Sept. 26, 2021 Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost The text is Mark 9: 38-50.
38 John said to [Jesus,] “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 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. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 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.
42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
49 “For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Pretty harsh language from Jesus this morning; drowning with a stone tied around your neck, hand and foot cut off, eye plucked out. In fact, these are some of the strongest words Jesus utters in all the New Testament, but why? There must be a reason why Jesus is speaking so harshly to his closest friends, his own disciples.
Well, you will recall that over the last few weeks Jesus has been repeating to the disciples the truth that he is to be killed in Jerusalem; then to rise again for the salvation of the world. Their response to this news shows that they’re not getting it at all. Peter rebuked Jesus so much so that Jesus said to Peter, “get behind me, Satan”. And last week the disciples were afraid to ask Jesus to clarify or explain why this must happen; instead, they spent the time arguing among themselves about which of them was the greatest. Jesus then told them that they were to welcome all people like the little child he then had on his knee. And, yet again proving that they are absolutely clueless as to what he is trying to get them to understand, they now try to stop someone outside of their group from healing in Jesus’ name. “Casting out demons”, they called this, as this was how healing was described in Jesus’ time. Notice that they said that the one doing the good deeds was not following “us”, the disciples; they didn’t say he wasn’t following the will of Jesus. Boy, they really are not getting the point of Jesus’ mission at all.
Jesus responds by telling them that anyone who does good deeds in Jesus’ name is part of the movement, an accepted partner in Jesus’ ministry; and that all are welcome to share in the spread of the gospel. It seems that once again he had to remind the disciples that it’s not about them; “whoever is not against us is for us”, he tells them. He is bringing everyone into the fold that is Jesus and his followers, and it’s not only the original twelve who are called to discipleship. Perhaps the “little ones” Jesus refers to are not simply small children; these may also be people who are just beginning to follow Jesus and their faith is not yet fully developed, it may yet be immature in its depth of understanding. And the last thing anyone should do is to place an obstacle before these fledgling believers as they are struggling to understand Jesus’ identity and his message. All these harsh physical punishments he speaks of are reserved for any who would place a stumbling block in front of a “little one” who is determined to come to faith in Christ. Drowned, maimed, made lame, blind in one eye; as we noted, some of the most severe language that Jesus uses. Jesus’ frustration at his followers’ obstruction of his mission is thus rather starkly expressed:
“Okay guys, I’m being serious here, don’t do anything to stop people from coming to believe in me; if you do, I won’t be happy. There is a place in hell for you if you become a stumbling block to those who wish to bear my name.” I’m pretty sure Jesus is taking this issue seriously.
In no uncertain terms, the disciples are being told that the whole concept of faith in Jesus is difficult enough to accept on its face, so let’s not do anything to make it ever harder, especially on those who aren’t part of the inner circle. If the disciples’ faith is so insecure that they feel they need to place a stumbling block before those outside of their little group, then maybe they need to take a long, hard look at the depth of their own conviction, their own devotion to Christ and his mission. They are expected to do just the opposite of causing impediment; they are to widen the circle, to include welcoming everyone into the radical nature of the openness of Christ. Everything about Jesus’ message screams inclusivity, hospitality, and welcome for all. It wasn’t up to the disciples, and it’s not our job either to decide who is in and who is out. A pastor friend of mine sums this up quite well, “we have to stop trying to fit God into a box”. Our understanding of God as Father and Jesus as Son can’t possibly begin to describe the reality of divine nature. God is so much bigger that any limitation we may try to impose. So, what made the disciples want to withhold the kingdom from others, and who are we to presume it’s our responsibility to limit the expansion of God’s kingdom? Jesus is painfully clear on the subject; no stumbling blocks allowed.
Now you might be thinking, “wait a minute, what have I done to place a stumbling block in front of anyone who is seeking to develop a relationship with Jesus?” While we might not specifically do anything to impede Christ’s mission, it’s likely that we also haven’t done enough to remove those obstacles that were already in the way; whether we placed them there or not. And by the way, these include barriers that have been placed before others, and in many cases, the obstructions we often inadvertently set before ourselves. Rather than allowing blockages to remain in the way, it’s our job to clear the path of any stumbling blocks we come across, those that impede other’s, and our own.
We followers of the Way of Jesus are tasked with removing any barriers that prevent ourselves or our neighbors from achieving the abundant, Christ-centered life that God wishes for everyone. What are these barriers? They are those things that are the opposites of all that Jesus preached, lived, and commanded us to emulate. They are those actions, words, emotions, and intentions that oppose God’s will for the world. Anything that strives to counter love, kindness, mercy, freedom, healing, justice, peace, nurturing, or grace. Let’s pick just one of these, and take a look at its opposite, which may constitute a stumbling block keeping people from establishing and maintaining life abundant in Christ. Nurturing; others and ourselves; being supportive, encouraging, helping to foster a sense of being cared for, just as Jesus cares for all. The opposite to this doesn’t have to be extreme to be a stumbling block. For instance, we don’t have to go so far as to mistreat someone to be guilty of a lack of nurturing. We can simply allow ourselves to be neglectful; that is, we can fail to nurture the faith of another, especially one who may be struggling with their belief.
And the best way to do this is to practice our own faith out loud, visibly, and with intent. By not neglecting those practices that demonstrate our commitment to our own faith; in this way we nurture the faithfulness of those who look to us as examples of lives in relationship with Christ. And the tricky part is, that most often we’re not even aware that we are being observed as illustrations of the way a Christ-follower should act. So, in all our thoughts, words, and actions we ought to be acutely aware that we mustn’t be neglectful of our attention to God’s commands. We must always show others, and ourselves that we are devoted to the removal of stumbling blocks to abundant life in Jesus. We must never neglect the call to practice the love, kindness, mercy, freedom, healing, justice, peace, nurturing, and grace that provide a clear path that we ourselves, and others may walk. And in clearing the path, we would do well if at the same time, we actually widened it a bit; if we made the route more open, more accessible so greater numbers might also walk it.
Jesus was pretty adamant that the disciples didn’t cause stumbling blocks; I’m certain he just as strongly wants us to remove any we might come across. Let’s not neglect to make sure we do our best to keep the path to Jesus open, wide, and smooth; for ourselves and our fellow travelers.
Will you pray with me? Good, and gracious, and Holy God, your Son commands us not to place obstacles in the way of others who seek you; and to ensure we don’t create barriers for ourselves. Help us to clear the way that leads to abundant life in Jesus and a righteous relationship with you. And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One who makes the path we are called to follow. Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.