Envy is the enemy of the gospel

A sermon for Sunday, September 26 at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid. In the readings, disciples of Moses and Jesus object to unauthorized deployment of the Spirit. In the news, images of border patrols chasing immigrants with horses, and yet more gun violence in our streets and stores.

It is no accident that it is just after the disciples’ argument over which of them might be the greatest that they fall into this dispute about who has the right to cast out demons in the name of Jesus. They have not yet learned the lesson that Jesus tried to teach them through the child. They have not yet realized that it is better to heal the world than to wield power over it. “If we can’t lord it over one another,” they reason, “we can at least set ourselves up over and against the rabble that surrounds us!” Envy is a powerful and unhelpful human emotion.

But Jesus is not threatened by the idea of sharing his power and influence. He is ready for the salvation of the whole world, by all means and all messengers that will bring the gospel, the good news of God’s Christ, to bear upon those who need it. He is there for the casting out of demons, and the recovery of life and hope. He is not afraid that his name will lose its power if too many people confess it.

Jesus’ namesake, Joshua, was jealous for his own gift of anointing when Moses shared his prophetic spirit with the seventy elders. When the young men, Eldad and Medad, expressed the same spirit, Joshua asked Moses to stop them, since they had not been explicitly invited to prophesy as the seventy had. But Moses, like Jesus, had insight into the abundance of God’s grace, and knew that it cannot run out by being shared; nor will it be suppressed by our stinginess.

Envy is the enemy of the gospel and a stumbling block to grace. Jealousy for our borders makes us cruel. Fear of running out of freedom and opportunity for all makes us selfish for our own. The fragility of our own status, as believing ourselves to be beloved of God and of one another, cracks open our relationships too easily, and leaves us with sharp edges.

We see its fruits in the whips of the overseers, transported from another century into our own, we could barely believe our eyes, and yet our hearts knew the truth, and were in some cases complicit.

We see envy’s rotten fruit in the violence that stalks our own streets, and the suspicion which divides a neighbour from the love that they are owed.

We see it in systems of supremacy that, loudly or subtly, prop up the privilege of those who have it and close the doors against those who do not, instead of dismantling the scaffold that keeps an uneven and unequal edifice propped up.

But Moses said, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”

And Jesus said, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

Whoever is not against us is for us. The people who have come to our borders because they believe that they will find some good here, who believe in the good things we say about ourselves, they are for us; and should we turn against them?

It is no accident that this situation occurs right after the disciples’ dispute over who is the greatest. Nor is it any great coincidence that it occurs not long after they failed to cast out the demon from a boy tormented by it, whose father appealed to Jesus for help. The disciples are stung by what they cannot do and jealous of those to whom it seems to come more easily. Their sense of inner greatness is fragile and they are vulnerable to envy.

But they have the privilege that is like no other. They live and breathe and eat and walk with Jesus, the Christ. They know him like no one else. They are part of his morning prayers and his desert retreats and they witness his miracles and they watch him sleep. They will become his church, and they will prophesy, bringing the truth of the gospel to the ends of the earth. They will be salted with fire, with the fire of the Holy Spirit, at Pentecost. All except the one whose envy gets the better of him, who betrays the grace of God for a handful of silver and the gratitude and contempt of the authorities.

In the letter of James, it is written,

Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. … For where there is envy and selfish ambition there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” (James 3:13-14, 16-18)

Jesus tells his disciples, whose direct spiritual descendants we are, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Have salt in yourselves, knowing the worth that Christ has placed upon you and within you. Put no stumbling block before justice, and do not seek to cast out mercy, do not be jealous for God’s loving-kindness, but have peace in the knowledge that God is love.

We have privilege like no other. We have the Body of Christ among us and within us, and we are a part of him. We need no selfish ambition to make ourselves great when we have the great commandments, to love God with all of our being and our neighbours as ourselves, to sustain us and to guide us; when we have the love of God within us and among us, salt in ourselves.

“Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets,” said Moses. Have salt in yourselves, and prophesy peace.

 

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing (Upper Room Books, 2020). She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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