Seward United Methodist Church
Monday, January 24, 2022
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Wandering from the Truth

Mark 9:42-50 and James 5:13-20

 In March of 2009, Time Magazine did an article about ten ideas that were changing the world, and rather surprisingly, one of the ten was Calvinism.  Calvinism is a brand of Christian theology, based on the writings of the 16th century Reformer, John Calvin.  Calvin believed in an absolutely supreme God and a totally unworthy, incapable humanity, and his logical conclusion was Predestination:  The belief that God picks and chooses who will be saved and who won’t.  Human freedom is an illusion; everything, down to the smallest details of life, is completely determined by God.    

 One of the subsequent conclusions of Predestination is what is called, The Perseverance of the Saints.  Perseverance of the saints means that those whom God has chosen cannot turn away.  It’s often captured in a little saying, “Once saved, always saved.”  

 This brand of Christian theology is apparently making a resurgence in the Church today.  And it has a certain appeal:  There’s nothing to worry about!  Chance, choice, failure:  They are all taken out of the equation.  If you’re a Christian, if God has chosen you, you have nothing to worry about.  If you’re not, well, too bad, I guess!  

 But what about those folks who seem to fall away?  We’ve probably all known folks who really seemed to be genuine in their faith, but because of difficult circumstances or maybe just a “lack of resolve” have fallen away from their faith.  The Calvinist simply says, “They were never really a Christian in the first place!”  

 I don’t buy that.  For three reasons.  First, experience.  I’ve known folks who were very sincere in their faith and then fell away.  Sometimes because of illness or maybe a death of a loved one or maybe they fell into some destructive sin.  Second, Scripture.  If it’s impossible for a genuine believer to fall away from their faith, then why are there so many warnings in Scripture about the need to stay close to Christ?  Why are there instructions to count the cost of discipleship if it’s not possible to stray from it?  And third, I believe God values our freedom.  If God did not value our freedom, why did he give Adam and Eve the freedom to choose whether or not they would eat the forbidden fruit?  And if God wants us to come to him freely, it seems reasonable to me that he would also value our freedom enough to give us the freedom to leave.  

 This is all in keeping with our Wesleyan tradition.  Wesley was part of another strand of Christian thought that rejected predestination in favor of an understanding of God that values human freedom.  Now Wesley did believe in the Christian doctrine of assurance.  God gives us the assurance that nothing can steal us away from him.  As Paul expressed in Romans 8, nothing in all of creation can separate us from the love of God.  Not death or peril or the past or the

future or angels or demons or anything in all of creation.  We may have the freedom to turn our backs on God, but nothing could cause God to turn his back on us.  Not even our sin can separate us from God, if we repent of it and continue to seek God.  

 But, of course, if we don’t repent of our sin, if we continue in our sin, if we love our sin more than Jesus, that’s another matter.

 James tells us to pray for each other here in chapter 5.  If someone is sick, pray for them.  No problem, right?  We do that all the time.

 But then we come to verses 15 and 16:  “A prayer offered in faith will heal the sick, and if you have committed any sins, you will be forgiven.  Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so you may be healed.”  The healing of sickness is placed side by side with the forgiveness of sin.  That’s pretty common in Scriptrue.  But why?

 Is it because there is a causal relationship between sin and sickness?  Do we get sick because we sin?  Sometimes, maybe so.  For example, sin might cause us guilt.  Guilt causes stress.  Stress is a contributing factor to illness.  I heard not too long ago that men who are having an affair are more likely to die of a heart attack.  I guess the stress of an affair is not good for the old ticker.  

 In some cases, you could even argue that there is a direct relationship between sin and sickness.  If a person is sexually promiscuous, they are certainly more likely to acquire some kind of a sexually transmitted disease.  An alcoholic is more likely to develop cirrhosis of the liver or some similar disease.

 But we’d better be careful here, because Jesus made it clear that there is not always a relationship between an individual’s sin and their sickness.  We live in a sinful world.  It is broken because of sin.  And we experience that brokenness in many ways, one of which is illness.  

 But even if there is not a direct relationship between sin and illness, they are related in another way:  They are both forms of dis-ease.  The word disease is literally, a breaking of peace, wholeness, wellness.  We are not at peace when we are sinning.  We’re not at peace with God, with each other, or with ourselves when we sin.  We are not whole when we are ill.  We are not well when we are sinning or sick.  Both sin and illness involve social and spiritual implications.  We may find it very difficult to feel at peace with God when we are ill.  

