Mark 9: 38-50
John said to him, “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.
“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. 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. 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. 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, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
“For everyone will be salted with fire. 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.”
The scripture which we read a moment ago immediately follows the scripture which we read last week. Jesus, having walked along a backroad with his disciples, came to rest in a home in Capernaum and began to teach them. The teachings are all in response to a conflict which happened along the way. Jesus had told the disciples that he was going to be handed over to the authorities and killed. They responded by debating who among them was greatest, perhaps even with an eye to replacing Jesus in his ministry. Jesus knew about this argument and confronted them about it, asking them to realize that to be great in the Kingdom of God was to be a slave to all the world and that to resemble Jesus was to be a welcoming, loving, suffering presence.
Jesus’s teaching concluded with him embracing a child he had brought into the midst of the disciples. Last week we did not talk much about this gesture but let’s take some time now. In Jesus’s day, we would be wrong to say people did not love and cherish children just like we do now. We can read letters between parents and to their children that show that human beings have always doted on their children. However, socially, children were toward the bottom of the hierarchy. In ancient household there were strict understandings about who was most honored and who was least honored. Children ranked just above slaves, and even in their low position, they were further ranked based upon birth order and sex. A first-born son had more honor than a second born and both had more honor than a daughter.
Jesus called his disciples together and picked the lowest member of a household to lift up and praise. He told the disciples to welcome children as though they were welcoming him, to serve people who could do nothing for them. If you welcome a child, says Jesus, then you will begin to understand what it means to follow me, then you will know what it is to be part of this mission I have to all the world. If only you can serve those who offer you nothing.
John’s statement at the start of our reading for today then seems to interrupt the flow of Jesus’s conversation. Jesus returns to talking about “little ones,” after answering John’s inquiry, but he has to address something that John has brought to his attention. We might be tempted to see the two conversations as unrelated, a retelling of a moment John butted into Jesus’s words mid teaching. However, Mark in writing the Gospel was purposeful in lining up this conversation as it is recorded. We are supposed to see John bringing up the exorcists that they had met as part of the lesson the disciples need to learn about servanthood, and it is only by taking this section as a whole that we can begin to see exactly what Jesus is getting at.
Jesus speaks strongly in this passage. He goes immediately from telling his disciples not to stop those doing work in his name to warning them about the dangers of Hell. The passage ends with the ominous truth that “all will be salted with fire,” and we are left to really examine ourselves and how we interact with the world around us. What do all these moving parts have in common? Children we must welcome, sin we must avoid, work that we must not inhibit, and Hell we must avoid at all costs. I would argue that the central theme of this passage is about how we welcome God into our life and how we often choose not to welcome God any further.
Jesus is told by John that there are people working wonders in his name, and John proudly tells Jesus that they told them to stop. John saw these outsiders as working across purposes to Jesus’s ministry. It was, after all, the disciples who were being taught how to bring about the Kingdom. If people started seeing others doing good work in Jesus’s name, they might be confused who was really the authorized leadership of the Church. How disappointed John and the other disciples must have been when Jesus turned the issue around and said they were the ones in the wrong for stopping the men from doing what is right.
Returning to the child he had before him, Jesus asks the disciples to examine their conduct. What are they doing that might cause this child to stumble in their pursuit of God’s goodness? Whatever it is, it has to stop, if not for their own sake, then for the sake of the children they will teach in the future. Jesus tells them to remove anything from their life that causes them to sin, more specifically I would say, any evil that they commit that other people might feel inclined to emulate. As much as this warning of Hell and an incredibly hungry worm is a personal matter, it cannot be denied that Jesus is speaking to a group about issues that effect the group. “If you wish to follow me, you have to be fit for purpose and you cannot be a career sinner and call yourself a saint.”
Jesus here does something we are terrible about doing in the modern era, and probably have struggled with long before that. Jesus asks the disciples to shift where they see threats to the Church coming from. They have revealed in their discussions that they saw people doing good in Jesus’s name and thought they were causing trouble, yet they are unwilling to see how they are harming Jesus’s ministry and by extension the community of the faithful through their own actions. Just a few moments ago, Jesus had them all come to terms with the fact they were discussing who would take over when he had died, and now they wanted to look at outsiders doing God’s work and judge them on whether or not they had good intentions.
The Church has often applied harsh criteria to those outside of it. More than that, cultural units within the Church add their own rules and regulations so as to make the pews of a sanctuary nearly impossible to properly enter. We look at the vast mission field around us of people who have yet to enter into God’s kingdom and we try to pick out those who are most like us. Those who are most willing to go along with what we are already doing. Those who might serve us, rather than those we might learn to serve.
