Tomorrow’s Sermon: Stumbling Around (Mark 9:38-50)
Who remembers their school nickname? At school I was called
‘Fork test’ – it was supposed to sound like ‘Faulkner’ and was an advertising
slogan at the time. I think it was for tins of stewed beef. At ministerial
training college I was known as ‘Dazzlepants’, because I owned some white
The only nickname I remember apart from my own was of a
school friend. He was called ‘Bounce’. It came from the way he walked. His walking
style was very pronounced, with large, high steps. Mine, on the other hand, is
the opposite. I lift my feet such a small height from the ground that I often
trip up and stumble.
And stumbling is the theme of our reading today – stumbling
in the walk of faith. Jesus warns of two different dangers in this passage –
causing others to stumble and causing ourselves to stumble. These are very
serious issues. As Christians and as Church the last thing we want to be is a
stumbling-block. What, then, do we need to watch out for?
1. Causing Others To
The Twelve think they’ve unearthed a scandal: someone
outside their elite circle has been caught in the act. Doing what? Sinning? No.
He was acting in Jesus’ name (in this case, casting out demons in his name).
Terrible! We’re the Twelve! That’s our job. That’s our privilege (verse 38).
And how ironic that is. Earlier in chapter nine, none of the
Twelve could exorcise an unclean spirit from a boy. Now here they want to
forbid someone who is doing the same thing, but successfully.
So Jesus says (verses 39-40), cut out all your elitist
claptrap. Stop resting on your supposedly privileged status. He was acting in
my name – that is, the man was acting under the authority of Jesus. How can
that be wrong? ‘In the name of Jesus’ isn’t simply a formula to stick on the
end of a prayer, it is meant to express the reality of a life lived under the
reign of God, and therefore with his authority.
It’s quite different from some Jewish exorcists in Acts
19:13 who tried to cast out demons ‘in the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches’,
because the ‘whom Paul preaches’ gives away the fact that they are just using
‘in the name of Jesus’ as a formula.
But this man whom the Twelve have encountered isn’t. By any
generous reckoning he is a disciple. He has a God-given ministry. He is doing
the works of the kingdom. What on earth are you doing opposing him, says Jesus?
And so Jesus amplifies this positively and negatively.
Positively he says that if you act compassionately (giving a cup of water to a
disciple, verse 41) that will please God. Negatively, he talks about the
perilous danger of causing ‘one of these little ones who believe in [him]’ to
stumble (verse 42). Note that the ‘little ones’ are those who believe in Jesus.
I believe Jesus is saying this: you’re in danger of causing a believer to
stumble, by trying to prevent him from exercising his ministry. You won’t let
him, as it were, ‘give a cup of water’.
Now where does this challenge us? What are the ways in which
we might risk causing other disciples to stumble? In what ways do we prevent
our brothers and sisters in Christ from exercising their calling?
Well, historically until recent years we have prevented
women from exercising their calling. Now we see that certain biblical texts
don’t necessarily mean what we wanted them to mean in a male-dominated society many
churches have belatedly followed what the Spirit was doing and saying. Others
are still debating, of course.
The biggest ongoing problem is in the false distinction in
our churches between ‘clergy’ and ‘laity’. Historically we have imposed
meanings and distinctions that do not exist in the New Testament. The Greek
word for ‘clergy’, klhro~, does not
in the New Testament have its later meaning of an elite, especially set-aside
group of priests. It has two basic meanings: one is associated with the
practice of drawing lots; the other is that it means a portion of God’s people
– a congregation or group of congregations. [Gingrich
and Danker, Shorter Lexicon Of The New Testament, p 109.] There is nothing that suggests a group of ordained people
to whom exclusive functions are designated.
Similarly, the word that became ‘laity’, lao~, simply means the people or the
populace [ibid, p 117]. In other
words, it includes everybody.
If people are set aside in the New Testament church, it’s to
lead. They may be called bishops or presbyters (which are interchangeable
words). Or they may be set aside to serve (deacons). The leaders may have
certain gifts – they may be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and
teachers. But their gifts are generally not exclusive to leadership (with the
possible exception of apostleship).
Why this protracted biblical argument? Because it’s time for
ordained people like me to stop clutching certain things to ourselves, and it’s
time for congregations to accept these. Take one example which is worth
debating: Methodism largely limits ministers to presiding at Holy Communion.
Why? The official answer is, ‘for the sake of good order’. Well, that may have
been understandable two centuries ago when the minister might have been
educated and many of the congregation not so, but does it make sense now? It’s
worth debating. After all, Holy Communion is effectively the Christian version
of the Jewish Passover, a feast that is celebrated in the family home. You
didn’t need the rabbi present.
