Terrible Consequences: Living with Serious and Troubling Warnings from Scripture.
The Readings are James 5:1-6 available here and Mark 9:41-end available here
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
When I was a teenager around the age of 15, I remember watching with my friends a horror movie, called the ‘Blair Witch Project’. Has anyone seen it? It was released cleverly, saying it was a true story and the film makers released a mockumentary I saw on Channel 4 about the supposed legend of the Blair witch. The whole film was filmed as a documentary made by students on hand held cameras in the woods exploring the legend of the Blair witch and predictably, spoiler alert here, they get picked off one by one.
I remember struggling to sleep after watching that. It was pretty scary. But of course, it wasn’t real. When we read two passages like we had today, we can find what Jesus says and what James writes scary too. They are both parts of the bible, you almost want to hide behind the proverbial sofa, or peak through your hands. James talks of the coming doom of the rich oppressors who have cheated their workers or mistreated others, while Jesus talks about tying a millstone around your neck and being thrown in the sea, about its better to amputate body parts than fall away from the faith alongside mentions of unquenchable fire and hell. Unlike my experience with the Blair Witch project, here we have the apostle James and Jesus saying horrifying things. Where has the Jesus of Sunday school gone, that jolly loving figure? Here we have something quite different. How are we to understand these passages when they can seemingly jar so much against what many people think about God?
The first thing to say is that we need to be aware of the context in which these passages were written. Firstly, Jesus’ audience are going to understand that Jesus is using metaphor and some of what He says can link back to common saying in the ancient world. Please don’t reach for any axes or hot pokers to amputate or destroy anything! In that last few verses about being salted with fire it is clear they refer to a common practice that has been lost in the mists of time. Again, in the reading from James, it is clear that ancient people would have understood that silver tarnishes and doesn’t rust and that gold is so unreactive that nothing happens at all. Again, he is using an analogy to emphasise his message about the riches that the rich horde for themselves. So, we need to be aware of the use of metaphor and analogy that worked for the people to whom Jesus speaks.
With all that in mind it is equally important to say that none of this takes away from the fact that the message is stark and that message in both readings is all to do with the consequences of sin.
In James we hear how the sin of the rich will end badly. Any security the rich feel they have now will not translate in to heaven when Jesus comes again.
In the gospel we hear about the awful sin of leading others away from the truth of Christ and allowing ourselves to be led away. In the analogy of salt and fire, Jesus is talking about enduring in the faith and not falling away.
What is critical here is that James and Jesus are both stressing just how important being a faithful Christian is. The extraordinary claim of Jesus and James is that real faith in Christ is more important than all the riches, all the health or any body part you may possess and consequentially not being in the kingdom, or being half hearted in your faith has terrible consequences. We can’t squirm out of the way of this. Jesus here is clear. Don’t lose faith, whatever happens, otherwise you will not enter life.
These hard passages are uncomfortable, but what they don’t do is negate any of the love of God we see everywhere else in the gospel. Rather we need to understand that the message of the gospel is so important that really our commitment to Christ cannot be taken lightly. Much like health warnings on cigarette packets that are awful and disgusting and true, these warning of Jesus are equally shocking and disturbing and true. These saying should shock us into asking a question of our own discipleship. Are we following God as we should be? Is there anything we need to do differently? Which way does my discipleship need to grow next? They are a call to remain committed and just like any doctor would be remiss if they didn’t explain the dangers of smoking to smokers, so Jesus would be remiss if He didn’t explain the dangers of lukewarm discipleship.
Reading these passages should give you pause. These sayings are an opportunity to examine the quality of our own discipleship. Is our faith central? Is our faith surrendered to easily? Is our faith a fashion statement or a way of life? The answer to those questions we are told has cosmic consequences and the upcoming season of lent is a time to ask them, seek forgiveness and follow Jesus more closely. So, get from behind the sofa, take your hands away from your eyes, ask these questions and allow Jesus to love you, to become more central and to take you deeper into life and love. Amen