Salted with fire (Mark 9.38-50)

Mark 9.38-50
“Salted with fire”
Ordinary 26B/September 30, 2018
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church
Tom James
This past summer, we spent a couple of weeks on vacation in Florida. It’s not an exotic place for us—I was born there, my parents grew up there, and I have three brothers who have hardly lived anywhere else. So, because of those connections, we have been accustomed to the long drive down I-75. The thing about driving to Florida very often is that you sort of get used to the seeing some of the same sights, and you also tend to notice things that are new along the way.
The last couple of times we’ve made the trip, I’ve noticed a proliferation of billboards of a certain type. They have a “1-800” number prominently displayed on them, along with a provocative religious message. “Why did Jesus create you? 1-800…”; “Where will you spend eternity? Heaven, or Hell? 1-800…” Or, and this one is my personal favorite (I want to say I saw it somewhere in Tennessee), “Turn or burn. 1-800…”
Theologian Thomas Altizer is certainly correct when he writes that no major religion has been as obsessed with the theme of judgment as Christianity has been, and that references to judgment as a kind of fire are almost unique to the New Testament among all the world’s holy books. So, while we might want to disavow these pesky billboards—while we might be embarrassed by them, or might be quick to point out their offensiveness or even to laugh at them—they are not totally out of sync with the gospels, and especially with passages of Scripture like our gospel reading for today.
But we need to take it slow. If we want to understand what Jesus meant by “judgment,” we have to set aside for the moment roughly two thousand years of speculation by theologians, preachers, and commentators who have given us their own ideas that may actually have little to do with what Jesus was intending when he talked about judgment—and, yes, fire.
There is no doubt that Jesus’ words in the middle of our passage sound a harsh note. There are references to plucking out your eye and cutting off your hand if these very useful parts of our bodies cause us to fall into sin. As gruesome as it is, we are told that that is a better alternative than finding oneself engulfed in the flames of hell.
Just a side note here, since we’re talking about “plucking one’s eye out.” It has always been very common for men, in particular, to blame their lust and the behavior it produces on the women who are its objects—”she’s asking for it by the way she dresses,” for example. All the restrictions on women’s clothing in many cultures come from this logic. It’s a view that’s very flattering to men, actually. But notice here where the problem really lies. According to Jesus, it lies with the eye, not with what the eye sees. No comfort here is given for blaming the victim, and there is no hint that the problem of lust would be cured if only women would dress more modestly, or would present themselves differently, or whatever. Rather, the guilt falls squarely on the person who thinks the thought or does the deed. If you want to avoid the flames of judgment, it doesn’t do any good to try and control the behavior or the appearance of others: they’re not the problem. See to yourself.
Still, though, the measures that Jesus recommends are hard to take. And the threat that seems to be lurking here seems even worse. Hellfire, forever? How can that be, when the God we believe in is a loving and compassionate God? And I want to mention something once more that is bound to heighten our confusion. Even though we Christians are in the habit of thinking of thinking of the God we find in the Old Testament as harsh and vindictive and the God that Jesus proclaims as loving and merciful, it is only in the New Testament that God’s judgment is so terribly absolute and final. There is no “hell” in the Old Testament: that’s a New Testament idea!
So what is Jesus talking about? As I mentioned earlier, we have to set aside for a moment everything that subsequent Christian history, from Sunday school teachers to TV preachers to famous theologians, has said about hell if we want to understand what Jesus meant by it. The word for “hell” in this passage is “Gehenna”—an Aramaic word that referred to a specific place, a hillside where trash and refuse were burned outside the city of Jerusalem. That in itself doesn’t tell us much, except that, clearly, Jesus is using a metaphor here. He’s not saying literally that there are some people who because of their sins will be thrown down the hill into this burning trash pit. No—he’s saying that there’s something about that scene that is important for understanding a danger that lurks just over our horizon. Gehenna is not supposed to inspire speculation about some forever state—but, instead, it is supposed to point to a burning possibility that all but touches us, whose heat we can feel, right now, as if we were standing by the hillside, in the bright glare of the flames.
I suggest that there is a reason why the New Testament is so focused on hell: it is because it is so focused on a radically new life that has arrived in Jesus. The life of compassion; the way of nonviolent resistance to injustice; loving the enemy; reaching out beyond the comfortable confines of one’s own ethnicity: all of this is so radically new that it not only provides incredible hope for a better life but at the same time it lands on our ears like a serious blow to all that we have known before. And so, the contrast between this new life that comes to us in Jesus and the old life that we have lived in the past is so sharp that it divides the present moment in two. Right now, we find ourselves poised, balanced, on a fulcrum, on a point, as if we might fall either way. The gospel is like a sword that cuts a path between a past that has no future, and a future that radically breaks from the past. Which way will we go?
Here I want to be as plain as I can be. “Judgment,” when Jesus talks about it, does not mean a place with literal flames—that’s to take the metaphor much too literally, and therefore to trivialize it. In reality, judgment means something far more consequential for how we live our lives now. To believe in judgment is to believe in a God who calls us to a life that is different, and better, than the life we already have. To believe in judgment is to believe that God calls us to embrace a future that is different, and better, than our past. To believe in judgment is to recognize that I must make a break, that my past is dead and gone, in a certain way destined for the trash heap, and that the old habits and the old ways, though I may remember them fondly and though I may have learned a lot from them, have to give way, now, to something else. To borrow a way of putting it from my favorite sign along I-75, we must make a turn, for our past is about to burn.
On June 4, 1783, at the market square of a French village of Annonay, not far from Paris, a smoky bonfire on a raised platform was fed by wet straw and old wool rags. Tethered above, straining its lines, was a huge taffeta bag 33 feet in diameter. In the presence of “a respectable assembly and a great many other people,” as someone described it, and accompanied by great cheering, the balloon was cut from its moorings and set free to rise majestically into the noon sky. Six thousand feet into the air it went — the first public ascent of a balloon, the first step in the history of human flight. It was as if the past, those eons of human time in which flight was impossible, was burning up with that bonfire that lifted the balloon. But you know what happened? The taffeta balloon settled again to earth several miles away in a field, where it was promptly attacked by pitchfork-waving locals and torn to pieces as an instrument of evil![1]  
This is why Jesus says we must all be salted with fire. It’s an odd way of putting it—but the point, I think, is clear: all of us are subject to the flames because the comfortable past that we have known passes away. But the image of fire is not supposed to conjure up fears of being tormented or punished for our sins. The image of fire is meant as a promise. “All will be salted with fire” means that none of us is left out of God’s great, ongoing work of salvation because to be judged is to be saved. To be judged is not to be left to one’s own brokenness. To be judged is not to be set aside and forgotten. The good news is that all will be salted with fire. All are subject to a future that will change us. The warning is simply that we can hold ourselves back, that we can keep ourselves fastened to the ground—we can refuse, and cling to the past. We can attack the future with pitchforks and try to tear it up as if it were an instrument of evil. But that does mean that God ever gives up on us, nor that God ever gives up on Christ’s church. The fire burns. The balloon rises again.
When we confess our sin together in worship, it is not about wallowing in our guilt, but about recognizing that we are still in the middle of the great turning, the great transition toward the kingdom of God. We confess that the fire burns and that we can feel its heat. When we confess our sin, we have, as Jesus puts it, salt in ourselves. We attune ourselves to the new reality that is happening in our lives. We learn to see the taffeta balloon and the flame that sets it to flight, not as a threat or a danger that might come down on us and crush us, not as something that will destroy us or torment us, but as a promise that will lift us up.
In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.

[1] Today in the Word, July 15, 1993.
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