Scripture: Mark 9:38-50
“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.” ~ Mark 9:42
When I was a child my sisters and I loved Harry Potter. Well in fact my sisters really loved Harry Potter, but I couldn’t get into it when they first came out. By the time the fourth book came out, my sisters were deep into the world of wands and wizards and I finally took the plunge. Within three days of the book’s release, I had read all four and was itching for the next one. In fact, when I was in university I even lined up at a local bookstore with one of my friends for hours to pick up the seventh and final book of the series. And not only did I line up for hours, but I read half of the book that night, neglecting sleep and reason to spend as much time as possible in the world of Harry Potter.
I had never really done the whole line up for something before thing, and fortunately, I didn’t have class the next day – but all in all it was a pretty ridiculous waste of time in the grand scheme of things. I could have waited until the morning or even the next day and still received my book. Even waiting a few days, I would have still been able to get my book and still be able to finish the story in good time. While it is important to find joy in life, I cannot deny the frivolity of my actions – there were far more productive and important matters I could have dedicated my time and attention to.
While my decision to wait in line and spend frivolous time on a book launch ultimately didn’t have much impact on my life or studies the truth is we often make choices, and we often lose sight of what is vitally important. So often we get wrapped up in our own small and frivolous concerns.
As a church we often get caught up in the small details, things that ultimately don’t mean much and distract us from the ultimate purpose of the gospel and the church. We get upset when small things aren’t the way we want them, I know this as much as anyone, we argue and fight over matters that don’t pertain to the Gospel, we disparage and are unkind to one another about our disagreements and often our witness to the gospel is impaired.
In our gospel reading this morning Jesus is pretty clear about the price of the Gospel. While we might think that his imagery of voluntary maiming is unsavoury or antithetical to the Gospel, Jesus is merely emphasizing the significance of his mission and the good news he proclaims.
In our passage from Mark. Jesus tells the disciples that if any part of them causes them to stumble into sin they should cut it off, so that they can enter into the kingdom of glory without impediment, without distraction or cause for concern. Jesus is certainly not advocating self-harm, especially if you consider the whole scope of his mission and ministry, but he is advocating for a singular focus on his mission and ministry.
While we might be appalled by the shocking imagery that Jesus uses to address his disciples, the reality is that what Jesus is talking about is ultimately life or death. This is the whole point of Jesus’ mission – he came into our midst to proclaim the Gospel of life, amidst the death of the world. And so because his mission is life or death he advises his followers that anything that hinders them from following him should be put aside, anything that distracts them should be removed from their lives so that they can follow him without any impediment or obstruction. Nothing is worth missing out on the kingdom of love, the kingdom of mercy, the kingdom of abundant and eternal life.
Each of the disciples had different agendas, different expectations and different understanding of the Gospel, but Jesus’ point is none of that matters, all of that is dross, all of that is insignificant when we consider the stakes. No matter what the obstacle, no matter what the challenge, Jesus’ disciples are called to a singular focus on the gospel, a singular focus on the kingdom of God breaking through here on earth as it is in heaven – everything else was and is secondary.
Jesus’ point was that nothing should hinder the disciples in their pursuit of the Kingdom’s goals of justice, mercy and grace. Certainly, they could enjoy their lives and all that came with them, but God’s Kingdom was to be their first priority the driving factor in their lives, even as they went about their daily business. But whatever stood in the way needed to be put aside – just as the first disciples had put aside their fishing nets to follow Jesus, they would continually be called to put aside that which would stop them from living and preaching the Gospel.
The language of cutting off hands, poking out eyes and millstones, extreme as it is, was used by Jesus to emphasize the severity of his words – the Gospel is a life or death matter, following Jesus is not a part-time hobby or of secondary importance – it is a way of life, it is meant to be of primary importance to His disciples and if it isn’t then their lives would be at risk – since they would not be experiencing the fullness of life in the presence of God and living out his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
Jesus’ words of warning are as much for us as they were for the disciples who followed in his footsteps in his day. As disciples, as a community of believers called the church, we are called to have a singular Gospel focus – everything we do needs to be shaped by the love, the grace, the mercy that we experience in Jesus. Every action, every part of our worship, every way that we serve the community, every interaction between fellow brothers and sisters in Christ should ideally proclaim the good news of Jesus to the world and if our common life together doesn’t then we need to reassess and re-prioritize.
This does not mean that we cannot find enjoyment, or have our preferences or desires for our lives or for the life of the church – but it does mean that they must take a back seat to Gospel priorities and ideals, that they should be slowly shaped by Holy Spirit to look more and more like the heart of God that we have experienced in Jesus.
All throughout the middle portion of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus has been making the case to his disciples that care and concern for the outsider, the gentile, the least and the lost. That is what it means to have a singular gospel focus – care for those who are not us, care and concern for those who are different from us, a spacious welcome for the people that are outside the bounds of our community. Jesus says that it is better for us to be maimed, to lose part of ourselves, our comfort, our identity than allow ourselves to sin by not loving ‘the other’ as ourselves.
And we cannot kid ourselves, being unwelcoming, or merely tolerant of others, is Sin – it is an obstacle for the flourishing of the Gospel in our midst, it blocks us from experiencing the fullness of God’s presence and the life that he has promised us and blocks others from experiencing it as well. And it would be better for us if we were to remove the activities that do not.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has caused innumerable impacts in society and the church, it has given us at least one benefit: a clean slate. Over the last 18 months, we have not been able to be the community as we all would like or are used to. We have missed the things we love, we have missed the people we love and have had to make due. But that also means that our norms for our life together are no longer set in stone.
How can our worship more closely align with the Gospel ideals of love of the other and outsider? Perhaps we find new ways for it to be accessible to newcomers and visitors while holding on to the treasures of the past? Whatever we do we must have the good news of Jesus Christ in our sights when we do.
How can our fellowship and time spent together more closely align with the Gospel ideals of love of other and outsider? What can we do to make our fellowship more accessible so that newcomers and people that don’t look like us find it easier to break into our community and bring their gifts, their talents and their joy into our midst?
How can our service to the community reflect the care and love of others and the outsider? In what ways can we move from charity to generous partnership with our community that seeks to build it up rather than merely paper over needs with an air of superiority?
None of these answers will be easy to come by, none of them will be a return to the good ol’ days of the church that we remember – but they will be fruitful, they will result in the kingdom breaking through in our midst and life and joy sprouting in the most unexpected of places. We need to have a singular Gospel focus and from there God can and will do more than we can ask or imagine.