The Role of the Knife – Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity 2012

It was announced recently that the RC bishops in Germany have ruled that those who refuse to pay their church tax will not be eligible for the sacraments and other privileges of being church members. In Germany it is the custom that one declares church membership to the revenue, who stop money from your pay-check and forward most of it to the denomination of your choice. Those Catholics who have declared themselves non-catholics for tax purposes will now be denied membership privileges.

One can see where the bishops are coming from. You want to be a member? then pay your dues. You want to have a church and priest available for your wedding or your funeral? Then don’t expect everyone else to shoulder the burden of sustentation. Any Select Vestry would say the same! And I imagine the bishops are also thinking, some of these people have so little real connection, it might be more honest to regard them as non-members. After all, they have declared themselves to be non-members!

On the other hand, it has been well said that “the Church is a Club that exists for the benefit of non-members.” Can you imagine Jesus checking with those who came for help and healing that they had paid up their synagogue dues, and that they held the right opinions? No, I can’t; and we have usually tried to do pastoral ministry regardless of whether those who need are paid-up members or not. Further, as I understand it, at least some of those who have withheld their money are doing so as a protest against the child-abuse scandal, both the crimes and the cover-up. If so, one wonders whether this move is a very wise response to a genuine outcry. It is however in line with the growing emphasis on conformity within the Roman communion: you want to be a member, then behave like this, believe like this, and pay up.

Our Gospel today might be entitled, “The Role of the Knife in Christian Discipleship”. If your hand offends you, cut it off… It is said that the great scholar Origen, in a moment of youthful enthusiasm, took this advice in the most painfully literal way when he was troubled by lustful thoughts. We are not to take it literally, but seriously: Christian discipleship involves choices, renunciation, purification. That seems to be the meaning of the phrase “Everyone will be salted with fire”: in the Temple sacrifices were offered with salt – Christian life is sacrificial in nature. We are meant to be in a process of judgement and purification. There are things in our lives that will lead to life, to God; and there are things that will lead to hell. The Greek word is Gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom, effectively the Jerusalem dump and cesspit, full of smouldering heaps of rubbish and rotting maggoty carcases. There are things that look attractive and glamorous that will turn out on closer inspection to be worthless. So we are to cut out whatever will lead us to the rubbish dump. One of those things will be the thrusting self that wants to be greatest and to put others down. It is because we are all sacrificing our selfish urges that we can live at peace among ourselves.

What about the use of the knife on a corporate level? Are there people or teachings or lifestyles that need to be cut out, excluded, for the sake of the health and integrity of the community? Traditionally the answer is yes; and from the New Testament on we see the process of judging and removing false teachers in word and deed. About fifteen years ago Andrew Furlong, Dean of Clonmacnoise, was a minor celebrity as the subject of a heresy trial in a Church of Ireland court. His opinions on the person of Christ and the Eucharist were not particularly novel or interesting but they were undoubtedly at odds with the teaching of the church. Was it necessary to remove him? Again, during the Troubles associated with Drumcree, some of us felt that the Orange Order should be excluded from our buildings – that the association was bringing the Church into disrepute – a source of real scandal. In our present time there are no doubt others who would like to exclude all practising homosexuals and those who support them – again for the sake of the integrity of the Church. It is easy enough to cut when we are using the knife, not when it is being used on us! Not easy to say whether exclusion might ultimately do more harm than good.

In the beginning of our reading John tells Jesus about an unknown exorcist who has been using the name of Jesus in his work, but who is not a member of the disciples, not “one of us”, and they have told him off. Jesus curiously supports the outsider. This man is well-intentioned – his exorcism work is, in the language of the time, a ministry of help and healing – and he really believes that Jesus’ name works when it comes to scaring out the demons. It is unformed faith, and doubtless he knows nothing of Jesus’ inner teaching, but it is not negligible. He is doing good in the name of Jesus. He has a seed of goodness which needs to be nurtured and directed rather than dismissed. Similarly the outsider who does a Christian a small kindness because he respects the faith that he does not share, will not be dismissed by God.

Because we affirm so strongly that God is at work in the Church and its life and sacraments, because we want to gratefully testify that we know his presence with us; because we really do believe that he uses the means of grace to touch us – there is always a temptation to think he cannot work outside our box, among others, in other ways. And underlying the temptation to say “our way or no way” is something of that thrusting self that wants to be boss. And what lies under that, but an element of fear; an unwillingness to perceive or acknowledge faults and failings. We so want to present ourselves to the world as moderately perfect people; we would like to present the Christian community as pure and tidy and sorted out. According to today’s gospel we should all be walking wounded, missing hands and feet and eyes and whatever – testaments to failing, and to grace, and living sacrifices of thanksgiving to God.

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