype that puts people off Church. It brings up the pictures of Islamic fundamentalist law where the punishment for stealing is loosing a hand. Is this the sort of stuff that Jesus was advocating? How can we encounter Jesus in this and how can it be useful to what we wrestle with in our own lives. How can it help us with dealing with things that tempt us to do what we know we should not and help us to live in a way that refects a relationship with Jesus?
I believe that there is a lot for us in what Jesus has to say here and to apply it to our lives does not mean that we will end up being some strange sect where people arrive at church each week with a different body part missing.
It starts with john coming to Jesus and saying he had seen a man who was not one of Jesus followers exorcising a demon in Jesus name. John tells Jesus that he stopped the man. You could imagine him asking to see the man’s discipleship membership card. I’m sorry sir we don’t do non-union exorcisms round here brother. John is fiercely protecting Jesus. I guess John was hoping for a pat on the back from Jesus. But Jesus tells him not to stop people doing good things, even miraculous things in his name. He says ‘Who is not against us for us’ which is a very wide embrace of people doing the things that Jesus does, acts that reflect the kingdom of God. AS I read this I thought you know its like riding with the wind behind you, every bit heading in the right direction helps. God’s spirit is at work in the world doing the things that God wants, showing his justice, his grace his mercy and his love and as New Zealand poet James K Baxter says it blows through ten thousand fields both inside and outside the fences. It’s not just in churches that God is calling people to care for his world and to love the least and the lost to stand against evil in peoples lives or on a systemic basis. We shouldn’t stop them in fact we should encourage them. If they are not against Jesus they are for him in what they do.
In my generation we have another example a man who was known for being a Punk and a real Rat whose compassion and care for the poor and the hungry make him one of the closest things to a saint in the rock and roll industry. Bob Geldolf rose to fame as part of the punk band ‘the boom town rats’, their big hit round the world was “I Don’t like Mondays’ wrestling with the first high school massacres. Bob was moved by a visit to the famine areas of Somalia and Ethiopia and his response was to organise the Live Aid concert, asking his music industry friends to contribute their talents and raised hundreds of millions of dollars.. He’s not a Christian or doing this in the name of God, but I can’t help but wonder if the flavour of what is being done caring for the least advocacy for the powerless is not the salty flavour of the kingdom of God. The passage tells us that even a glass of water given is a kindness that puts a smile on God’s dial. We need to encourage it.
But Jesus then invites his disciples to look at their own lives, not to stop people from doing what is good because they don’t belong to the Church or a particular branch of Christianity but rather to look at what they are doing in their own lives and how they need to change. To be a disciple a follower of Jesus means that we choose to follow Jesus and do the things God wants us to do. It’s not salvation by works but because we know God’s love and care and grace that we share it with the world around us. In fact the metaphor of salt that Jesus finishes his teaching with talks of salt loosing its flavour and being good for nothing but being thrown onto the rubbish heap. Gehenna mentioned in this passage was the rubbish dum outside Jerusalem and a word used by the Jews to talk of eternal judgement. I’ve always struggled with that saying because when you go into the cupboard and get the salt out it tastes like salt. Right. Even if it’s been there for ten years way at the back of the cupboard hidden behind all the pasta and rice you open the packet and yup it’s salt. In third world countries salt is such an important substance that unscrupulous people will mix the salt with other powdery substances so you go to taste the salt and well it’s not salty at all because it’s not all salt. It’s not good for anything except putting on the roads and throwing out. Jesus point is unless our lives show his love for one another and the world round us it’s kind of like we never had the salt flavour in the first place.
Anyway Jesus invites his disciples to look at the things that would hold them back from following him. Like the things that stop me from going fast into a head wind on my bike. Paul in Hebrews using the metaphor of a marathon runner will say ‘let us throw off everything that hinders and the sins that bind and run the race set before us fixing our eyes on Jesus’. Jesus uses the metaphor of punishment to illustrate that and he uses metaphors that are shocking amputation, a brutal roman punishment for stealing or run away slaves, having a mill stone tied round your neck and being thrown into the lake to catch peoples attentions. If there are things that are drawing you away from following Jesus drawing you back into doing what you know and God knows are wrong then its better that you administer such things to your self than end up on the rubbish heap.
It would be better to have a mill stone tied round our neck and be thrown into the lake is a powerful warning for those would try and lead people astray. It really calls follower of Jesus and particularly people in places of leadership and responsibility to think how we act and treat people. One of the things that has gutted me like a fish recently has been the number of cases of sexual abuse by people in the clergy. Even hearing about the way Alaskan Indians were treated in catholic schools makes my blood boil and people often ask well how could God et these things happen and read this verse and you realise that God’s love for his little ones is very, very strong
Under these shocking metaphors however are good principles that can help us deal with things that tempt us to sin. If something is tempting you well cut it off. He’s talking about denial. If you are into gardening I guess the metaphor would be pruning cutting out dead wood even some productive branches so that the tree will bear good fruit. What things I hear you say.
We live in a consumer society where we are being pushed to improve upgrade and have a higher standard of living. The one with the most toys wins as a bumper sticker says. However if the pursuit of a higher and better standard of living and better and better things has become the focus of your life and is detrimental to your family life and your health both physical and spiritual wellbeing well you need to somehow cut it off before it consumes you and all your fit for is the tip. How do you cut it off, how do you not feed that, perhaps its as simple as sitting down and taking stock of where you are at and what is important in life that includes a relationship with the creator of it all by the way and say are these things worth the price in terms of relationships and my soul. Then we are going to think now in terms of other values and say we can live her and be happy with less. Temptations are called that because they are tempting they are pleasurable and wonderful but in the end they are bait that has a hook.
In our twenty first century wide wired world I have a friend who I keep in touch with over the Internet. In fact for him the Internet is a big part of his life. He works for an internet provider he hosts chat rooms and discusses theology on line with people round the world. he even meet his wife on line. They started chatting and she eventually came over to New Zealand to meet him and they got married. One day he asked me for advice. He had me this other women on line and they had discussed started discussing stuff and it had got more personal and deeper and deeper and eventually the women had started talking about romance and sex. Suggesting they should hook up and connect more than just on line. Now my mate was rather flattered by that and to be honest quite tempted by it. But you could imagine the impact that it would have on his marriage not to mention how it would reflect on his Christian faith. My advise to him was to cut things off. Not body parts he’d need those for his marriage right. But rather to cut off that relationship, To say look we can’t head down this path, I love my wife, we have to stop. He needed to cut that relationship and start investing the intimacy that was being shared online with his wife. It’s the same with stuff like internet porn or gambling, they tempt and then there is the hook.
The process of cutting things out of your life starts by admitting that things are tempting you to do wrong and they need to be dealt with. The Christian word is confession and then choosing to cut it off and turn and often things have got their hooks into us so much that we may need help in how to cut it off and rehabilitation in learning to live healthily with it amputated.
John himself who started this section by coming down like a tonne of bricks on the guy doing something in Jesus name is the example of the finished product of this process. He starts out being known along with his brothers as the sons of Thunder. Load obnoxious, pushy fishermen yet the end of his life knows him as the apostle of love. His gospel and his letter abound with the encouragement to love one another.
Well how do we encounter Jesus in this passage this morning? Again I believe that comes down to allowing the Holy Spirit to speak into our lives I want to invite us to be still for a moment and invite us to be open to encountering Jesus in those questions.
What’s the tail wind we have around us? What good what glass of water because of Jesus is Jesus wanting to encourage in your life, be it encourage someone else or within you?
What’s the head wind? What area of your life is Jesus asking you to cut away that is stopping you from having a spiritually healthy life from following him?