Blogging Towards Sunday April 22nd
A common joke among pastors goes like this: “If it weren't for the people, I'd love my church!" While irreverently funny, it points to the true challenge of following the teachings of Jesus: other people. It’s easy (or at least seems easier) to work to love God, as Jesus said, with all our intelligence, passion and life-energy. It’s other people that are difficult. There’s a reason that Jesus claimed that anyone can love their friends and family. What’s truly revolutionary is to actively love your enemies in a way that transforms us, them and the world.
Most people in our context commonly claim to be “spiritual but not religious”; to “not need a church community to be spiritual”. While the church can seem tired, boring and irreverent; it’s life in the community of church that reminds us what is hard, and actually quite impossible, about following Jesus: loving our neighbor as God first loves us. It’s easy to talk about love in platitudes, philosophical sound bytes or self-aggrandizing statements. It’s much more challenging to be confronted by the ways in which we need each other and struggle to get along.
Often we talk of loving our enemies in a way that diverts from the reality that we struggle to love those people that get under our skin, or those we think have too much power or influence in our community, or those that we envy in terms of their position, beauty or connections. The French Existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a play entitled “No Exit” (Huis Clos in French), which has the tag line: “Hell is the other.” Being in relationship, life in community, is both the sustenance that we need to survive and the thorn in our side that often brings us down.
In the text today the disciples are irritated by another worker of great deeds, in this case exorcism. They’re jealous. He’s crowding in on their territory, using the authority that Jesus gave to them, not him. In 4 verses the phrase “in the name of Christ” is used three times. An expression that invokes authority transmitted to followers or partners, the disciples are irritated first that this guy is using a power that wasn’t given to him. He’s an outsider. Secondly they’re irritated that Jesus doesn’t seem upset. It’s as if Jesus thinks that those that invoke his power can’t slander his cause, and will inevitably be drawn into his movement of world transformation through love of neighbor. The disciples draw a line in the sand between us and them. Jesus doesn’t seem to see a division between insiders and outsiders.
From verse 41 to 48 Jesus turns to speaking about the challenging of loving not those outside the community, or radically different than we are, but about those we walk with, know by name, share life with on a regular basis. We’re responsible for them. Our example – or testimony to use old school Christian talk – isn’t negligible even when we think we’re doing something small, trite and insignificant, like offering a glass of water to a thirsty traveler or friend: offering hospitality. What we say, do and embody; whether with our hand, food or eyes can either help or harm, build up or destroy, point to the truth of God or bend to the truth to serve our selfish interests.
Salt is the dominate metpahor that Jesus uses to talk about the ways in which he invites us to love others: both those whom are outside the groups that we call community; and those that walk with us in that same community. Where we draw lines, Jesus brings together. Salt in the ancient world was the precious element that preserved food (no refrigerators during the Roman Empire); secondly, it penterated into whatever it came into contact with, entering into a sort of relationship; and three, like today, it brought our flavor transforming the bland into the extroardinary. Jesus talks of salt as a purifiying fire, a judgment, that God will hold us all accountable for the ways that we have loved – or haven’t – our neighbors. Jesus calls all those who follow him to live as salt, as pentetrating preservatives and flavorfull additives in our world; to relationally be people that are connected to others, seeking the welfare and the fulfillment of themselves and others, and to lift up and point to the extraordinary that is present in our world created by God, and in us – human beings – creatures created together in God’s image. Peace is some sort of liberation, which comes from such subversive community and transformative relationships. What’s curious is that salt can both perfect a meal, and destroy one if carelessly used.
In the end I think that the gift of church, is that it’s a community of fellow travelers, collaborators in a relational laboratory trying, failing, tryng again, and learning to love each other – and to love our own selves – as God first loves us. Where do you point the finger at others who don’t seem to be with the program, or cause others to stumble either through your conscious choices or unconscious actions? Where do you need to be less like salt rubbed into a wound, and more like salt added to a perfectly cooked steak?