Thursday, February 24, 2022

Being a Christian is tough!


James 5.1–6

Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you.  Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten.  Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.  You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts on a day of slaughter.  You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.

Mark 9.41–end

For 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.

‘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. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.  And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

‘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.’



“Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.’”

We are moving towards the season of Lent.  This Sunday will be Quinquagesima Sunday – marking 50 days until Easter.  And as Lent looms, and war breaks out in Europe, the Lectionary leads us into some pretty tough Scriptures.

The Bible is full of comfort, and promise.  But it has a hard edge, too.  It expects great things from people of faith.  Let no-one tell you that the life of faith is an easy option!  It demands things from us which are rarely asked of human beings today.  It demands selflessness, sacrifice, charity, discipline and focus.  At the same time, the world around us offers pleasure, riches, reward, and personal satisfaction.

This is, frankly, a tough sell.  Sometimes, people warn me not to bang on too hard about sacrifice, selflessness, and discipline, for fear of spooking the horses – or being a stumbling-block to new believers.   Today’s readings definitely come in the category of hard teachings.  There is little to comfort us here. 

James seems to be foaming at the mouth over the iniquity of the rich!  “The wages of the labourers which you kept back by fraud, cry out”, he warns.  “Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you”.  James has clearly got it in for the wealthy of his time!  He knows that wealthy people bear a huge responsibility for the way they use their wealth. 

Today, for example, in the fields of the Ukraine, we see that it is not poor Slavic peasants who have enabled the war that has broken out.  War takes wealth, to buy weapons and equip troops.  War requires wealth in vast quantities.  And those who have appropriated the wealth of the Russian economy to themselves bear the greatest responsibility for the war now taking place.

Then Jesus comes to us, through Mark’s gospel, with dire warnings of the cost of putting a stumbling block in anyone’s way.  What’s a stumbling block?  Well, essentially, it’s anything we might do which has the effect of turning another person away from God.  It is, perhaps, the ugly things we do; which people of faith should know to avoid.  At the extreme ends, a good example might be the awful crimes of abuse, which sometimes raise their ugly heads in and around churches (as well as most other organisations).  The consequences for the victims of such abuse are bad enough.  But other people instinctively find themselves put off from joining, or remaining in the church.  It’s a stumbling block.  It’s behaviour, by us, which puts other people off God. 

At the gentler end of things, however, we are all capable of erecting stumbling blocks.  I’ve known people who have left churches because they don’t like the gossip which goes on, sometimes, between church members.  Still others have left because of angry words exchanged between church members, who were supposed to be living in a covenant of Love with one another.  People who are thinking about whether to belong tend to say to themselves – “if that’s how Christians behave, what evidence is there that their faith has changed anything at all?  Why should I bother?” 

A stumbling block, then, is anything which causes another person to turn aside from the path of faith.  Which is why Jesus speaks in such firm metaphors.  “Jumping into a lake, with a millstone round your neck, would be better than causing any little ones to stumble in the faith”.

What does Jesus mean by a little one?  Perhaps he meant children – there would certainly have been children in the crowd.  But perhaps he also meant those whose faith was little.  Still growing.  Vulnerable and fragile.

And then Jesus turns his face towards the things we all do to undermine our own faith:  “Cut out your eye, or cut off your arm, if they are causing you to stumble in your own faith!”  In other words, Jesus says – “you need to deal with those sins of the body which pull you away from the life of faith.  An over-emphasis on satisfying bodily impulses perhaps?  A tendency to violence, laziness, or sloth?  Whatever the behaviour…if it gets in the way of your own progress along the narrow road of faith, cut it out!”

At the end of his stern warnings, though, comes a word of hope, from Jesus.  He reminds us of the value of salt.  A tiny thing, and yet something which flavours and preserves whole meals.  “Have salt in yourselves”, he says, “and be at peace with one another”.

Being at peace is a tough thing to ask of human beings – as we are seeing writ large in the Ukraine at the moment.  Being at peace with each other means forgiving one another, when we stumble.  It means being prepared to let insults go unanswered, and carelessness forgiven.  It surely means recognising that we are all ‘works in progress’ – and that none of us is Divine.  We are all going to fail, to stumble, at some point – and we need others, and God, to lift us up when we do.

One of the ways we lift each other up is by being salt, to one another.  By adding the flavour of love, forgiveness, charity and care for one another, we add flavour to the life of faith.  By lifting each other up, when we stumble, we mirror the action of God himself, who always longs to lift us up, and help us walk along the narrow way.  Ultimately, salt is the love of God, shared between the people of God.

Love is what binds us.  Love is what carries us forward.  Love adds flavour and depth to our relationships.  Love will ultimately save us, whether in our personal lives and interactions, or on the battlefields of the Ukraine.

So, as Lent approaches, I invite you to let God add salt to your life as a Christian.  Make a commitment to engage with the Lent programme, printed again in this week’s Chronicle.  Use the opportunity to re-kindle your own ‘saltiness’ – your own love for God and for each other – by taking the time to ponder and pray; to be challenged and strengthened by all that God, through Lent has to offer you.  I promise you – you’ll be glad if you do.  Amen.


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