Sunday, September 30, 2012

Pentecost 18 (Proper 21), Series B

Sermon on Mark 9:38-50
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
September 30, 2012 (The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Series B)

In the first few verses of today’s Gospel, John wishes to put a stop to a man who is casting out demons in Jesus’ name.  But Jesus tells him not to.  John simply assumed that if a person were not part of the group which followed Jesus around the countryside and was constantly listening to His preaching, that this person therefore was not a disciple of Christ and therefore ought not be using Jesus’ name in such a way.  The fact of the matter is, this man probably couldn’t afford to follow Jesus all the time, for financial reasons or reasons of health, or whatever it may have been.  He had evidently heard the message, though, and he had believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the one whose Presence drives out all sin and sickness and the work of the devil.  God had evidently given him the gift of being able to cast out demons in Jesus’ name, and this despite the fact that he could not follow Christ and hear His preaching as often as he would have liked.

There is a lesson in this for us.  Not every Christian can attain to the same level of service to the Church.  Not every Christian can attend church with the same degree of frequency.  Not every Christian can show forth the same number of good works, or have the same temperament or whatever it may be.  In his commentary upon this passage of Scripture, Lutheran professor Paul E. Kretzmann had this to say: “If others cannot bring the services and sacrifices for Christ which we think proper, we have no right to question the sincerity of their Christianity.”  Those who are not as actively involved as we are in the life of the Church certainly have room to improve, it is true, and it is incumbent upon all of us to encourage our fellow members to attend church more often, to attend bible class, to volunteer for the various programs and activities connected with the Church, and so on.  But we dare not fall into the trap of thinking that they are not Christians on account of this.  Perhaps they are praying for, or doing good works for, their friends, neighbors, and family, good works of which we know nothing.  Simply being a good husband or wife, a good father or mother, a good worker at our respective jobs, and so on, are greater and higher good works than any amount of activity here at the Church.

However, while we ought not judge each other on the basis of how they serve the Church, on the basis of whether or not our brothers and sisters in Christ measure up to our own standards of good works and Christian service, it is also true we ought to judge ourselves very strictly.  Christ even goes so far as to say that those parts of our bodies which cause us to sin should be cut off, for it is better to die a Christian but missing some part of the body than it is to die in unbelief and unrepentant sin with our whole bodies intact.  The capability of sin to destroy faith is that serious, and every one of us is susceptible to it.  None of us ought to think he is immune.  Every one of us needs to watch himself diligently to guard against falling prey to lust, covetousness, greed, hatred, anger, and whatever other sins may trouble us.

The trouble is, it’s not so easy to remove the cause of our sin from us.  Original sin doesn’t just live in the hand, the foot, the eye, or any other specific part of our body.  It inhabits our whole being, and not just our bodies, but especially our souls and our spirits.  If we want to cut out the part of ourselves which causes us to sin, we have to cut out everything we are, body, soul and spirit, and there will be nothing left of us.  If we remove those parts of ourselves that cause us to sin, we will all die, for our entire being is corrupted with sin.  If we really want to get rid of all the sin that lives within us, then we have to kill ourselves.

Fortunately there is another way.  Christ was killed in our place.  He took our sins upon Himself and was killed for us.  In His death He destroyed death by killing the sin that causes death.  All of us who have been baptized into His death have had our sinful natures killed on the cross with Christ.  We have already died.  Instead of cutting off a foot or a hand or an eye, our entire sinful selves have been killed in the death of Jesus Christ, so that we need not live in sin anymore, nor do we need to go around cutting off parts of our bodies in order to escape the dominance of sin in our lives.  We live in righteousness and purity because He is risen from the grave and we rose with Him when we were united with Him in our baptism.  We now have the ability to live before God as He would have us do, in service to our neighbors and to our God.  We have been united with Christ, and Christ now acts through us, and often He does good works through us that we don’t even realize we did.

It was not so very long ago that salt was used to preserve meats so that they would not spoil on long journeys.  Now, of course we use various chemicals, many of which aren’t really good for us, but they do have the advantage of not tasting like anything, unlike salt, which makes everything it is used on taste like, well, salt.  And until various antibacterial soaps and chemicals were invented, one way to sterilize cooking implements, surgical tools, and other metal objects was to hold them in fire.  Salt and fire both have the ability to kill the bacteria which would otherwise infect the body.  They purify because they kill.  Bacteria simply cannot live in the presence of that much salt, or that much heat.  The old sinful nature cannot live in the presence of Christ who came to dwell in us at our baptism.  Christ is the one who purifies us, and it is he who gives us strength to battle and keep down our old sinful natures.

The last verse of today’s Gospel lesson pretty much sums up the point of the whole lesson.  Have salt in yourselves, and have peace with one another.  In other words, you can’t tell whether or not another person is a Christian, but you can examine your own heart.  Fight the battle within yourself before you judge anyone else.  Certainly it is true that if we see our brothers or sisters in Christ falling into sin we should go to them and point out to them that what they did was wrong, but doing that is not the same thing as judging what is in their heart.  That we cannot do, and we must not do.  We are to live at peace with them, as Christian brothers and sisters, and attend to the battle that is within our own hearts.  Christ is with us in that battle, in fact He is the salt and the fire that allows the old sinful nature to be put down and destroyed.  Christ has destroyed our old sinful natures in the fire of torment and pain that He endured on the cross for us, and in rising again, he has given us a new self which will survive the fire purified and shaped in His image like metal which has been heated and poured into a mold.  He joined us to Himself in that death and resurrection through Holy Baptism, and gives us His resurrected body and blood so that we too may live forever in both body and soul.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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