 If we think it’s natural to pray for people who are ill, we should think it no less natural to pray for people who are sinning, wandering from the truth of God.  

 “But it’s their business.  If so-and-so wants to do such-and-such, it’s no business of mine.”  That’s a very American mindset:  Everyone for him or herself.  “Well, I wouldn’t do that, but they make their own choices.”  That’s moral relativism, the mistaken idea that we all decide for ourselves what’s right and wrong for us.  

 But Cain was wrong.  You remember Cain, from Cain and Abel?  Killed his brother and when God said, “Where’s your brother?”  He said, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  Yes, you are.  You are your brother and sister’s keeper in Christ.  God wants you to help your brother or sister in Christ to be faithful.  

 We can fall away from the truth.  We can stumble.  The Christian truth is not just an intellectual truth; it’s also a moral truth.  In John 3:21, Jesus said, “He who practices the truth comes to the Light.”  Truth is not just something we believe.  It’s something we do.  And if we do what is false, it leads us away from what is true.  

 There is a back-and-forth relationship between beliefs and behavior.  If you do what is right, you will continue to believe what’s right.  But if you do what’s wrong, and keep doing it, eventually your mind will rationalize what you’re doing and begin to believe that what’s wrong is really right.  The more we do something wrong, the less guilt we feel, and the more we can convince ourselves that it’s okay.  

 So James tells us to bring back those who are wandering from the truth.  It is your business.  It is your business to look after the Body of Christ.

 The other side of that is that we should not cause others to stumble.  Turn back to Mark 9.  Look at Jesus’ stern warning for those who cause “little ones” to stumble.  It would be better for them to be drowned in the ocean with a millstone around their necks.  That’s one of the harshest things Jesus ever said.  

 By the way, “Little ones” doesn’t necessarily have to refer to children.  It’s used other places to refer to all Christians.  But it’s certainly true that one of the worst things we can do is to lead children into falsehood.  It is worse than anything we could do to ourselves to lead someone else into destruction.  Be careful how you live.  Your life is an example for others.

 For this reason, the Christian life requires discipline.  And that’s what Jesus is talking about is:  Discipline.  Jesus isn’t talking about cutting off our hands or feet.  He’s talking about cutting sin out of our lives and out of our Christian communities.  Sin doesn’t belong in the church any more than it belongs in your life!  

 Jesus is talking about radical, spiritual surgery.  Even if it’s painful, cut sin out of your life.  If something is a stumbling block for you, get rid of it.  If a business relationship is tempting you to do something unethical, end the relationship.  If alcohol is an addiction you struggle with, don’t keep it around.  Change the way you drive to work so you don’t go past the bar.  If internet pornography is a temptation, get rid of the internet.  If you can’t get rid of it, buy one of those software programs that blocks illicit content.  If you’re having an affair, end it.  Don’t try to “just stay friends.”  End it.  If something is causing you to sin, get rid of it.  Take a radical step.  Cut it out of your life.  

 The same goes for the church as for an individual.  If there is gossip in the church, end it.  If there is bitterness or envy in the church, end it.  If there are sinful relationships in the Body of Christ, end them.  Don’t leave sin to fester and ruin lives.

 Nothing less is at stake than eternal life.  Any sin, if it’s allowed to remain in our lives, has the potential to lead us away from the truth.  

 Jesus ends this little section by talking about salt and fire, and there’s some debate about what exactly he meant.

 Fire probably refers to the Holy Spirit, because both fire and the Spirit are purifying agents.  Is your life being purified by the Spirit or is sin clinging on?

 Salt probably refers to covenant faithfulness, because salt was used in Old Testament sacrifices.  Salt can also be a symbol of purity because it prevents decay.

 But there’s something important to understand about salt in Jesus’ day that plays into the picture here.  Most salt in Jesus’ society came from salt mines or from the Dead Sea.  In both cases, the salt was not pure.  It had other substances in it.  And if the salt was not kept dry, the moisture would dissolve the salt out of the mix and you’d be left with just the impurities.  And they were of no value.  They’d just be thrown out.

 In a similar way, if our purity is corrupted by the world, if we wander from the truth, we no longer belong to God.  

 So have the qualities of salt among yourselves:  Purity, faithfulness, a positive influence, and live at peace with each other. 

 We can wander from the truth.  And so can others.  We must be careful to remove the things that tempt us to wander.  And we must also watch out for each other.  It is our responsibility as the family of God.  

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