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It is amazing to me, when I study the history
of Methodism, to discover how many varieties of the Methodist church
there are and have been over the past two hundred years.
Many of these differences have more to do with how
folks want to govern themselves than with what they believe, but the
differences nevertheless do exist.
And if those varieties aren't enough, there is an even greater array of variety across the Protestant faith. When I served in Slater, Missouri, a town with a population of about two thousand, there were a dozen protestant congregations to choose from.
But this situation isn't just a contemporary phenomenon. Its roots go back a long way, even to the disciples of Jesus. Hear the words of John in the thirty-eighth verse of the ninth chapter of the Gospel according to Mark: "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us."
And that almost sounds like a United Methodist telling a Baptist, or an Episcopalian, or a Presbyterian, or a Lutheran, or a member of any of the hundreds of other denominations to stop doing their religious thing because their club membership is not as it should be. Fortunately, nowadays we may disagree with other Protestant groups, but we respect what they are doing; because we're all pretty much in the same boat.
And not only do we respect what others are doing, but we work with them on a wide variety of projects, and we're constantly trying to figure out whether our disagreements are really great enough to keep us apart.
But Jesus had another reason for being agreeable in this scriptural situation. He answered John, "Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me."
And this isn't the first time this sort of thing has happened in the Bible. In the Book of Numbers, the eleventh chapter, the twenty-seventh through the twenty-ninth verses:
"And a young man ran and told Moses, "Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp." And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, "My lord Moses, stop them."
But Moses said to him, "Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them."
It didn't bother Moses, and it didn't bother Jesus. Unfortunately, it has bothered a lot of other folks in the church.
Even John Wesley wasn't too crazy about women preaching, although they were permitted to lead class meetings. Those meetings were small, usually with a dozen folks present, but often more would show up.
On one occasion a woman had about two hundred show up for a class meeting. Now, obviously, teaching two hundred can sound a lot like preaching; and the woman asked Wesley what she should do in a situation like that.
He told her to go ahead, but not to call it preaching.
Jesus, I believe, was more flexible than that, and his reason was simple and straightforward: "Whoever is not against us is for us." And implicit in that I can hear him say, "We need all the help we can get." And it's true! Which is why we believe, in the United Methodist Church, that our ministers are ALL the members of God's family.
But miracles, and prophesy, and preaching aren't the only activities involved here. Indeed, any good works, even the smallest of our good works, are important in our personal ministries.
And Jesus makes this abundantly clear when he tells his disciples, "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."
But there is a flip side to this. Jesus IS concerned about that which obstructs the mission of God. And he knows that there are those who are against us. He warns, "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."
Now that's pretty strong language; but consider the contrast. On the one hand he's saying, if someone does good works it doesn't matter who that person is or what group that person belongs to; but if someone does evil--woe unto that person.
The imagery is vivid: No one with a millstone around the neck is going to be able to swim to shore. That person is lost. But the vivid imagery doesn't stop there, as Jesus goes into some of his most startling preaching. In fact, it's downright gruesome.
But he's doing it all to make a point: our separation from sin. He tells us, "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."
Now, this is the first of several references to hell in this passage, so before we proceed further we need to explore what hell means in all of this.
Personally, my theology tells me, first of all, that hell is not a geographical place: rather, it is a state of mind, a condition of existence.
And secondly, if there is a hell, we don't have to wait to find it in a life beyond this one. We will find it here. And we will find it in a variety of different ways.
In the play by the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre entitled "No Exit," the setting is hell. And by the end of the play, the male lead has discovered that for him hell is "other people." And in the way that he has treated other people he has created his own hell.
"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."
Now, this is harsh stuff. I mean, who wants to hear about our personally cutting off our hands and feet? But that, for me, is not where Jesus is aiming. Rather, Jesus is focusing on the hell we create for ourselves when we sin.
