Willow Creek Friends Church
Mark 9:38–50 (NRSV)
(Mt 10:40–42; Lk 9:49–50)
38 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.” 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.
Temptations to Sin
(Mt 18:6–9; Lk 17:1–2)
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.”
Have you ever been in a difficult conversation and tried to change the subject? The past week I have often tried to change the subject of the conversation. In a culture of constant news, it seems that the discussion is always based on what is being aired in the various facets of media. Often, I long for the days where we the normal topic for small talk was the weather.
Part of life is listening to those hard things. As children we had to listen to our parents as they disciplined us, and if we did not listen we would get a more severe punishment. While in school we would listen for hours about how we will use algebra when we are older, and we imagined where in life we would have to solve for X. Of course, if you happen to be a math teacher you know that everything that involves figures is a form of algebra, whether it is balancing our checkbook or determining the best value for our groceries. When we begin a career, we endure more discussion while we learn the job and at times those discussion get a bit frustrating when management desires an explanation or correction of action. Then at times you might be the manager and suddenly you are the one that must lead the discussions. Many of those discussions are not fun.
Last week we left Jesus and the disciples in Capernaum and Jesus had asked what the disciples were discussing while they were traveling. The topic of conversation was which of the disciples were the greatest. That topic itself would be a form of torture to endure if you were one of the disciples. Who really wants to be told who among your peers is best? What if you did not really get along well with one of the others and they were acknowledged as being greater than you? What if that one was your brother, or worse yet your younger brother?
But Jesus then enters the conversation. Jesus the teacher, the one you believe to be the Messiah, the king who will restore David’s kingdom of Israel. The one that will unite the tribes, the one that will set all things right. Jesus asks what the conversation was about and each of you know that it does not matter what you think. It does not matter if you think you are great or not, because it is the king that determines who the greatest will be. So, you like everyone else in the group stand in silence. Jesus then calls a child over to him and begins to teach.
He says that the first must be last and be the servant of all. How would that make you feel if you had heard it from Jesus’ mouth? Today we tend to almost regard this statement as cliché because we have heard it so often. Yet it persists in our minds, we seek power, we want others to conform to our ideals. But what if we lived our lives according to Jesus’s words? What if we really did become a servant to all instead of seeking out those who will serve us?
He highlights this statement with a child, saying whoever welcomes this child welcomes both him and the one who sent him. As I reconsidered this while studying this week it occurred to me that Jesus might be encouraging us to take on a role of a parent to others. We take care of children, and we encourage them to grow. At times there is discipline but at other times we promote fun. When raising children our focus should be on them and their needs, we encourage them according to their temperaments. We learn what excites them and we use that to teach them.
Several years ago, while I was a substitute teacher, I sat and listened to the students discussing the Fast and the Furious movie. I was substituting a math class and these students that were so intrigued with this movie were struggling with their math. After many attempts of assisting them, I finally placed each of the math problems in a performance car concept. We discussed the various features of improving the performance of a vehicle, what increases horsepower, traction, drift, among other things. Each of the problems became a challenge to improve performance. And quickly they were beginning to understand the concepts.
I spoke to them as a peer not as an authority figure. I got under the hood with them. And I welcomed them into the wide world of math through. This is what Jesus means about welcoming. True leaders lead the people on the same plane of reference not from elevated heights. But the disciples did not want to listen to this. They wanted position, they desired power and authority, not this discussion of meeting people on their terms.
At this point John, tries to deflect the discussion. Hey Jesus, there was this guy that was casting out demons using your name and he is not on of us. This is a good deflection as far as deflections go. John is taking the discussion of who is the greatest and placing it back on Jesus. Jesus is the one that chooses and granted them authority. John wants to get the attention from them and their shortcomings. He wants to move the conversation away from what they are doing wrong and find some other topic. That guy was not one of us, yet he had the nerve to use the power and authority of their teacher to do things that he was not directed to do.
I can imagine Jesus smiling at John. John, according to his Gospel account, is the disciple that Jesus loved. John is most likely the youngest disciple in the group and full of righteous ambition. Even though he was one of the first disciples to be called, he is probably on of the lowest ranked in the group according to the measures of men. Yet in Jesus’s eyes he was one of the greatest. John was often listed among the inter circle of friends: Peter, James and John. It was John that was privileged to see the vision of Jesus’s revelation and the fulfillment of his glory. John had every right to consider himself as the greatest, yet he was a youth. He was the one that wanted to get the topic changed, he might have thought that because Jesus was referring to children, Jesus might have been singling him out and John might not have been ready for that. While being the youngest elder among the yearly meeting elders I can identify with the feelings of youth. I knew the feelings of speaking ideas and having them put down because I was not old enough to really understand. So, John just wants to move the discussion on, what about those who are doing things in your name Jesus, who are not part of us.
