Sep 30, 2018

“Salty Salt” 9-30-18

Mark 9:38-50
19th Sunday after Pentecost
September 30, 2018

Pastoral transitions provide an opportunity to talk about topics that might require more delicate treatment were I a settled pastor.  One of those is preaching style.  As you wait for the Lord to raise up your next pastor, one of the questions you wonder about is, “What kind of preacher will the next pastor be?”  “What will the new pastor’s approach to preaching look like?” 

Most seminaries, of course, teach some sort of theory of preaching.  It is important to demand that students wrestle with the goal of preaching and to provide them with some pointers about constructing sermons.  However, I’m convinced that pastors need to soon discover a voice in preaching that is authentic to their own personalities and way of engaging the scriptures. 

For example, I was trained in a theory of preaching that still prevails in many Reformed seminaries and that has roots in both classical rhetoric and the Puritan tradition.  This tradition assumes that the sermon is a based on a biblical text and essentially divides a sermon into two parts—exposition and application.   In the exposition, the pastor walks the congregation through the sermon text and explains its “meaning” in its original setting.  In the application, the minister tells the congregation about the practical implication of the text for their lives—what they should be doing in view of the teaching of the text.

I have many colleagues whose sermons diligently follow this pattern.  They are usually fine, instructive, challenging sermons.  I personally, though, have never been comfortable with this approach and abandoned it very early on in my ministry.  My reasons are too numerous to list and really not worthy of lengthy discussion.  Suffice it to say that the separation of explanation from application has always struck me as suspect—as if there can be a satisfactory “explanation” that leaves people stumped about what to do.  Application is ultimately a form of illustration.  If appropriate illustration has already taken place during the exposition, then the way has been prepared for people to think for themselves about the significance of the text for their own lives.  Though I am certainly not beyond pointing out the implication of texts for the life of congregations or for our lives as followers of Christ in the world, I do believe that “application” of the message is primarily the responsibility of the listeners—part of their response in worship as hearers of the word.   When a theory of preaching routinely makes “application” the responsibility of the pastor, it has the effect of letting listeners off the hook.

So, that is an aspect of my approach to preaching.  Your next pastor will certainly have an approach different from mine and that’s absolutely fine.  Just as you have had to adjust to me, you will have to adjust again.  As preachers, we do our best, according to our gifts, to communicate and declare the word of God.  As hearers of the word, you have to do your best to learn to track with us preachers.   It is not a perfect process, so feedback always helps!

Our gospel text from Mark 9:38-50 continues to focus on the heart attitude of the disciples in relation to greatness in the kingdom.  In the previous episode, the disciples had been arguing about which of them was greatest.  Jesus responded by presenting them with a little child and telling them that the one who welcomes a child—someone without power or influence—is doing great kingdom work.  In this text, John changes the conversation slightly, but the underlying issue remains the same.  “We saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he was not following us.” (9:38)  Shortly before this, immediately following the Transfiguration, the disciples themselves had been unsuccessful in exorcizing a demon, so perhaps this struck a particularly sore point with them.  In any case, John’s question hints at the underlying issue of self-importance.   They were the ones Jesus had chosen and commissioned to do these mighty works.  This was their turf, so to speak, their franchise. 

Jesus’ answer reminds them that they are part of something greater than themselves.  While it is certainly not a matter of indifference whether one is part of the disciple band, the reality is that Jesus came to do battle with and destroy the dominion of the devil.  This is what mattered.  If there was someone out there with enough faith in the name of Jesus to enter the battle, then the disciples should not be upset.  Here was an ally.  To reinforce the point, Jesus goes on to say that even the giving of a cup of water to a disciple counts as an important contribution to this great cause and will not go unrewarded.  In effect, Jesus calls upon the disciples again to “get over themselves,” to forget themselves and focus on the kingdom and its radically different way of reshaping the world by humble means that appear to lack strength or power or clout.

In the remainder of the passage, Jesus—continuing to keep the child in the foreground—applies his teaching about kingdom humility in the strongest possible terms.  The disciples had been preoccupied with what they saw as the potential upside for them in following Jesus—greatness in the Kingdom.  Jesus warns them to consider the downside of their dangerous ambition.  If true greatness in the Kingdom could be attained by welcoming the little ones, then they should be thinking about the impact of their lives on the faith of the little ones.  They should guard, above all things, against causing the little ones to stumble.  Jesus’ language is graphic and uncompromising.  Better to be drowned in the sea with a millstone around your neck than harm the faith of the little ones.  (Whether “little ones” are little children or new disciples makes no difference.  Surely both are in view!)   Now this, in fact, was how King Herod had dealt with some people whom he saw as a threat to his rule, so Jesus’ words would have had a very concrete, dreadful impact on the imagination.