So some ministers like to keep certain practices to
themselves, and it becomes their security, rather than finding their security
in the knowledge that they are loved by God. And some congregations like their
ministers to keep certain duties to themselves rather than accept them, because
that allows them to remain spiritually immature, if not infantile.
But this isn’t just about a demarcation dispute, deploying
this false distinction between ‘clergy’ and ‘laity’. Other demarcation disputes
occur within congregations. One person or group says, ‘That’s my task’, and
prevent others from serving or don’t accept much-needed help. It can happen
over music, flower arranging, Sunday School, catering and property – in fact,
any part of church life. And again, the issue is often one of personal
identity, worth and value. When we take our sense of self-esteem from the job
we do, we make a grave mistake. True self-worth comes from knowing how much we
are loved by God, not by what job we do for him.
So each one of us might ask the question, am I causing
others to stumble? Am I preventing other people from acting in the name of
Jesus? It’s very serious if we’re doing that.
2. Causing Ourselves
So, who’s up for a spot of amputation? Jesus’ solution to
sin is that you cut off your hand or your foot and tear out your eye. It sounds
like the terrifying examples of Sharia Law that we sometimes hear reported from
Saudi Arabia, doesn’t it, where thieves have their hands forcibly amputated as
a criminal sentence?
And some Christians have
taken this literally. Some have cut off delicate parts of their anatomy to
prevent falling prey to temptation. Others have refused to become organ donors
in case their eyes were donated to people who would use their eyes for lustful
So you’ll want me to tell you that Jesus’ language here is
not to be taken literally, won’t you? Well … OK. ‘It was not a Palestinian
custom to refer to an abstract activity but to the specific member of the body
which is responsible for it.’ [William Lane, The
Gospel According To Mark, p 347] This
‘belongs to the realism of Jewish thought’ [ibid.
Jesus, as a good Palestinian Jew, uses graphic, real-life
language, not to call us to engage in extreme examples of self-harm, but to
make a radical point about discipleship. And so while I can let you off the
hook with regard to the literal content of the words, one thing we can’t avoid
is the point he’s making. Nothing is meant to get in the way of whole life
discipleship. Some of us have taken the slogan ‘Everything in moderation’ and
seemed to think we can have sin in moderation. Not in the eyes of Jesus. We
can’t cherish our favourite sin. It has to come to the Cross. It has to die.
There are no exceptions. It isn’t acceptable to say, ‘But
I’ve always had a temper,’ or, ‘I’ve always had an eye for the ladies’, or
‘It’s just the way I’m made’. Help is always available from Christ and from his
people as we hold ourselves accountable to one another and support each other.
But the bottom line is the bottom line. It has to go.
And I would venture that if we take not just this passage
but the wider New Testament witness it isn’t just a question of outright sin.
The writer to the Hebrews speaks both of ‘every weight and the sin that clings
so closely’ (Hebrews 12:1). Sometimes we take good things and make them into a
weight. Instead of receiving things with gratitude to God we take them with
greed. We turn an aspect of God’s good creation into an idol and worship it. It
becomes a weight around us. Something good is perverted.
Perhaps the biggest danger is to those of us who have been
Christians for many years and who have become complacent. We just tick over at
a low level of discipleship and don’t like to confront the radical demands of
Jesus. It may have been different when we first found faith, but the enthusiasm
wanes and our lives become consumed with responsibilities and challenges that
we don’t want even more coming our way from the direction of Jesus. We would
rather our faith became a comfort than a challenge.
But the reality is that in both these areas – causing others
to stumble and causing ourselves to stumble – Jesus gives some grave warnings
if we ignore his call. If we cause others to stumble – inhibiting their
opportunities to live out their kingdom calling – then, he says, it will be
better to have had a millstone hung around our neck before being thrown into
the sea (verse 42). This was a particularly cruel punishment the Romans
inflicted when they crushed a Zealot insurrection [Lane, op. cit., p346; Acts 5:37]. What a shocking way to warn his
hearers of the dire consequences if we stand in the way of another disciple’s
And then we have the outrageous amputation language we’ve
just thought about as a warning not to make ourselves stumble. When he speaks
about being ‘thrown into hell’ (verses 44-48) ‘hell’ is ‘Gehenna’ in the Greek,
the Greek name for the Hinnom Valley, where Jerusalem residents deposited their
sewage in sewer channels, and where rubbish and the carcasses of unclean
animals constantly burned [via Follow The Rabbi].
It’s not a tourist destination.
And while I’m sure his language here is every bit the
real-world-as-metaphor as the amputation language, one thing is clear to me. He
is telling us there is a choice of two destinies in eternity – one full of joy
in his Father’s presence, the other empty of it, having chosen to be absent
from the Father’s love. Those of us who have known grace should not have a
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