Date: September 26, 2021
Festival: Pentecost 18 (Proper 21)
Text: Mark 9:38-50
Occasion: Zion Lutheran Church, Mt. Pleasant, MI and Christ the King Lutheran Chapel
Let us pray: “Father, you show your almighty power in your mercy and forgiveness. Continue to fill us with your gifts of love. Help us to hurry toward the eternal life you promise and come to share in the joys of your kingdom. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen” [For All the Saints, 893-894].
Brothers and sisters in Christ, today we have some difficult sayings from our Lord. After the disciples were discussing among themselves which of them were the greatest [vv. 33-37], and Jesus knew it, they wonder about someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name who’s not in their inner circle, and the Lord says to leave him alone. Then Jesus gives us striking imagery after striking imagery that is typical of His hyperbolic pedagogy—it is better for one to have a giant millstone around his neck and thrown into the sea than to cause a little child who believes in Him to sin; and staying on the topic of sin, He says it is better to cut off this or that body part if it causes you to sin because it is better to have just one of these in Heaven than to have both and be thrown into Hell where worms do not die and the fires cannot be quenched; and then He talks about salt, fire and peace, all of which seem as if they have nothing to do with each other.
All of these difficult sayings of Jesus deserve sermons of their own, so I hope you will forgive me if I just stick with one of them for today, verses 49-50, “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.”
In seminary training, they teach us to begin our Greek translations with the verbs, so let’s do that. The first verb we come across is “salted.” And our confusion and curiosity immediately abound when we find that Jesus says everyone will be salted not with something salty, but with fire. Perhaps the first question we ask is the age-old question Lutheran theologians always ask when reading a text of Scripture, “What does this mean?”
Some commentators have connected the salt here with the salt that was put on certain sacrifices in the Old Testament before they were burnt up. Others make a more allegorical interpretation of salt’s connection with preservation and flavour. Some will talk about being salted with fire as our relationship to God—that by taking up your cross and following Jesus you become salted with fire, meaning you bear His cross as well. And if there is no persecution that comes, how can the Christian mature? I think there is some truth to this, so let’s run with it for a bit.
Now, I don’t know much about chemistry, but what I do know is that salt becomes what it is through a chemical process called salification, from the Latin word sal that means “salt.” When the two chemicals sodium and chloride are salified, they become salt. The salification everyone goes through is, apparently, by fire. But the result of this salification by fire is not the same throughout. Those who sin and fail to cut it off from themselves will be salted with the fires of Hell, which is a fire that does not purify but merely consumes. Yet others will be salified differently—a salt that is good and a fire that purifies. Everyone will be salted with fire. To put this another way, everyone will pass through the fire of judgement, even you and me. Yet not everyone experiences the same result of this fire.
You and I have already passed through the fire of judgement, but it did not consume us. This fire has salified us, or purified us, in Baptism. It seems absurd to say that by the waters of Baptism we pass through the fires of judgement, yet that’s exactly how John the Baptiser describes the Baptism with which Jesus would baptise, “He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire” [Matthew 3:11]. It seems absurd because how can Jesus baptise—which literally means wash—with fire? It’s a mystery, which is fitting because the word sacrament means “mystery.”
Imagine it this way: when the waters of Baptism were poured over you, with God’s Word and the Holy Spirit therein, the fire of God’s judgement passed over you without inflicting a single burn wound. In Romans 6, St. Paul says your old self—the sinner you were—died in Baptism and was crucified with Christ, which Luther calls the Old Adam that was drowned. Therefore, as you were drowning in those waters of Baptism, the fiery judgement of God that fell upon Christ on the cross passed over you in that moment.
Perhaps another way to think of it is seeing the Holy Spirit Himself as fire, that is, a spiritual, divine fire. He is not a fire that consumes but a fire that purifies—or in other words, the Holy Spirit makes things holy. The day of Pentecost in Acts 2 actually helps us with this. The promised Holy Spirit came and rested on the apostles as fire, just as He rested on Christ in His own Baptism, and then Peter preaches a sermon to repent and be baptised and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the promise is for you and your children regardless of their age. How this act of God works is a mystery, a sacrament.
So, that’s salt and fire with our relationship to God, and there’s also a salt and fire with our relationship to each other. As we live as Christians who’ve been purified by the fires of Baptism, we enter one of the paradoxical realities that comes with living in the world as Christians. We are salted with the fire of the Holy Spirit and thus enter purity (which we also call sanctification), but at the same time we also experience the fire of this world time and time again as death and evil blaze up out of nowhere.