However, Jesus takes the warning a step further from things that might cause the children to stumble to things that might cause the disciples to stumble.  The latter, of course, could lead to the former.  Here Jesus uses even more dynamic, graphic language to make the seriousness of the warning beyond doubt.  Better to cut off the part of your body that leads you into sin and enter eternal life maimed than to be cast into hell.  

Now at this point I will pause and say, “Pity the preacher who feels obligated to explain and provide some practical application of Jesus’ words.”  To suggest that they need the elucidation and wisdom of the preacher to make them intelligible is demeaning to the Lord.  It is hard to imagine an “application” which, in the nature of the case, would make the Lord’s words clearer.  No amount of pulpit pounding and threatening could make the Lord’s words more serious.  Likewise, any attempt to take the edge of his language would be an act of faithlessness.

We are in a battle with the dominion of evil.  We are to guard our own souls and the souls of others.  There can be no compromise with or lack of vigilance against it.  None whatsoever.  Whatever it takes to keep the devil from gaining a foothold in your life that is what you must do.

It is at this point that Jesus reminds the disciples of their true role in a lost and broken world.  Whatever great or glorious or transformative impact they may or may not have in the world, this much is certain and absolutely essential: they are salt.  Now this is familiar to us from the post-script to the Beatitudes in Matthew 5.  “You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world.” (Mt. 5:13, 14)  It may surprise us then, to recall that salt is mentioned only once in Matthew, Mark and Luke.  Matthew, as noted, places the teaching about salt after the Beatitudes.  Similarly, Luke (14:34) places the salt saying after instructions that focus on humility, the “upside down” way of the Kingdom, and the cost of discipleship. (14:7-33) Mark, as we have seen, also has the word about salt at the end of a teaching section on humility.   So, while Jesus only mentions salt once in the synoptic gospels, he mentions it to capture the very essence of the role of the church in the present age.  We are salt.

Salt in the ancient world functioned, on the one hand, as it does in our own.  It seasoned food. We might say that salt adds flavor to life.  To say that Christians are the salt of the earth is to say, in the first place, that, for all our faults and abysmal failures, the world would be a dreary place indeed were there no Christians around.  There would be no word of hope, no prospect of joy to break into the humdrum of existence on the way to the grave.  But, in the ancient world, salt’s function was even more crucial than seasoning.  It was a preservative.  In a culture and climate where refrigeration was rare, if non-existent, salt provided a means to keep precious stores of meat from spoiling.  Christ-followers are salt.  We keep the world from rotting.  God uses our presence in the world to keep evil from running its course to the utter ruination of the world.  This is all by God’s grace and the power of God’s Spirit and not any virtue of our own. 

We might express this slightly differently by saying that it is, on our account, that the world is not destroyed for its wickedness.  The narrative of Abraham and Lot and Sodom and Gomorrah makes this clear. (Gen. 18:16-33)  When the Lord determined to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for their wickedness, he made a point of letting Abraham in on his plan.  Now Abraham’s nephew Lot had settled in Sodom, so this was troubling news to Abraham.  Abraham questioned the Lord about his justice in destroying Sodom if it meant that righteous people would be caught up in the destruction.  “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” (18:23) Starting with fifty righteous, Abraham at length successfully entreats the Lord to spare the whole city if he can find ten righteous souls in the city. (18:32)   The righteous are the salt of the earth.  Sadly for Sodom, there were not enough “salty” people in that salty land to preserve the city.

Jesus concludes his discourse to his disciples with, “Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.” (Mk 9:50)  As Francis Shaeffer used to say, Jesus wants us to be “salty” salt.  He has called us to follow him, not just for our own sake, but for the sake of the world.  In the divine mystery, it is in some way on account of our saltiness that God, the righteous judge, holds back the Day of Judgment.  It is on account of our saltiness that the time is extended and the gate to life is left open.  In our saltiness, which is ours only through our union with Christ, the infinite patience and lovingkindness of God intersects his justice.  So, be “salty” salt for the sake of a lost and broken world, all to the glory of God.  Amen.

Pastor Paul Copeland
Faith Presbyterian Church
West Lafayette, IN 47906