A sermon on Mark 9:38-50 by Nathan Nettleton
In this church, we often pride ourselves on taking seriously the example and teaching of the early church in our approach to worship, and I for one experience some real fear and trembling if I find myself at odds with those traditions. But there is at least one thing on which we are radically out of step with the practice of not only the early church but most of the Church for most of its history, and I’m convinced we need to stand our ground, humbly but firmly. The issue is expressed in the words of invitation we use as we come to the Lord’s table: “Whosoever will may come, not because you are worthy, nor because any church gives permission, but simply because Jesus offers himself to you, and you want to offer yourself in return.” With those words we make it clear that when it comes to who may share in the bread and wine, and thus in the life of Christ, we are not placing any restrictions on anyone based on age or stage of faith, or whether or not they have been baptised, or whether they measure up to any particular standard of holiness or discipleship. Throughout most of the history of the Church, the majority practice has been to refuse communion to those who were not baptised and confirmed and living in conformity with the moral demands of the Church. In practice, what that usually meant was that communion was refused to young children, those who were not members of the church, and to those deemed to be sexual sinners such as homosexuals and remarried divorcees.
Tonight’s scripture readings give us a good example of Jesus appearing to challenge and critique this majority practice of exclusion. What Jesus is saying here becomes even more apparent if we rewind a little and look at how tonight’s reading links to last week’s reading. If you look at Mark 9:36-42, you can see that if you cut out verses 38-41, verse 42 would follow perfectly naturally from where we left off last week in verse 37. This is a technique that Mark uses quite often in his gospel account. He sandwiches one story or saying in between the two halves of another. And whenever he does that, the question we need to ask is how do the two shed light on one another?
In this case, the link is clearly about welcoming those who might be excluded. “Whoever welcomes one such little one in my name welcomes me and the one who sent me.” “Teacher, this bloke is not one of us, so we tried to stop him using your name.” “Don’t stop him. Welcome him. If he’s not against us, he’s on our side.” “Don’t go putting roadblocks in front of any of these little ones, be they children, strangers, whoever.”
And in case anyone was any doubt about what is being said here, in the very next chapter (Mark 10:13-16), Mark makes it clear that the disciples still aren’t getting the message because he tells us that people were bringing little children to Jesus so that he might bless them, and the disciples tried to stop them again, and Jesus had to give them a proper telling off. “Do not stop them, for it is to little ones like these that the Kingdom of God belongs.” So clearly Jesus is less than impressed about his followers trying to put roadblocks in the path of anyone who wants to approach him. Whosoever will may come. All are welcome. Jesus is open and available to all, and we, his followers, have no place erecting fences or protecting borders or putting obstacles in anyone’s path. And the inserted story makes clear that Jesus is not only talking about children. It is about children and anybody else who might be regarded as of little consequence – those who are poor, foreign, different, unsuccessful, or otherwise lacking in status and influence.
So why is this so hard for the disciples to get their heads around, and why have we in the church continued to have so much trouble with it ever since? What makes us keep thinking it is our job to police the boundaries and determine who can and can’t approach Jesus?
The answer almost certainly lies in the history of religion and our tendency to imagine that Jesus is simply perfecting religion as we have always known it instead of turning it completely upside down. Pretty much all human religions have functioned on the assumption that there are clear lines between good and evil, pure and impure, acceptable and unacceptable. They all have their holiness codes that prescribe what attributes or behaviours put you on one side of those lines or the other, and that regulate how one can be made holy again and who is authorised to oversee it. So as soon as we began to identify Jesus as the chosen one of God, and then as the very embodiment of God, we began to think of him in terms of holiness and thus boundaries and restricted access and special privileges reserved to chosen representatives to control these things. And over and over when Jesus tried to get us to see that he was rejecting this whole system of insiders and outsiders, we imagined that he was just adjusting the boundaries a bit rather than erasing them entirely, and we missed the point.
Jesus’s critique of this, which we heard tonight, uses some of the harshest language he is ever recorded as using. “If you start putting obstacles in the path of those who would come to me and you cause them to stumble, it would be better for you if a great millstone was tied around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” And he’s only warming up there. “If your hand causes stumbling, cut it off. If your foot causes stumbling, cut it off. And if your eye causes stumbling, tear it out!” Flannery O’Connor once said of her writing, “I use the grotesque the way I do because people are deaf and dumb and need help to see and hear.” I’m sure that is what Jesus is doing here too. He’s trying to break through our incomprehension with grotesque apocalyptic imagery. But that is not to say that there isn’t a serious side to these images too. There is.
