“John spoke up, "Teacher, we saw a man using your name to expel demons and we stopped him because he wasn't in our group." Jesus wasn't pleased. "Don't stop him. No one can use my name to do something good and powerful, and in the next breath cut me down. If he's not an enemy, he's an ally. Why, anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on our side. Count on it that God will notice. "On the other hand, if you give one of these simple, childlike believers a hard time, bullying or taking advantage of their simple trust, you'll soon wish you hadn't. You'd be better off dropped in the middle of the lake with a millstone around your neck. "If your hand or your foot gets in God's way, chop it off and throw it away. You're better off maimed or lame and alive than the proud owner of two hands and two feet, godless in a furnace of eternal fire. And if your eye distracts you from God, pull it out and throw it away. You're better off one-eyed and alive than exercising your twenty-twenty vision from inside the fire of hell. "Everyone's going through a refining fire sooner or later, but you'll be well-preserved, protected from the eternal flames. Be preservatives yourselves. Preserve the peace."
Mark 9:38-50 (The Message)
This coming Sunday in worship we will read this section of Mark’s gospel. Throughout much of Mark’s gospel we are provided with the story of Jesus and his life and ministry. Interwoven in this account we are also given a glimpse into the lives and to some extent even the personalities of his disciples. As I read these accounts, I cannot help but be reminded that while some of the time Mark is prone to lift up the disciple’s slowness to catch on, nonetheless they were surely special people. I suspect in this regard, we have much in common with the disciples, prone to speaking before listening and understanding, being impulsive and prideful. And yet, I cannot help but also believe they were chosen with care to provide important support to Jesus’ ministry, and were essential to spreading the gospel after his ascension. Recently my reading of scripture suggests that, at times, the disciples were a little too impressed by just how special they were. In a few verses prior to the reading above the disciples confess they’ve been discussing who among them is the greatest. Imagine!
Thankfully Jesus calls the disciples to focus on what’s really important—doing the Lord’s work. Loving one’s neighbor, being gracious, exercising some humility and being compassionate to those who are hurting. On top of all that there are those core actions of caring for the poor, feeding the hungry, visiting the lonely, caring for the sick and so forth.
And then he reminds them (and us) that others, even some unlikely individuals, have a part in God’s plan. Remember it was the Samaritan who cared for the man beaten on the road to Jericho and not the Priest or the Levite? And how it was often the Gentiles who recognized Jesus as the Messiah long before those who ought to have known better? I’m not sure what Mark had in mind, but I get the sense he wants those of us who strive to follow Jesus to “Get over ourselves” and open our eyes to see his amazing presence in the lives of those we might think are outside the fold!
He also warns that even followers can commit errors that cause them and others—like children—to go astray. But it's not just children who can stumble, and Jesus goes on to encourage the disciples to be ruthless in rooting out anything in their own lives that might distract them from fulfilling God’s purpose. Maybe this is why so many Christian churches begin their time together in worship making a public confession of their sins of commission as well as the more prevalent sins of omission. Maybe like our friends and neighbors in AA who are far more intentional about taking inventory of their lives, we could learn something helpful and meaningful for our faith walk.
All that language about removing offensive eyes and hands is harsh, but it’s balanced by a message of comfort. Because it’s clear that a necessary part of doing the Lord’s work is caring for his people, even people we might disagree and question his or her motives. But that’s Ok because in the end, discerning such is way above me pay grade. This past month I reached a milestone of 33 years as a parish pastor and as I look back I have found it is a particular joy to be part of a Christian community where we are blessed to offer and received support and comfort in Jesus name. I hope and pray you may find such a community to grow in faith and serve your neighbor.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, we thank you every day for our communities of faith. Help us always to share your love with each other, and as important, with those outside our communities. Deliver us from smugness and evil intentions, Lord, and make us ever diligent so that our hands, feet, and eyes do not lead us astray, but are instruments we use to serve you. We delight to do your will; in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen