1 Peter 1:13-25 & Mark 9:42-50

Mark 9 – Salt and Fire

I wonder how you feel about salt. I have what I think is slightly love/hate relationship with it. On the one hand I know that too much salt is bad for me – high blood pressure etc. So, I don’t usually cook with salt – I just leave it out when recipes list it. My breakfast muesli is no-salt, and I prefer unsalted butter and stock cubes. On the other hand, I really love Marmite. And if there’s a packet of salted peanuts open in the kitchen, I can’t go past the cupboard without opening it and helping myself to a handful. Somewhere in the middle there’s probably a happy medium, but I have not yet been able to find it. Pray for me brothers and sisters.

We’re going to come back to salt in a bit, but for now, as we continue on our journey with Jesus through Mark’s eyewitness account of his life, I want to press the rewind button, and remind ourselves of where we’ve got to, before we have a closer look at this morning’s passage.

We’re going to go back to chapter 8, verse 27. Here we find Jesus talking with his friends and followers, his disciples, and he’s asking them “who do people say that I am?” After offering various answers from the crowd, Simon Peter says, “You are the Messiah”. Jesus is identified here as the one chosen and sent be God to rescue and lead God’s people. It is a pivotal moment in the whole of Jesus’ ministry.

We know this, because immediately afterwards he starts teaching his followers what this means. They might have expected the Messiah to come in power and strength to drive the Romans away, but Jesus has a different path. A path that will lead him to the cross, a path that he calls his disciples to follow him on. He is going to pick up his cross, they ( and we) will have to pick up our cross and walk the same way. His disciples do not understand. They don’t understand why Jesus has to die on the cross, and they don’t understand what it will mean for them to pick up the cross.

Since that conversation, we see the Transfiguration, and Jesus freeing a youngster from the oppression of an unclean spirit – you can read about it in the first couple of sections of chapter 9. Then, in verse 30, we find Jesus and his followers moving on from that place and travelling to the town of Capernaum. As they’re on the way, Jesus is teaching them about his death again, but again they don’t understand.
In fact, when they arrive at their destination, and Jesus asks them what they’d been arguing about on the way, the depth of their lack of understanding is revealed. They had been arguing about which of them was the greatest. So, to give them an object lesson Jesus invites a little child to come over to them, and tells them that whoever wants to be first, must be last and servant to all. He tells them that whoever wants to welcome Jesus is to welcome the smallest and youngest. In the parallel account of this in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells them that “whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

The conversation continues, in the house, with the child sat on Jesus’ lap, and this is where we pick up the passage that Liz read for us.

It seems to me that this passage splits into three little sections.

The first verse talks about our attitude to children. Jesus is saying these words whilst holding a child. His warning is vivid and clear. Just stop and think about it for a moment. Jesus says that people who get in the way of the faith of children should go and drown themselves. It may be exaggeration for effect, but even so, it is a clear judgement.

This applies to us as individuals, as a local church, and as a national church. I’m really pleased that All Saints is, in general, a warm and welcoming place to youngsters. We invest in the faith and discipleship of our young people through our employment of Caroline and Clair, and the many people who give time and energy to work with our young people. Even this Church Family Communion service, with it’s unusual structure, that not all of us like, is something we have agreed to have, because it allows our young people to share in the family meal with us, before going to their groups. This teaching is one of the reasons that we take safeguarding so seriously. Doing DBS checks and safeguarding training might feel like a bit of a burden for some of us, but we are committed to it, because we are committed to the safety and protection of our little ones.

The theme of stumbling is carried on in the next section. Now it’s not about causing others to stumble, but about what might cause us to stumble. Again, we might suspect Jesus of exaggerating for effect. The risk is, if we take that view, is that we minimise the seriousness of the warning. It seems to me that in this teaching Jesus is starting to unpack what it means to die to self and to take up our cross.

What might this look like in practice, though?

In one of his books the writer Adrian Plass tells of a man who used to catch the train to work. He had to be at work by 8:30, and the 7:30 train would have got him to work on time, but he preferred to catch the 7:00 train so that he had time to settle in, get a cup of coffee, and get his work space in order before the work day began.

As often happens on a commute, there were some familiar faces each morning at the station and on the train. One particular face started to catch his attention. Smiles were exchanged, they introduced themselves to each other. He found that he looked forward to the conversations that were shared on the daily commute. An attraction began to grow.

Realising this the man sat down with his best friend, his wife, one evening and told her about it. He loved his wife, and didn’t want to jeopardise their marriage, so what was he to do? His wife listened to the story and said to him, “Catch the later train.”

This was costly for the man. He had to choose to let go of the relationship that had begun to develop. He had to get used to not doing what he preferred – getting to work early. But, if he wanted to safeguard his marriage, that is what he had to.

The call to follow Jesus is a call to a holy life. This call is described in more detail by Peter in the letter that Andrew read for us. Remember, this was written some years later by Simon Peter, one of those who was sat in that house, listening to Jesus. The Simon Peter who let Jesus down, who saw him die, and was restored and forgiven by Jesus. And he writes, “Be holy in all that you do”. Be holy because you have been bought at a price – Jesus went to the cross and died, spilled his blood, so that we could be free from all sin, shame, and guilt, and can live free and forever. So let’s do that, and as the writer to the Hebrews puts it, cast off the sin that so easily entangles, so that we can live lives of love and holiness.

And this is likely to be costly. Cutting things out of our lives because they have the potential to lead us into sin can be difficult. Sometimes we are self-aware enough to know what those things, those situations are. Sometimes we’ll need trusted Christian friends to challenge us gently. Sometimes the Holy Spirit will do it directly. Each of us is different, individual, and so it’ll be different for each of us. But there will be things for all of us, and these might change as we go through life. It seems to me that if there is nothing that we have ever had to stop doing or change about our lives in order to avoid stumbling, then I think we’re kidding ourselves.

The end of this section backs up this conclusion. Jesus says, “everyone will be salted with fire”. Now exactly what it means to be salted with fire is something that there are many theories about. What is clear is that both salt and fire are things associated in the Bible with purification, with sacrifice, and with being holy. If nothing else being, “Salted with fire” is like being purified squared. And Jesus says it applies to everyone. So, I say again, if we have never felt like we are being refined in a fire, or had salt rubbed into us, then we are missing something core to following Jesus faithfully. This is part of what it means to take up our cross and follow him.
Jesus then takes that theme of salt and continues it into the third section of this passage, which links all the way back to the beginning. Do you remember where the conversation started? It started with an argument amongst Jesus’ disciples about who was the greatest among them. Completely caught up in the world’s way of looking things, indistinguishable from those around them. Don’t be like that, says Jesus. Be distinctive. Stand out. Do things differently. Love each other. Prefer each other. Give things up for the sake of others, especially for the sake of the children among you, and for the sake of holiness. Whatever you feel about salt in food, have salt in yourselves and be at peace with each other.

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