Jesus was antithetical to this in how he taught. We see Jesus going into the world to find people not like himself. Samaritans who worshipped the same God, but with different scriptures. Gentiles who, though not his main focus, always tracked him down and sought his grace. The poor who could offer him nothing. The people with bad reputations and worse behavior who ultimately were just as beloved by God as any well-to-do member of the local temple. Jesus finds these people and preaches to them about a coming kingdom that will change everything. The poor will be lifted up, the rich cast down. The repenting sinners will be honored above even the most righteous of priests. There will be life, and life abundant for all people who wish to join into the community which God has begun.
Yet, to those who were in the community already, Jesus had harsher words to say. His disciples, perhaps more than any other group, were constantly given stern warnings about what they needed to do to truly be part of his Kingdom. Hell, or as Jesus called it, “Gehenna,” was a place that you could only fear if you truly believed in it. Despite what we might presume, it was not universally held that such a place existed in Jesus’s time. Sadducees, for example, held to the orthodox belief that death was the end of all life, and that you ceased to exist when you stopped breathing. It was only among Pharisees and other prophetic groups like those who surrounded Jesus that Hell was taught, and even then, views on what it was differed.
What stands out about Jesus’s teachings is that Hell was not something he used to scare people into joining his movement. As he says elsewhere, it is God’s righteousness that brings us to repentance, not God’s judgment. Hell was instead, almost whenever he spoke of it, a warning to those who should know better. The rich who tithed heavily in the Temple but did not care for the poor outside their doorsteps. The Pharisee who prayed loudly in public but could not keep away from his many affairs. The Disciple who gave up everything but could not part from their pride.
We do not use Hell in discussions of our own sin because we have presumed for far too long that Hell is just something we talk about before people get in the Church. Once we are in, we believe that we are saved without a question, and that any speculation on our own salvation somehow doubts God’s efficacy. I do not believe that to be the case though. It is the doctrine of the Methodist Church that a person may lose their salvation if they cast God aside, if they recant their baptismal vows, if they are unwilling to live as God has called them to live. Not because we are saved by works, but because our works necessarily flow out of the position and attitude of our Spirit. If we wish to engage in any sort of Hellfire and Brimstone preaching, it must begin by preaching those words to ourselves.
There are two forces at work within us, alongside the general inclinations to good and evil which are obvious to all of us. These are our assurance that we are truly saved through faith, and our contrition that we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. The one brings us to praise God for saving us from ourselves, the second acknowledges that we have not fully given ourselves over to what God would have us do in this life. One allows us to be confident that we have been saved by the blood of Jesus Christ, the other instills a healthy concern for what it would ever be like to lose that blessed state. Hell, aside from all fire or torment it might contain, is ultimately the separation of a soul from God. Sin is what separates us from God. We must hate our Sin, we must be better than we are now, because if nothing else it puts a wedge between us and God. Why should we tolerate any distance between ourselves and God when all that is in the way is our own unwillingness to change?
Today when we come to our time of prayer, I invite you to take a moment to really think. To look at your life as it is and decide if you are happy with it. Is the money you have comforting you more than helping those in need would? Is the lust of your eyes as comforting to you as genuine relationships might be? Is the anger and fear and resentment worth it or is it time to give love a chance to reign in your life? The fact is that we all need to repent throughout our lives. More than that, repentance is not just saying “I did something bad, forgive me!” That’s confession. Repentance is actually changing that behavior, and we all have something we have held onto far too long I’m sure.
There is much to be said about what it means for “those who are not against us [to be] for us.” When I set out to write this sermon I meant to do so with a focus upon the divisive nature of our modern culture, the unwillingness of us to work with people who differ even slightly from ourselves. We will have time for that I think, but the Spirit moved me differently as I sat down to write. They asked me to write of Hell, not to scare any of us into anything, but to remind us that we must come together as a Church and fix ourselves – each individually – if we wish to fix the world around us. There is a gulf between us and God, one that Christ has placed a bridge over through his work on the Cross. We choose everyday if we want to keep walking across that bridge or if we are content to sit as far as we’ve walked and no further. However, I hope we all cannot tolerate any longer and distance between ourselves and our savior.
Let us examine our hearts, let us be ever more invested in our service to God and one another, and in so doing let us be better at being friends to all people whom we meet. – Amen.