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Delivered to the
United Church of Jaffrey
Sept. 30, 2018
Mark 9:38-48; An Excerpt from On Christian Doctrine by Saint Augustine
Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.
The Gospel reading for today begins reasonably enough,
but soon, it takes a shocking turn.
It all begins when John, one of Jesus’ disciples, comes up to Jesus and says:
“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him.
John is either seeking clarification, or fishing for praise. I am inclined to suspect the latter. After all — what shows more loyalty to a teacher than protecting his reputation by exposing the work of an interloper?
But Jesus surprises John.
Instead of praising John for uncovering the fraudulent healer, Jesus says:
“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. Whoever is not against us is for us.
This is surprising.
Jesus does not seem to be overly concerned about his own reputation. He doesn’t seem to care who does the healing, as long as the healing is done.
But isn’t healing a big part of how Jesus got his reputation?
Many of the stories in the gospels revolve around Jesus’ miraculous ability to heal people.
The ten lepers,
the Syrophoenician woman,
The child of the centurion.
The deaf mute of Decapolis.
These are only a handful of the people that the gospels tell us that Jesus healed.
And many of these of healing stories end with the gospel remarking that the miracle resulted in new of Jesus spreading quickly through the land.
Let’s not forget that Jesus lived more than 200 years ago.
In Judea in the first century AD, you could not call 9-11.
Penicillin would not be developed for another 19 hundred years.
If you were blind, you stayed blind.
If you were deaf, you stayed deaf.
Life was more fragile.
Death was more commonplace.
Soon, it was hard for Jesus to move from place to place without being inundated with people in need of healing.
Much of his identity as a Godly man, depended on his reputation as a healer, so it is surprising that he is unconcerned about this imposter, who was going around healing in his name.
It is surprising, but not shocking.
I began my remarks, this morning, by saying that the story takes a shocking turn.
When Jesus defends the person who is healing in his name, he gets a little carried away.
He suggests that anyone healing in his name name should not be stopped, and that stopping such a person would be putting a stumbling block in front of that person.
And that’s when things get shocking.
“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.
It would be better to tie a big stone around your neck and be thrown in the ocean then get in the way of someone who believes in Jesus?
Did I hear that right?
That doesn’t sound like the words of a healer.
But wait. It gets worse.
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. 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. 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, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
These may be my least favorite verses in the New Testament.
They are shocking.
Why is this man — this wise man who we have gotten to know — this man who wanders through the countryside showing compassion to the poor, teaching us to love…
…why is he telling his disciples that they should cut off their own hand.
Chop off a foot?
Why is he talking about tearing out eyes?
Are these the words of a healer?
Does Jesus really suggest that a hand, a foot, or an eye — part of the body — could be the very thing to cause a person to be thrown into hell — and that the only way to avoid hell, is to revert to horrible mutilation?
But even if he meant it metaphorically, Jesus’ words have been use d by generations of unscrupulous religious leaders — people standing in pulpits like this one — to tell us that we should be afraid.
Afraid of our own bodies!
I won’t do that.
In this generation of #Metoo…
In this generation when we listen carefully and respectfully to women who have experienced sexual harassment, abuse, and violence.
In this generation that its awake to the many ways that people can love, and the many ways that people can experience gender…
Are we going to interpret the gospel in a way that we proposes that we hate our own bodies?
I say no.
If we, as a church, are tasked to make sense of the gospel for our generation, then I believe it is my duty to stand in the pulpit and proclaim that, even if Jesus said these things — he did not mean for us to hate our own bodies.
In his book On Christian Doctrine, Saint Augustine recommended that we read and interpret the Bible with one guiding principle in mind at all times.
He said that if an interpreter of the Bible does not understand the holy scriptures to “build up the twofold love of God and our neighbor,” than they’ve got it wrong.
I agree with Saint Augustine.
That’s why you don’t hear much fire and brimstone from this pulpit.
But how, you may ask, is it possible to redeem these verses that we have heard this morning?
How do we read this business of cutting off hands, and feet.
Plucking out eyes.
How do we interpret these ideas in a way that “builds up the twofold love of God and our neighbor”?
What is at Stake?
To answer this question, lets go back to the beginning of today’s reading.
Do you remember what was at stake?
John reported to Jesus that someone was going about healing in his name. He tried to stop that person.
Jesus told him not to stop him.
Do you recognize what is at stake here?
Jesus is not concerned about the one man who is healing in his name.
Jesus is concerned about you and me.
Jesus is protecting you and me. He is saying that everyone — everyone who follows him, for the rest of time — everyone including us — who want to be Christian — we all have the right and the power, even the duty, to heal.
Standing in the way of that would indeed be a terrible thing.
So Jesus is using shocking language to make sure we don’t get in the way of that purpose.
Healing is not always easy.
And indeed, none of can heal in the same way that Jesus could heal.
If we have the power to heal, today, we heal using medicine, or medical science…
Or do we?
Wait a second…
Is medical science the only way to heal?
Surely there are other ways to help people heal.
It depends upon what ails.
If you have pneumonia or hepatitis you need to go to the hospital.
But if you are alone?
Maybe you need someone to reach out.
If you are lost…
Maybe you just need someone to shine a light, or open a door.
If you have fallen down,
Maybe you just need someone to extend a hand.
Surely these things are things that all of us can do.
When he was first told about this man who was healing in his name Jesus said:
“Do not stop him; … 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.
Sometimes, being an agent of healing is just a matter of giving someone a cup of water to drink.
That’s what Jesus said.
This is what God has told us.
I can do that…. and neighbor…
So can you. Amen.