And he's telling me, what good is it to have a whole, a complete, physical body if my soul is rotten to the core? What good is it to have wealth and power if I must destroy people to get it?
There has been much controversy over whether there should be a death penalty for drug dealers, drug smugglers, and the distributors of shipments of drugs.
It is argued that the fear of death would be deterrent to these folks.
But from the other side it is argued that the death sentence is no deterrent at all; that such persons live in constant fear of being killed because they deal in hundreds of thousands and even millions of illegal dollars.
A drug dealer may live in a mansion, drive expensive cars, and eat and dress quite well; but he's made his own hell and he knows it.
"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.”
I don't know that it's possible for one eye to cause us to sin while the other doesn't, but the eye is symbolic here. I believe it symbolizes our looking into the lives of others in such a way that we intrude and interfere. Better that we turn our eyes inward, to examine the sin in our own lives.
And in all of this there is what I choose to call the "trade-off," the ongoing balance of life. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a brilliant essay entitled, "On Compensation," in which he pointed out that for all good there is corresponding evil; for all wealth, poverty; for all joy, sorrow.
We are on a giant set of scales which are always kept in balance. Every decision we make has implications for other decisions. Every thing that we do causes us to be unable to do other things.
One of the Newtonian laws of physics is that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. We hear this balance when we hear Jesus say, "Whoever is not against us is for us." We hear this balance when Jesus tells us that we must make choices between good and evil.
Be we really don't need to hear about losing hands or feet or eyes to know that in our everyday lives this balance exists.
I can just as easily hear Jesus say to me, in the form of a parable, "Better to get sleep and rest than struggle with exhaustion; better to buy fewer things than to suffer overextended credit and debt." And I'm sure each of us can make up his or her own lists.
And when we do, are we not indeed looking inside the personal hells that we have created?
But we should also look to the positive side which is implied in this scripture. Jesus speaks of avoiding sin; but the sacrifices we make can also point toward the achievement of goodness.
Indeed, if Emerson is correct, the void created by the absence of sin must necessarily be filled with goodness.
Yet, in all of this, a word of caution. There is, in all things, even goodness, the danger of extremism.
I once read a biography of John Wesley. And if you have ever wondered why we are called Methodists, it is because John Wesley was absolutely obsessed with orderliness.
So obsessed and compulsive was he about orderliness that some aspects of his personal life were often a shambles, with several romantic disasters including a catastrophic marriage.
In the process of traveling a quarter million miles on horseback and preaching forty thousand sermons and living to the ripe old age of eighty-seven, his warm, personal friendships were few. Many people found him cold and distant.
He is unquestionably one of the major influences on religion in England, in this country, and in the world.
But he gave up much of himself to achieve that. Even John Wesley could not escape the eternal balance.
Jesus concludes this passage saying, "For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another."
At first glance, one wonders, what does THIS have to do with anything? But on closer examination I find that Jesus is trying to strike a balance with what he has just said.
He HAS been harsh, with all this talk of hell, and I think he's telling his disciples to not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
For consider what salt is and what salt does. We all know that salt is a condiment, a seasoning, that adds flavor to food. But it is also a preservative, and salt can go flat, and not be much good to do either.
Jesus is telling his disciples that they will indeed be "salted," but they need to be careful of losing that saltiness. Perhaps Wesley was an example of that.
Even well- meaning Christians can get so hung up on doing good works and avoiding sin that they forget to take time to smell the roses.
And what IS the "saltiness" that we need to be at peace with one another? Part of it, I think, is the aspect of the preservative.
We need to preserve our personal distinctiveness, and allow others to preserve theirs.
We need to do our own good works and not get bothered by others who may or may not be of our denominational or religious persuasion.
But we also need to be conscious of those aspects of our lives that may be getting in the way of our good works, those things from which we would better be cut free.
For although Jesus spoke of body parts, I think we can readily identify other parts of our LIVES that are equally if not more eligible for separation from us, if we are to be TRULY free from sin.
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