Sermon for High Mass – Trinity 18 Sunday 30 September 2018
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
TRINITY 18, 2018 HIGH MASS
Readings: Numbers 11.4-6, 15-16,24-29; James 5.13-end; Mark 9. 13-end.
“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us,” But 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. Whoever is not against us is for us.”
Today’s Gospel passage speaks to two problems which faced the Church in its early days and which face it still.
The first of these is to do with boundaries, with the relationship between order and the freedom of the Spirit. John, who is a member of the inner group of disciples, reports on their attempt to stop the activities of an exorcist who was using the name of Jesus, because was not one of his disciples. Jesus tells them not to stop him.
In this case, the man seems to have been doing a good work; one inspired by the Holy Spirit. The words of Jesus remind us that the Holy Spirit is not confined by the boundaries of the Church. There are enough examples from the history of the Church of people and movements which have been inspired by the Spirit; which have brought new life to the Church. Sometimes the Church as institution has recognised the validity of these, even when they seem to present a critique of its existing life. At other times, like Joshua and John, it has not, and this has led to division.
“Whoever is not against us is for us.” Is this a recipe for and “anything goes” inclusiveness which knows no boundaries? Well, as the early Church came to recognize, it could not be so if it was to maintain its identity. There were occasions when it had to protect itself against the activities of people who were using the name of Jesus for their own ends rather than for the advancement of the kingdom of God.
If hierarchies and institutions tend to err in the direction of suspicion or hostility to any work of the Spirit which is new or not under their control, there is an opposite temptation. Because we read in John’s Gospel that “the Spirit blows where it wills,” there is a tendency to think the Spirit only works through the novel and unconventional; that the institutional and ordered is necessarily a bad thing.
But, as we read at the beginning of Genesis, the Spirit also brings order out of chaos. The gift of holy order, of oversight and judgement of a community, which we hear of in the Book of Numbers, is also a work of the Spirit; and one which is necessary for the well-being of Christian communities.
Before Evening Prayer on Friday, a rather disturbed looking young man approached me in church. He asked me to cast out the demons which he believed were responsible for anxiety which was clearly real. Exorcism is one of the most dramatic aspects of Christian ministry. It has caught the imagination both of film makers and of troubled souls; often those suffering from mental illness. In such a complex and sensitive area of people’s lives it is possible not just for spiritual charlatans who exploit the troubled, but for the enthusiastic and well-intentioned but untrained to do great harm. So, in the Church of England, exorcism or the “ministry of deliverance,” is under the control of the Bishop and can only be carried out by those trained and commissioned to do so and after careful examination and preparation. Having explained this to the young man, I did what I am allowed to do, which was to pray with him and bless him.
On another occasion, Jesus says: “He who is not for us is against us.” It all depends on the context.
The second issue which today’s Gospel addresses is that of the effects of scandal in the Church. The language and imagery used seem extreme, even gruesome.
If we were to go to the most fundamentalist of churches, one which proudly proclaimed its belief in the direct and literal inspiration of every word in the scriptures, would we find a congregation of people with hands and feet and eyes missing? I suspect not!
Would this mean that all its members had reached such a stage of holiness that they were immune to temptations? Again, probably not.
Are such people failing to have the courage of their convictions? Or are they simply accepting, without acknowledging it, that a literalist, one-size-fits-all approach is not the right means to interpret everything we read in the scriptures; especially given the variety of writings within them; and even within individual books?
What are we to make of such disproportionate and gruesome threats and punishments? Is there a way of clarifying the meaning of what Jesus is saying?
What kind of language is Jesus using when he speaks in such an extreme way? In rhetoric, in the art of public speaking which aims to catch and hold the attention of the hearers to what is being proclaimed, and to assist them in remembering it, speakers and preachers often use hyperbole, exaggeration for effect, to achieve their end. (Sometimes we get it wrong: people remember the illustration but not the point of it.) We see an example of it in Jesus’s teaching in today’s Gospel as he stresses the importance of not putting stumbling blocks in the way of those who have come to believe in him.
What our version translates as “put a stumbling block” in front of people or “cause to stumble,” is the verb skandalisein. So, it is a much sharper word than what we might hear in the word “stumble.” But even it has often been blunted and trivialized, reduced to tabloid tittle-tattle in a world in which many seem to have become blind and deaf to any action or behaviour which might scandalize.
What the word scandal suggests here is something so appalling that someone cannot continue to believe or to live the Christian life.
The first of the warnings focusses on things that would be harmful to “the little ones who believe in me.” That term often refers to children but here it seems to mean people who are new to faith and the church. The gravity of the offence is seen in the “better” consequence of being thrown into the sea with a mill stone round one’s neck – in a word, death.
The following examples speak of body parts which would be better removed if they cause such an offence or threat. The language is grotesque but we should read them in the context of the teaching about life and relationships in the community of believers and the common ancient use of “body” to refer to a social group. What Jesus is talking about is not self-mutilation as a remedy for sin, but rather that members with various roles in the community be removed if their actions threaten its integrity.
The Church is facing such a threat with the revelations about the abuse of children and vulnerable adults, which is causing great and ongoing scandal, both in the sense of moral outrage at terrible crimes inflicted on the vulnerable by those with power, and in being an obstacle to faith for many. People who belong to the Church, ask whether they can remain in it in good conscience. Others ask why they should even consider joining so morally flawed an institution.
We may argue that the Church is far from being the only institution in our world which has been marred by such abuse. We may point out that most cases of the sexual abuse are carried out by members of the victim’s family. We may point to the countless good works being carried out by faithful Christians across the world; works which are in danger of being hidden by a cloud of scandal.
But none of this will do. We are not talking about just any human institution but one whose claim is to be the Body of Christ; which proclaims his teachings and calls people to live his life; which professes to be the “holy” Church. As such it is held to a higher standard, and rightly so. There is no getting away from the fact that the litany of clerical sins brought to light and the inadequate ways in which these have been dealt with by those in authority – or worse still covered up – is a major stumbling block in the way of faith in our time.
One of the factors contributing to this scandal has been the tendency of hierarchies and institutions to slip from exercising a proper oversight (episkope) and order, one which is for the good of all, into a defence of the institution and its leaders at all costs. This is sometimes justified in the name of avoiding scandal which might damage the moral authority and reputation of the Church. As we are recognizing, that authority and reputation have been seriously undermined, not just by clerical sins but by the failure of those in authority to recognize the gravity of what had happened and to deal with it effectively, so that this evil might be cast out from the body of the Church.
That is why safeguarding is such a vital issue for the Church; one which cannot be addressed simply by good intentions. It has to be seen as part of that holy order which is also a work of the Spirit. As well as uncovering what has happened in the past, with all its shameful consequences, the Church has to establish procedures which ensure, as far as is humanly possible, that such things cannot happen again. So, clergy and lay officials have to undergo regular training in how to guard against abuse and all this costs money and some of what you give to the church week by week goes to paying for it. Parishes may grumble at having to hand over money to the diocese and the national church, but can any of us say that in this case it is not necessary? We have a right to demand that those in authority in the Church do their duty but we all have to be vigilant.
Today’s Gospel ends with the words: “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt 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.”
Words which speak of judgement; one which the Church is being subjected to now.
Words which remind us of the moral seriousness of our Christian calling.
Words which renew call to holiness addressed to us all: people and priests.
Those of us who remain committed to the Church because of our faith in Jesus Christ are called to the restoration of its saltiness by having the salt of the gospel in ourselves and being at peace with one another; that peace of God which is not simply the absence of conflict but the active pursuit of the well-being of all God’s “little ones.”