Being Salted with Fire

GOSPEL: Mark 9:38-50
38John said to [Jesus,] “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40Whoever is not against us is for us. 41For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

49“For everyone will be salted with fire. 50Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Today, we continue through the gospel of Mark, delving deeper and deeper into the question of what it means to follow Messiah, to be a disciple, to figure out our place in the world. As we head into these homestretch weeks of this long season of green, we will continue to be confronted with the difficult questions of faith and the difficult questions of our human condition. 

And as we face these questions, Mark is revealing a vision of how God is breaking open our world to make room for the Kingdom. Slowly but surely, we are being invited into this mission that Jesus is on in Mark – the Mission of bringing the Kingdom of God near to those who need it. 

One of the things about Jesus in the Gospel of Mark is that he gets a little cranky. Jesus has been cranky off and on during the past few weeks. Yet, last week he showed surprising restraint and patience with his struggling disciples. But this week he more than makes up for it, by ranting in frustration about the inability of his disciples to get out of their own way. 

Today, we continue from were we left off last week, when Jesus had sat down his disciples to unpack their struggles. They had been arguing about who is the greatest among them because the didn’t know where they fit in their world. Jesus had picked up a baby and holding the baby in his arms, told them the first must be last and the last must be first; that Kingdom of God was for the least of these. 

Still in that moment, gathered around, baby in arms, the disciple John interrupts his teacher.

“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

Rather than letting Jesus’ message sink in – the message that in the Kingdom of God there is no order or rank or hierarchy, there is only belonging – John cannot let go of his insecurities. John is thinking that if the group cannot be measured by rank, then at least they can figure who is inside the group and who is outside. It is almost as if John needs to be able to quantify his worth and place this group. He cannot trust that God knows. 

Even still, John’s question reveals a particularly deep insecurity. He is upset that there are people out there casting out demons in Jesus’ name because the disciples had struggled to do the very same thing. Jesus had sent them out, but when the disciples had retuned they were unable to do the deeds of power. Now, here were some people doing the thing that the disciples could not do and they weren’t even a part of the group. 

John is revealing the thing that keeps the disciples from ever really getting what Jesus is up to – their insecurities about their role as Jesus’ followers. 

It is an insecurity that still pops up for us – the thing inside of us that cannot rejoice in the successes, talents and abilities of others, but instead seeks to tear down those who seem to threaten our place and position. On the sports team, dance group or musical ensemble, it is person who cannot abide the talent and ability of teammate.  In the workplace, it is the one who undermines the capability and productivity of a co-worker. In the church, it is the leader who shoots down every new idea before it is given a chance. In a family it is the jealous sibling, spouse, parent or child, who resents a loved one for the gifts they show, rather than rejoicing. 

This insecurity is almost certainly at the heart of most divisions and conflict we endure in our world. It is why political campaigns start out positive but go negative when another seems to poll better. It is why internet debates turn so rancid so quickly, when argument and reasons cannot sway opinion, people quickly turn to attacks and insults. It is why expert opinion no longer holds the water it once did, because so many of us think we should be experts on everything and get our backs up when it feels like someone or something is suggesting we might not know as much as we think we do. 

It is an insecurity rooted in the deepest part of our humanity, in the sinful self who just cannot let go of our own needs to feel adequate and needed and capable at all costs, even the denigration of our neighbour. 

And this insecurity is why Jesus erupts into his angriest rant to date:

42“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”

And on Jesus rants, declaring that if one part of our bodies cause us to sin, they should be cut off and thrown away. For some reason, preachers and other church folk have heard this rant from Jesus as some kind of formula or prescription for dealing with sin – a tough love approach to community conflict. But certainly it is not that. It is Jesus losing his cool with disciples who just cannot get out of their own way – disciples who cannot see that good ministry happening in Jesus’ name does not need their approval or sanction. 

But what is perhaps the most striking about Jesus’ angry rant is not the vivid imagery of being tossed into the ocean with a rock tied around one’s neck, nor cutting off hands, feet or pulling out eyes that cause sin. It is that Jesus is still holding the baby, that little one, the least of these. 

As Jesus has gathered his struggling disciples, who just need to know how they fit into their new world, as he tries to give them a symbol of their equality before God. As he reminds that God has room and a makes a place for even a helpless baby – a person with little value or import in that world – Jesus is frustrated that the disciples cannot let go of their insecurities. They cannot get past their fears and trust what has been promised and given to them by God. 

But then… before going too far, Jesus reels himself back in. And though it may sound cryptic, Jesus comes back to the point:

  49“For everyone will be salted with fire. 50Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Ancient salt and fire were central elements of daily life. Salt was used for money (or salary), for roads, to preserving food, for making brine for forging metal. And it worked along with fire to make things pure and safe. But ancient salt was also impure and needed to be carefully maintain and used. Fire and salt worked together in so many areas of ancient life. 

Jesus is using this image of salt and fire – obscure to us, but common to the disciples – to remind them again of their role in the mission of the Messiah. The Messiah who realized that God’s grace was give for all people by the Syrophoenecian woman. The Messiah who is on the road to crucifixion AND resurrection, no natter Peter’s objections. The Messiah is not concerned about first and last, but about gathering up all God’s people. This Messiah reminds the disciples to be at peace – God is making them worthy!

It is no accident that at the lowest of the lows, hiding away in the upper room after the crucifixion of Jesus, that the risen Christ appears to his followers saying “Peace be with you.”

And it is no accident that this is God’s message for us too. 

Even as we feel like our hands and feet and eyes have been cut off, even as feel as though our saltiness is fading away… Jesus’ promise to us that that God is transforming us for the Kingdom. 

Despite our inability to get out of our own ways. Despite our tendency to hang on to our insecurities. Despite feeling unworthy of the mission of the Gospel. 

Jesus is salting us with fire. God is making us ready for Kingdom. 

Yes, that might mean that some of our baggage needs to be dropped. Yes that might feel like parts of ourselves are being cut off. Discipleship is not easy. Being transformed by God sometimes takes us to uncomfortable places and out future is less certain than it ever was. 

But it is exactly in these times of change and crisis, that the work of transformation takes place. This is exactly where God is doing God work. Here with insecure people who are certain we aren’t good enough, who want to know if and where we belong. 

And yet, God is salting us with fire, removing our imperfections, making holy, and preparing us for the mission of the Kingdom. 

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