Seward United Methodist Church
Monday, January 24, 2022
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Living In The Truth

James 5:13-20 and Mark 9:38-50

 I went to a seminary, Evangelical, that was very Wesleyan in its theology, and I went to a college, Grove City, that was very Calvinist.  Those two schools of Christian thought are sometimes considered to be far apart, but I think the truth is that they have a lot more common ground than differences.  Wesley and Calvin emphasized a lot of the same things.  

 But there are differences.  Classical Calvinism had five points of theological emphasis.  Three of them are these:  First, Christ only died for those who were predestined for salvation, not for everyone.  Second, the predestined have no choice but to be saved.  And third, once they are saved, they are always saved.  

 I don’t think either of the texts we’ve read this morning fit with those three points.  Jesus’ words and James’ words don’t make a lot of sense if a person is “once saved, always saved.”  What I see plainly here is that we must struggle to continue to live in the truth.  And we must also encourage others to do so.

 The story in Mark picks up with the jealousy of the disciples.  Someone else is using Jesus’ name, someone not a part of their group.  First century Judea was a highly sectarian society.  There were many groups, and they didn’t get along very well.  Perhaps it’s also that the disciples are still stinging from their own inability earlier in this chapter to cast out an evil spirit.  

 Jesus says, “Don’t stop him.”  He may not entirely be “on Jesus’ side,” but at least he’s on his way.  He could hardly say too much bad about Jesus if he’s using his name.

 Jesus goes on to say that no act of kindness, no matter how small, to one of his own will be forgotten, even something as small as a cup of water will not go unnoticed.  A “cup of water” was the gift of a person too poor to be able to offer food to travelers or guests, which was expected in ancient Near East society.  A destitute person might only be able to offer water.  But even that will not be forgotten.  It is still valued by Jesus.

 But the reverse is also true.  No act of treachery or sabotage against one of Jesus’ followers will be forgotten either.  It is bad enough to fall into sin or fall away from faith.  But it is even worse to lead someone else into sin or cause them to lose their faith.  

It would be better to be drowned with a large millstone.  There were two kinds of millstones; one that was turned by hand and one that was usually turned by a donkey.  That’s the one Jesus is talking about.  Drowning a person with a heavy weight was typically reserved for the worst of offenders because it meant no possibility of a proper burial.  And proper burial was important in ancient Near East culture, especially in Judaism.  Some Jews believed that those who were not properly buried would not be resurrected at the last day.  

Jesus goes on to say that we should take any steps necessary to remain in the truth.  “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.  If your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out.  If your foot causes you to sin, cut it off.”  The basic principle is that corporal punishment is better than capital punishment.  Better to suffer some loss than total loss.  And we know the same principle at work in medicine.  Sometimes it’s necessary to remove part of the body to preserve the life of the whole body.  That same idea is applied to a spiritual issue.  And again, there is a cultural aspect to this:  Some Jews believed that a person was resurrected in the same bodily form in which they died.  Better to be resurrected with one hand than not at all.

Of course, this text isn’t meant to be taken literally.  We are not to cut off the members of our body.  We are to cut off the things that lead us into sin.  And that’s painful.  It’s painful to cut off the things that lead us into sin because often we are very attached to them, or we will suffer some loss.  But eternal life is valuable enough to make it worth the sacrifice.  

It might mean that we need to end a relationship.  Perhaps we have a relationship that is destructive to our spiritual life.  Perhaps that person encourages us to do things that are wrong or to forsake God in some way.  Perhaps it might mean quitting our job, if we are being asked or pressured into doing things that are immoral.  It might mean quitting a habit, because it is self-destructive.  Or it might mean getting rid of some thing in our life that has become an idol for us, even if it’s something we love.  If anything in this world is causing us to stumble, or causing someone else to stumble, then we should rid ourselves of it, even if it’s costly.  The sacrifice is worth it.  

We must keep our saltiness, Jesus says.  Verses 49 and 50 are, I think, rather difficult sayings of Jesus to understand.  There are three sayings here.  They might not have been originally spoken together, but Mark brings them together because they have a common thread:  Salt.  

“Everyone will be purified with fire.”  Literally, “Everyone will be salted with fire.”  This is probably a reference to Leviticus chapter 2, where God instructed that every sacrifice must be seasoned with salt as a reminder of God’s covenant faithfulness.  God’s faithfulness reminds us that we must also be faithful.  

“Salt is good for seasoning.”  Salt, of course, makes things taste better.  But it is also useful as a preservative.  It prevents decay.  Christians are to prevent moral decay, and in so doing keep life palatable.  “But if it loses its saltiness…”  That might not make sense to us, but it would to Jesus’ listeners.  Much of the salt available to them came from the Dead Sea.  And the Dead Sea not only contained a lot of salt, but also a lot of other stuff.  And sometimes the salt would leach out of the mixture, only leaving behind the impurities, which had no value.  

Salt was also a picture of purity.  The glistening white of pure salt spoke of purity.  But if we lose our purity, if we fall into sin, then we cease to be what we are meant to be.  So we must keep our purity from sin and live at peace with each other.

James, which we read earlier, also has a lot to say about these same things.  James talks about suffering and illness and sin and forgiveness.  In his mind, those things all go together.  Sin and sickness went together in his understanding of the world.  

Is that just ancient superstition?  I don’t think so.  I believe that we do have a unity of body and spirit, so that which affects one also affects the other.  And science has shown that.  People who live with guilt or anger or other negative spiritual things are more likely to have physical problems.  

Both sin and sickness are forms of disease, in the truest sense of the word.  If we have disease, that means we do not have peace.  We are not at peace with our bodies when we are sick, and we are not at peace with God or each other when we have sin in our lives.  

The cure, in both cases, is prayer and confession.  James encourages us to confess our sins to God and to each other.  And, of course, it’s harder to confess our sins to a person than to God.  God already knows them!  But we can maintain a false image of righteousness with each other, until we confess to each other.  

Confessing to each other is good for us though.  First, there is accountability.  There is someone who knows our struggles and prays for us and reminds us to be

faithful.  Second, there is peace with each other when we confess the ways in which we have wronged each other.  And third, there can often be more assurance of our pardon.  There is a person who can look us in the eye and say, “God has forgiven you.”  

But we have fallen away from the practice of confessing to one another.  It’s in our heritage as Methodists!  The first “Methodist class meetings” always began with the confession of sins.  But we’ve lost this good habit.  And with it we have lost a good measure of our accountability.  

We need accountability.  We need accountability to keep ourselves from wandering away from the truth.  We need accountability to remind others not to wander away from the truth.  

Biblically speaking, truth is more than an intellectual matter.  Truth is a moral matter.  Truth is a practical matter.  Truth must be practiced, not just known.  Truth is something that is known, loved, practiced, and obeyed.  It’s not enough to know the truth.  You must also walk in the truth, live in the truth.  

Perhaps the easiest way to fall away from Christ is to fall into persistent and unrepentant sin.  We wander away from the truth when we begin to do what is wrong.  If our confession of the truth and our conduct of life do not match up, then one or the other is going to give way.  And often it’s our confession.  It is easier to change what we believe to match up with what we’re doing than the other way around.  

The whole message of the Epistle of James is that faith in Christ in our heads must result in faithfulness to Christ in our living, or it is not genuine.  

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