Our grandsons, Emmett and Evander, come to our home every Monday morning. They used to help me make porridge (but no longer). The ritual included Emmett wetting his finger and dipping it into the salt in order to taste it. He would screw up his face and ask for a drink of water! (Evander always refused when I offered the salt container to him.)
In our time and place, how do we use salt? It’s used for flavouring food, preserving food, healing cuts in your mouth, clearing snow from streets and sidewalks, putting out fires, and killing slugs.
Salt is very powerful, very effective. And yet salt accomplishes its work without any fanfare or fireworks. Salt does its work secretly, yet powerfully!
In the ancient world, salt was used in sacrifice. At the Temple in Jerusalem, the laws governing sacrifice specified that all incense and all offerings be seasoned with salt; for salt, with all its mysterious powers, came from God, and was to be offered back to God as part of one’s sacrifice.
How does God work among us? Sometimes God works among us in big, spectacular ways. But most often God works behind the scenes … quietly, mysteriously.
How about names? How do we use names? And what power is contained in a name?
More to the point: In whose name do you operate? Under whose authority do you live and move and have your being?
The assumption in the Bible is that no one really acts of his or her own free will, because no one has a free will. Everyone is subject to some power. Everyone is inevitably influenced by some external force. (We moderns deceive ourselves by thinking it’s not so!)
One of the disciples of Jesus – his name was John – came to him and said, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
But Jesus said, “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. Whoever is not against us is for us. 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.”
Note what the issue is. It’s not that the unfamiliar exorcist was conducting his ministry in the name of someone other than Jesus. Rather, the issue is that he was not following Jesus together with the disciples. In their eyes, that was a serious breach of protocol – so serious that they wanted him to stop.
But it wasn’t an issue for Jesus. Just because someone was not following the small band of intimates that Jesus had chosen and gathered, that didn’t mean that that person was ministering contrary to God’s purposes. In fact, Jesus says that those ministering in his name will inevitably be pulled into a powerful allegiance with him: No one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.
Now, this is the same Teacher who has taught his disciples that people who want to become his followers would have to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him. He taught that those who want to save their lives would lose them, but those who lost their lives for Jesus’ sake and for the sake of the gospel would save them. Those ashamed of Jesus and of his words in an adulterous, sinful generation – of these the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.
All that points to a pretty narrow road. So, Jesus’ broad-mindedness here is quite a surprise. No one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.
But it’s not a surprise in the Bible as a whole. This is one of the subtle messages in the Book of Esther, from which today’s First Reading comes. In some ways, it’s remarkable that this book is in the Bible at all, because it never once mentions “God.” And yet, in the story of Esther there’s this ongoing expectation that God is indeed at work in the process of government – even when that government is Babylon, the enemy, the captor, and overlord of God’s Chosen People. A Jewish woman, Esther, saves her people by engaging the intrigue of power and privilege at the highest levels of this pagan government. God is at work invisibly, behind the scenes.
Esther is not the only book in the Bible that takes such a broad view. Isaiah acknowledged God-at-work in the Persian king, Cyrus, who conquered Babylon and granted permission to the Jews to return to their homeland. Cyrus too was pagan; he didn’t worship God or even know God. But that didn’t stop Isaiah from giving him the title “messiah,” because he delivered God’s people from captivity.
Salt and the Name. It seems strange to link the two things together, but there is a connection. With both, there’s power at work, beyond what we can see.
In the case of salt, it’s chemistry. We can draw upon our scientific knowledge and explain what’s going on in chemical terms. But we can’t actually see that happening. We can only see its effects.
The same is true for the power invested by God the Father in the name of the only beloved Son, Jesus Christ. The name, Jesus, means God’s salvation. That’s a powerful name. It’s the name by which God takes you and me, together with all who live by faith, into God’s family.
It’s the name that I invoke when I do as I am authorized to do: proclaim your forgiveness of sins — not because your confession of sins is complete and sincere enough — but solely because God lavishes mercy upon us all through Jesus Christ. I use his name in this way because God, through the church of Jesus Christ, calls me to do so.
Jesus tells us that even something as simple as giving a cup of water to someone who bears the name of Christ may be part and parcel of the work of the Holy Spirit. And if that be true, then we can begin to understand how the Name of Jesus overcomes human divisions among his followers.
For Jesus also wants us to understand that his Heavenly Father’s Spirit propels all kinds of people, including those who may not have anything to do with us, people who are quite different from us, people whose beliefs may be quite different from ours – but who, like us, are agents of God’s holy and redemptive purposes.
God makes that happen by the power of the the Holy Spirit. As with salt, you and I cannot see that happening. But we can see the effects. We can see the effects here and now, in this congregation and just anywhere God chooses. We can see people taking up life anew, by faith in God’s purposes in Jesus Christ.
Salt and the Name. There’s power there — unseen but effective. Both produce their intended results.
We trust that power. We confess and pray for the church catholic — the universal church, the church for all people. We do that as we continue to proclaim Christ’s name, trusting that God will accomplish healing and salvation out there in the world, but also here, among us.
Dear friends here at Peace Lutheran Church: you and I are about to part ways officially. When I agreed to serve you on a part-time, interim basis, just a little over two years ago, I had no idea that we would be together this long as congregation and pastor. But then, none of us could have anticipated the challenges that we would face together as the COVID-19 pandemic came upon us and the whole world.
In those strange and challenging circumstances we continued proclaiming the Good New of God in Christ Jesus. We continued with the mission to which we are all called, and the ministry entrusted to us. We proclaimed Christ crucified and risen, for the sake of the forgiveness of sins, new life, and abiding faith.
As we go our separate ways officially, I am confident of the power of the Name in your lives. I trust that, as we part company, our lives have been transformed by God’s Spirit. For that is the promise invested in ministry conducted in the Name of Jesus Christ.
Once again, I thank you for your respect and love, and your witness to me. The faith that I see in your lives has served as an encouragement and inspiration for me. Thank you for the adventures that we shared.
Peace be with you all.