We feel the heat when a relationship fails due to divorce, betrayal, stubbornness, or things just not working out. We feel the heat in the failure of our wills when we try so hard not to give in to temptation, and even pray against it, but end up committing that sin anyway. We feel the heat when the world pressures us to stop following the “antiquated” ways of Christianity and instead to “get with the times” and become like everyone else. We feel the heat when someone we love dies, or when they’re suddenly rushed to the hospital. We feel the heat during the pandemic. We feel the heat when we plan our day, and it doesn’t go according to plan.
And yet, these fires do not consume you, dear Christians, because the fire of the Holy Spirit has been resting upon you since the day of your Baptism. These little flames in the world that flicker here and there cannot compare to the blazing fire of the Holy Spirit that has purified you in Christ. Whatever these fires are that you may be feeling in the world right now, they cannot consume you; they can only concentrate what Christ has already done for you in your Baptism; they can only make you more like salt.
And salt is good, Jesus says. In Jesus’ eyes, there is no such thing as neutral salt. There is only salt that does what it’s meant to do; if salt ceases to do what it does, then it is no longer salt. What would you do if the next time you picked up your saltshaker and found that the sodium was completely gone and all that was left was the chloride? I’m pretty sure you would throw it away; it’s not salt anymore; it’s useless. As Matthew records similar words of Jesus, the salt is utterly useless and worthy only of being thrown out onto the streets to be trampled upon [Matthew 5:13]. So, Jesus says, “Have salt in yourselves,” that is: Be salt. You’re either salt, or you’re not; there’s no room for being bland or lukewarm. You are like salt in that you have been salified, or purified, by the fire of the Holy Spirit in your Baptism.
Be salt. But just how do we do that? Well, Jesus says simply, “Be at peace with one another.” Let us, then, consider the difference between being salt and being salty. As Lutherans, we have an unfortunate reputation for being salty. When confronting false doctrines, heresies, and differences of opinion on any subject matter, we are infamous for our biting sarcasm rather than we are for speaking the truth in love, which St. Paul commends all Christians to do [Ephesians 4:15]. We aren’t the only ones, of course, but it’s problematic when other Christians expect a Lutheran to be snarky when entering any kind of discourse. Don’t get me wrong, sarcasm that is salty has its place when its purpose is humour, but when your being salty causes your relationships to suffer, you stop being salt and instead become something disgustingly bitter.
So, don’t be salty. Be salt. That is, be at peace with one another. Don’t irritate each other. When you’re being salt, you will suffer on account of Christ as you bear your cross; when you’re being salty, you will suffer on account of your being a jerk. We know what it takes to be at peace with one another; we simply don’t want to do it. When your spouse or brother or sister or anybody says something that irks you in the wrong way and you want to say that slight, biting remark that you know will push their buttons in all the wrong places to sow that bitter seed of discord and hurt their feelings, you cease to be salt; and salt that is not salt is only worthy of being thrown away.
In fact, St. James from our reading this morning has some good advice on how to be salt rather than salty, “Be patient… Do not grumble against one another… Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray with him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord… Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another,” and bring someone back from wandering in sin [James 5:7, 8, 9, 13-14, 16, 19].
We can go to other places in the Scriptures that teach us how to live peaceably with one another like salt that is good, but for now let us begin by being patient with one another, not grumbling against each other through conflict and gossip, always praying with one another, sharing in each other’s joys, visiting the sick and the old, forgiving one another, and bringing one another out of sin and back into the gracious arms of Christ in whom we have been baptised and purified with the holy fire of His Spirit.
Let us pray: “O Almighty God, give to thy servants a meek and gentle spirit, that we may be slow to anger, and easy to mercy and forgiveness. Give us wise and constant hearts, that we may never be moved to intemperate anger for any injury that is done or offered. Lord, let us ever be courteous, and easy to be entreated; let us never fall into [an irritable] or contentious spirit, but follow peace with all men; offering forgiveness, inviting them by courtesies, ready to confess our own errors, apt to make amends, and desirous to be reconciled. Let no sickness or gross accident, no employment or weariness, make us angry or ungentle and discontented, or unthankful, or uneasy to them that minister to us; but in all things make us like unto the holy Jesus. Amen” [For All the Saints, 898].
Schumacher, Frederick J., and Dorothy A Zelenko. For All the Saints: A Prayer Book For and By the Church. Volume IV: The Season After Pentecost. Delhi, NY: The American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, 1998.