These grotesque apocalyptic images speak of sacrifice – sacrificing body parts for the sake of holiness – and concepts of sacrifice and holiness always go hand in hand. The offering of sacrifices has always been part of gaining the favour of gods and access to gods. And in fact the suggestion of sacrificing body parts is not the only sacrificial reference in Jesus’s words here. When he says that it is better to butcher yourself than stumble into hell, the place name that our English translations are rendering as “hell” is Gehenna in Greek or Ben Hinnom in Hebrew, which is the place in which the prophet Jeremiah (7:30-33) tells us the people horrified God by burning children as sacrifices. So the hell that Jesus is warning us against stumbling into is a hell of our own making and very specifically related to what he is now saying about welcoming and valuing children. Children are not to be regarded as excluded from the life of God and therefore expendable and sacrificeable. And neither is anyone else. And so seriously does Jesus take our tendency to stumble back into the hell of casting anyone, literally or figuratively into the fires of our misguided sacrificial passions for holiness, that he tells us we would be better cutting off our own hands than doing anything that might tip us in that direction, and better cutting off our own feet than letting them lead us back down that path, and better tearing out our own eyes than letting them look down on anyone as less than beloved and graciously welcomed by God. These words are absolutely serious, if not necessarily literal. Cut off or cut yourself off from anything that might make you stumble back into thinking that there are people who God wants kept at a distance, and that it is your job to identify them and put obstacles in their path.
Of course, this is not primarily addressed to us as individuals, but to us collectively as a church. We, as the community of Jesus’s followers, are not to begin imagining that we are any more beloved by God than the stranger who does not seem to belong to us, or that it is our task to declare who is or is not allowed to draw near to God or invoke the name of Jesus. But this communal dimension raises a very troublesome question; a question we have had to confront a couple of times in recent months in this congregation. If we go with the word play that the Apostle Paul would no doubt invite us to consider, might this call to cut off our bodily members rather than stumble into excluding people ever mean that we have to consider cutting off a member of the congregation? This is an intensely painful paradox that we have found ourselves in here. Despite our desire to say that the Table of the Lord is always open to “whosoever will come”, we’ve found ourselves having to tell a couple of people that they are not allowed to return to us without first submitting to a proper process to ensure that other people’s safety and wellbeing are not put at risk. Did we get it right? I don’t know for sure, but I do know that we didn’t take it lightly and we didn’t do it without first exhausting all the alternatives we could think of. It does still feel to me like we have wounded ourselves in the process, but that seems to be what Jesus is asking of us here. We may need to wound ourself to prevent the greater danger of stumbling back into a fiery hell of hostility and abuse.
On a much more extreme scale in the wider church, our failures to sacrifice our own abusive members and our consequent stumbling back into the hellfire of sacrificing children have been uncovered in all their apocalyptic horror in the Royal Commission. But even in such extreme and horrific situations, we must beware of allowing such horror to tempt us back into demonising the perpetrators and thinking that we can and should discern and declare where the lines of God’s mercy and judgement fall. We must do all that we can to ensure that the little ones and the excluded ones and the wounded ones are kept safe and given obstacle-free access to the table of God’s love and mercy and healing, but these words of Jesus do not bestow on us the right or responsibility to tie millstones around anyone’s necks or even to declare which necks should be so tied.
The only call to sacrificial violence in these words is to self-sacrifice – to absorb whatever violence and suffering we need to absorb to end the tragic patterns of carving the world up into good and evil, saved and damned, chosen and rejected, and invoking the name of God to justify our placing of obstacles in the path of those we deem to fall outside the circle of God’s love. And of course, Jesus didn’t just utter these grotesque apocalyptic images for their shock value. He lived them to the letter himself. He offered himself as the ultimate sacrifice, absorbing in his own body the full force of hell’s bitterness and rage rather than do anything that might contribute to any of us stumbling towards the fires of the hells we have ignited for ourselves. And in his self-sacrifice, in his offering up of his own feet and hands to be butchered and his own body to be killed, he has shown us that it is possible to pay that price, to stare down the fires of hell and emerge from the furnace more alive than ever, knowing ourselves and everyone else beloved, forgiven and invited to feast forever at the Lord’s table of unbounded love and life.