When the Gospel is Marmite
This could be great news. There again, it could ruin your day. There’s a national shortage of Marmite. “Panic spreads among Marmite lovers as supplies dwindle, “ headlined this morning’s Times: It seems that the reduction in beer-making during the pandemic has markedly reduced the supply of yeast, the key ingredient in its manufacture by Unilever. Marmite, of course, is a national treasure – even though it was invented by a German scientist at the end of the 19th century, Justus von Liebig, otherwise known as the "father of the fertilizer industry." The name, of course, is French, derived from a large, covered earthenware or metal cooking pot. However, the Victorian brewers of Burton moved in in a big way using the yeast derived from the Bass brewery, the then largest in the world. Soon Marmite came into its own, especially during WW1 when its contribution to the war effort with the supply of vitamin B was recognised. You won’t believe this but I was once searched for the possession of Marmite. Actually, not quite but almost. It was 2001 and we were touring the Rockies in an RV. This was during foot-and-mouth outbreak in the UK when 2,000 cases of the disease ravaged the British countryside. The Canadians were terrified of the contagion spreading to their cattle. We experienced their alarm on arrival at Vancouver International Airport when all UK nationals had to account for their movements for the previous six weeks. More to the point, we had to surrender any supplies of Marmite. Apparently this innocent food spread can harbour this virulent virus. During our stay, as visitors from the UK, we repeatedly had to walk over disinfectant mats but it was the fear of Marmite which seemed uttermost in the minds of Canadian officials. “Are you in possession of Marmite?” we heard so many times, as the officer would peer over my shoulder into our RV. I’m surprised we were never stripped searched! To be English was to be a potential carrier of Marmite. As Angela Kiss reports in her guide to the English: “It is a well-known fact that English people never know anything. They only think. The only exception they know and they are sure about in the whole world is Marmite. ‘Love it or hate it.’ There are no other options; there is no space for grey space.” And that is the quintessential definition of Marmite: you either love it or (like Canadian officialdom) hate it, nothing in between. It’s a useful shorthand, like soccer pundit Derek Rae’s observation: “Peter Crouch, the Marmite of football.” What does it take to be a Marmite person? If you think about it, quite a challenge – to be loved by some while at the same time to be loathed by others. Same person but two diametrically-opposed reactions. Not easy. I can think of Alan, an evangelist who even introduced some of my fellow athletes to Christ all those years ago. He was fearless in his commitment to sharing the Gospel to the extent that people would hide from him. Sometimes I wondered if the parts of his brain which registered embarrassment had been damaged at birth. I loved him but the queue of those who hated him went round the block. Fundamentally he appeared indifferent to what people thought of him, such was his allegiance to Christ. For once we begin to court the esteem of other people, we become hostage to their opinion. The apostle Paul understood this only too well. “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Galatians 1:10) Such was his commitment to Christ that the apostle Paul has to be a grade 1 Marmite person. So many people hated him; they still do. And not just those outside the church, those who stoned him and had him whipped. It was fierce opposition from within the church which caused him most grief. This super-active apostle was continually tracked, it would seem, by those who would oppose his ministry. They were a particular menace in the church in Corinth, continually undermining his calling and challenging his authority. You can hear the hurt as he writes: “But if you put up with these big-shot “apostles,” why can’t you put up with simple me?” (2 Corinthians 11:5) Moreover, in a strange passage in his letter to the Philippians, he talks about fellow Christians who preach Christ “out of envy and rivalry” as a means of getting at him. “Their motives are bad. They see me as their competition, and so the worse it goes for me, the better—they think—for them.” (Philippians 1:15). However, in all of this, Paul does not lose his focus. “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.” (Philippians 1:15). What counts, fundamentally, is not what people think of us but what they think of Jesus. And once we get that firm in our minds, the Holy Spirit is able to work so much more effectively even through us. For at its heart the Gospel is all or nothing. As Jesus challenges the Pharisees, he would challenge us. “This is war, and there is no neutral ground. If you’re not on my side, you’re the enemy; if you’re not helping, you’re making things worse.” (Matthew 12:30). Pure Marmite.