The interesting thing is even though John is attempting to change the subject, his diversion takes Jesus into a deeper discussion on the same topic. Do not stop him, those who are not against us are for us. When people observe and perform deeds of power in Jesus’s name they cannot speak curses really oppose them in the next breath.
Think about that for a moment. This little diversion has profound impact on living the life of Christ with other. Often, we can get caught up in the little differences and lose track of what is important. Many of these little things are merely ecclesiastical preferences. Consider the various forms of baptism, some baptize infants others only people old enough to decide. Some just sprinkle water and others fully immerse. There are even subgroupings within the groups. Some infant baptizers sprinkle and others immerse. And then there are people that fully immerse those getting baptized once or three times. And then there are some that do not require the symbol of baptism as a statement of faith. In this one statement Jesus made to John’s diversion, Jesus basically puts an end to this debate. It does not matter what they do to worship, what matters is in whom their faith resides.
Each of these groups have split off from one another, each making claim that their interpretation is the greatest and only true expression of faith. Yet each of these groups are doing profound things for the kingdom. Why is that and how can it be? Our acts of worship are just expressions of faith, they are only meaningful if the substance of our faith is there. That substance is Jesus. If we claim Jesus, we cannot be opposed to Jesus. And if Jesus is placed in the proper place within our faith, our faith is sound. Both for John and this unknown man had Jesus at the center. Jesus was the source of strength and power. And if we can come together in Jesus those other things will fade away into the background, because following Jesus is the number one thing.
I imagine Jesus smiling at John, and maybe even laughing a bit as he discusses this. He knows John, he knows John better than john knows himself. He knows that John is probably trying to change the subject, but Jesus will use that diversion to drive home the point. “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believes in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown in the sea.”
Sit with that for a moment. Consider just how profound that statement really is. The concern Jesus has for the lifestyle of his followers is not on their individual faith, but how we live that faith out in the world. The focus of our lives is to be devoted to the welcoming of those younger in faith. It is for the encouraging of those younger in faith. It is the encouragement and the participation in the journey that we make with one another as we move from immaturity to maturity. This is so important to Jesus that he makes this exaggerated statement that if you cause one little one to stumble it would be better to be thrown into the sea attached to a millstone.
Does Jesus literally mean that? That answer is actually has multiple layers, everyone comes to faith individually. And none of us is perfect. Each of us have done things with the greatest intentions, that might have caused someone to turn away from their faith. They will have to answer for their own faith. But does that leave us in the clear, no. We too must answer for our actions. Are we using the resources and the gifts that God has entrusted to us to participate in his kingdom? Are we using those things God has placed under our stewardship to expand the kingdom of God? Is Christ’s kingdom the first thing in mind when we make a decision in the use of any and every gift or resource? And are our words and actions lubricated with grace?
Every action and every word. Because every moment of our lives is seen by others. This one statement of Jesus can nearly stop me from moving, because I am very human. I often speak my mind without any consideration of what my words might cause to the faith of others. Sometimes my actions are not always the most holy. Where does this leave me? Jesus is telling us that we must be mindful, we must become more aware of how our actions can be perceived.
This brings me back to this whole frustration I have with the media. Every day we have this endless stream of information telling us what is going on in the world and it is usually accompanied with a suggested emotional response. It has gotten to the point that no matter what my response is someone somewhere will use that response to deem the truth about my faith. They may not even know who I am. Proverbs says, “Even fools who keep silent are considered wise; when they close their lips, they are deemed intelligent.”
We must be mindful. We do not need to speak out about everything, to be honest we should probably not speak about most things, because we do not possess the knowledge. When we speak into things without mindfulness of those present and our faith we can cause harm to the faith of others. We can catch ourselves in moments thinking we have all the answers, only to encounter a situation our answers do not quite fit. We would like everything to have a clear contrast between right and wrong, but often things are not linear. Be mindful, be honest and if you do not know admit it.
Every day I realize just how little I know. I try my hardest to be the person I think I am supposed to be, I know scripture. Yet I say a word and suddenly I have moved from being the greatest dad to the worst. Things like fathers do not provoke your children to anger comes to mind when this happens, and I feel defeated. Am I living a life of sin? That depends on what I do after. If I were to leave the situation where it is, and do no more, I have hindered a little one. If I repent and reconcile, or if I use that moment to teach and restore I am practicing mindfulness and living the love of Christ with others. So often I am a fool when I open my mouth, but do I leave things there? Every moment we live should be invested in the Kingdom of God. Every resource we have at our disposal should promote the Kingdom of God. And ever relationship we have is an opportunity to encourage someone in their faith. Are those around you seeing and hearing the grace of God?