Rev Dr John McCulloch
Sunday 30th of September 2018
Numbers 11: 4-6, 10-16, 24-29; James: 5:13-20; St Mark 9:38-50
St Andrews Jerusalem
Let us pray:
May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable to you o Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
The Cost of Discipleship
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor who stood up to Hitler when he was trying to control the German church. From 1933, the Nazis had imposed antisemitic rules on the church, which Bonhoeffer despised not only because it meant that anyone of Jewish descent wasn’t allowed to hold any position in the church, but because it also denied the Jewishness of Jesus. Bonhoeffer set up a break-away church, which came to be known as the ‘confessing church’.
At the height of the Nazi regime, he wrote a book entitled The Cost of Discipleship. In it he says:
“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
Whilst most of the established church in Germany capitulated to Nazi rule, the confessing church stood out for its bold denunciation of the evil of that regime.
In our gospel reading from Mark 9, Jesus is using metaphorical language to invite us to think about the cost of discipleship. We live in a world where self-preservation reigns supreme, even if it is at the cost of others. We live in a word system where many ignore the pain and suffering of others. In Mark 9, through vivid imagery, Christ reminds us that if there are things in our lives that prevent us from entering the Kingdom of God, then we should ‘cut them off’. ‘If your hand, foot or eye causes you to sin, tear it out…. For it is better to enter the kingdom of God with one hand, foot or eye, than with two hands/ feet/ eyes and be thrown into hell’.
If our hands are not used for healing and for giving out to others, but used in the cause of violence and oppression; then it is better that they are not used. If our feet cause us to run away from the injustices of our world, rather than walk in the footsteps of our Lord and take up our cross in the service of others, then we need to stop in our tracks. If our eyes see our world through the lens of hatred, bitterness and envy, and dehumanise and scapegoat the other, rather than seeing our fellow human beings as made in the image of God; then we need to see with different eyes, through the eyes of compassion. If we look at the world through human eyes that judge and condemn, we are already blind. Bonhoeffer says:
‘Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.”
The words of Jesus in Mark 9 are not meant to be taken literally. Instead, he is saying that those who will follow in his footsteps, those who will walk in his ways, cannot prioritise self-preservation over taking up the cross. Bonhoeffer knew this, and his faithfulness to Christ as he confronted an evil political regime, was to eventually cost him his life (he was imprisoned and hung). But to not do so, would have meant that the whole of the German church was complicit and silent in the face of great evil.
Mark 9 ends with the verse: ‘Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another’.
One of the things that salt does is that it changes things, it is an agent of change. And it does so without drawing attention to itself. When you are eating a bowl of soup, and it lacks flavour., you add salt and stir it in. You don’t see the salt, but it has an effect. Throughout the gospels Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to things that cannot be seen: the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the kingdom of God is like leaven in bread, like a treasure hidden in a field.
What all of these analogies have in common, is that the Kingdom of God is at work, even when we do not think we can see evidence of it in the world. This should give us hope and encourage us, for as we look out onto our world of injustice, sometimes it is difficult to believe that God is at work. It is difficult to believe that good will triumph over evil, and that hatred will one day be defeated by love.
It must have been difficult for the followers of Jesus, to believe that God was at work at that darkest of times, when the tortured body of Christ was lifted up on the cross. They must have thought it was all over. They must have thought that the power of evil had triumphed. And yet, it was in that apparent act of weakness and death, that the power of God was most at work. For in taking up his cross, and responding to those who crucified him in love, Christ triumphs over evil, over death, destruction and hell; and opens up a way up for all to be welcomed into his Kingdom of justice and peace.
In our OT reading from Numbers chapter 11, the children of Israel thought that they were facing the end. Having been freed from slavery in Egypt, and wandering in the desert (which we have remembered this week with the festival of Sukkot) they were hungry, and were missing the food they had in Egypt. Moses is in such despair about what to do that in verse 15 he cries out to God: ‘If you will treat me like this, kill me at once’. And just as Moses is wanting to die, God comes and speaks to him, and raises up elders who come and share his burden.
In our Epistle reading from James 5 we are reminded of the power of prayer. In verse 13 we read ‘is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray.’ And a little further on ‘Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church’. And in verse 16 it says ‘the prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working’.
May we learn the cost of discipleship, to live our lives for others, to use our feet to walk in Christ’s footsteps, to use our hands to bless ad heal, and to see our world through the eyes of grace, hope and resurrection.
May it be in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, in now, and ever shall be. Amen.