A week has passed for us. Another Sunday. Another service. Another sermon. We hear more from Jesus – more about Jesus and the disciples – but for them, according to Mark, only a breath or two has passed since last Sunday. Last week, we heard the Gospel account of Jesus teaching again about his forthcoming death and resurrection, about the disciples’ confusion and fear but they were not so confused or so afraid to stop them arguing among themselves about which of them was the greatest in a ‘taking over the business’ or ‘juggling for cabinet positions’ in the Messianic Kingdom perhaps. Jesus’ response was placing a child in the midst of them – and then going and picking him up – and we imagined and discussed why – and I made the point that for whatever other reason we might imagine, Jesus picked up the child because the disciples weren’t! And that was the picture of greatness – an object lesson for the disciples – serve where and when there is a need and service when you don’t get anything from it. Jesus concludes, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” (Mark 9:37 ESV)
And now John replies and he wants clarification – who is the ‘whoever’, just them , the Twelve? “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 mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” (Mark 9:38-50 ESV)
Two things to say up front. 1. We have no idea whom John is talking about! Who he was. Where he came from. How he knew Jesus. Why he was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. We can speculate that this fellow probably had seen and heard Jesus. Perhaps he or a family member had been helped by Jesus. And we don’t know whether the fellow was successful or unsuccessful in the casting out of the demons – we presume successful – and if that played a part in John’s action – and there were others with John – who? – his brother, James, perhaps? – still others? But the idea is that there was a collective, perhaps corporate, response because this outside fellow ‘was not following us’. 2. Jesus’ response is the test about whether people are literalists about the Bible! For all the fights over the centuries and within and among denominations about how to read the Bible, the claim of a literal reading – still made today – I heard it on the radio this week – needs investigation, interrogation, and challenging. We read the Bible because it conveys Jesus and we accept that the Bible is the final source to guide what we say about Jesus – and to stop us making Jesus into our own image. So we read the Bible looking at the literature, the grammar, the parts of speech and looking to meet Jesus.
Jesus, again, challenges and clarifies and then confronts. His words, today, do challenge the organisational church – from little congregation to vast world wide denomination – and his words do confront us personally. If the Church wanted to minimise the tough sayings of Jesus getting out, the lectionary compilers would certainly have skipped this section!
I wonder whether John raised this topic because he was so embarrassed by Jesus showing them up about service that he tried to give an example where they were ‘on Jesus’ side’ – trying to do what Jesus wants – being active members of ‘Team Jesus’ and implying that they were doing their best! Ok we ‘flunked’ with the little child but look we stood up for you with this fellow!
And from Jesus – another slap down! ‘Do not stop him …’ Whoever is using Jesus’ name – doing a mighty work – whatever that is – but I take it to mean that the person doing it knows that this mighty work is not from them , of their doing, will then later say evil of Jesus for they will be drawn to him. Such is the power of Jesus’ name – why Jesus’ taught it in the First Petition and why God gave it as the Second Commandment – that Jesus draws people to himself. I’m not talking about cult leaders and people who specifically manipulate Jesus’ name; those who very much know what they are doing to manipulate others and make themselves the centre of things. That is not the way of a disciple who discovers the grace and mercy and the power of Jesus and knows in their heart of hearts that they are not him. Jesus cautions John and all the Johns afterwards to be careful about being prescriptive about the followers of Jesus. The early Christians would come to express the same sentiment in phrases such as ‘one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all’ (Ephesians 4:5,6a) while at the same time clarifying and defining truth about Jesus. This fellow, in John’s example, was practically active, not teaching – following and doing something in Jesus’ name – as the example of giving a cup of water to them suggests.
And then Jesus moves the discussion or focuses it back to the situation of the ‘little ones’ – and remember that this is only seconds after Jesus picked up the boy – in fact he’s probably still holding him in this exchange with John! Jesus directs that the actions of them and the unknown fellow are to be ones that do not cause these little ones to sin. We do not know the context – poverty, corruption, false teaching, violence, abuse and all with a religious veneer – we don’t know – but what do know was that these are very strong words from Jesus. He is making a point. He is making a very big point. Do no harm. Do no sin to these little ones. Ever. And never in my name!
We sense the strength of Jesus’ feeling and teaching in the ‘millstone around the neck into the sea’ which, as a picture, means that the person isn’t buried in the ground and for Jewish sensibilities this equates as damnation – going to hell. Remember there is no sea in the picture of heaven. Jesus can’t speak more strongly, in my view.
Practical Christianity – the hands which are the deeds (the what we do) – the feet which is the discipleship (following Jesus, obeying Jesus) – the eyes which I take to mean the perspective on life when trying to see everything from Jesus’ point of view – in other words, what disciples do each day – how they live – has as its goal following Jesus rather than doing what we want or what we think is right – and that’s what being salt is all about – and serving those in front of us – that’s what being at peace with one another – is all about.
In Lutheran terminology Jesus, at this point, is taking about sanctification – how his disciples should live. He is not talking about performance and a grade with a score out 10. He is in effect answering the question, ‘Now that I am saved – my salvation is not in doubt because of you, Jesus – what do I actually do in this world?’ What do I do on Monday? At work? In my marriage? In my singleness?
This chat with John expands and doesn’t minimise Jesus’ teaching on service – not to make John – or us – feel guilty – but to set before us what discipleship is all about – what life with Jesus is all about. We might hear it as trouble and hardship but remember that Jesus said that he has come to give us life. The world claims that the good life is wealth and power. However with Jesus, eternal life is guaranteed because of him so now that our salvation is secure, he’s also talking about the here and now – and the lifestyle he talks about is one of service, generosity, charity, repentance and struggle. Jesus points in another direction to the world. Jesus points in another direction to the one we secretly desire. But in following Jesus, we discover he’s right – there’s no better way to live.
- Mark 9:38 - 50