Church, listen up! Jesus is talking to the church through the gospel story. This is a heart to heart for the future body of Christ. His disciples throughout the ages have behaved just like his first disciples. What he says to them, he says to us. None of us have been very good at paying attention to him, either as individuals or as a body. Today, let’s pay attention.
Every group of people forms some kind of boundary. They decide who is a part of their group and who is not. Think about families, tribes, clubs, teams, and even national alliances. The boundaries can move from time to time, but they do so with great difficulty. The point is to say who belongs and who does not. The individual pain of not belonging is felt by children on the playground, rejected fraternity pledges, and the spouse that never quite fits in to a family. Churches have been trying to decide who is sufficiently prepared for membership or full inclusion from the very beginning. In the gospel story today, someone outside the circle was healing in the name of Jesus and the disciples didn’t like it.
The disciples were behaving in a manner consistent with new learners. I don’t know if I can describe this phenomenon very well, but I’ll try. There is a time in a person’s development of a new skill when they know enough to begin to form a set of rules. For instance, a child learning to play an instrument learns to follow the rules and needs sheet music to play a tune. But after years of practice and music theory, that child may be able to improvise in a jazz band. And then the growing musician will learn how to compose. Conventions may be broken as the music becomes more interesting. But in that process there is a time of having enough success to want to demonstrate your expertise and not enough information or life experience to be supple or creative in applying that information. You hear it in college classes all the time, usually from older folks who have just enough experience in the field to want to impress the professor and the rest of the class—to set themselves above the real novices. The disciples are wanting to impress the rabbi in this morning’s story. And Jesus shuts them down. The disciples want to draw the boundary of discipleship around their little group and they want to monitor what work is orthodox, acceptable, ordained, sanctioned, and commissioned by Jesus himself.
This is also the source of the schisms in the church. We’re pretty sure we belong. We know that we are Christians. We’re just not so sure about those others. And here is the rule from Jesus that we ignore as if he never said it, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Look for the power to do good—that comes from God. If a person honors God, they will not speak evil of Jesus. If they speak in the name of Jesus, they are part of the same body, whether we like it or not, whether we agree or disagree, whether we accept them or not, in spite of how we may judge them unworthy. Who is in? Jesus says it is anyone who does what he does in his name, anyone who does good, anyone who is good to the people who serve God. Now stop trying to play gate keeper and get on with pouring out your own life for the sake of others.
It’s not that the disciples were stupid. They were at a particular developmental point on their journey to spiritual maturity. When we do these same kinds of things in the church, it’s probably a sign that we have achieved a certain level of discipleship, which is good, but it is only just enough to be dangerous to Christ’s mission. When we find ourselves being gate keepers or judges of other people’s Christian walk, we need to spend some time with the next couple of images.
Jesus is pretty free in his use of hyperbole here. In case you’ve forgotten what you learned in freshman English, or haven’t gotten there yet, hyperbole is an extravagant exaggeration used as a figure of speech, for instance, he was as big as a mountain. Jesus wants his disciples to understand the dire consequences of their actions. When we stand in the way of a new believer, or a less mature believer, or a child, we are standing between them and Jesus. You know what Jesus wants to do with us when we’re standing in his way? He wants to tie one of those great big pieces of granite that people used to use to grind grain—the ones that are so big that horses or donkeys had to pull them. He’d tie it to us and drop us in the sea because we’re doing that much damage. When we get in the way—when we don’t make room for the new person, when we don’t value their gifts and let them use them in service to God, when we already have someone that is in charge of that job, when we don’t bother to get to know them—Jesus says he would like to drop us bound in cement into a lake. He doesn’t actually do that to us—he just says it would be better for us than what happens when we play gate keeper. We destroy the kingdom of God. We destroy the community of the beloved by our lack of maturity.
So how do we become more mature so that we don’t do harm? Jesus says, “Cut it off! Whatever is keeping you from building the kingdom of God—cut it off! Whatever is keeping you from the spiritual maturity needed to exercise freedom, creativity, and hospitality in the kingdom of God—cut it off!” Is it your job that gets in your way? Quit! Is it your friends that pull you in a different direction? Find new friends! Are you wasting time on something that doesn’t have eternal value? Stop it! Figure out what brings life to you and others and pursue that with all your heart, mind, and energy!
Hyperbole is saying “cut off your hand if it offends you.” Jesus means “stop it now!” But Jesus is not saying that if you don’t you will go to hell. The word that you will find translated “hell” is the Hebrew word Gehenna. Gehenna was a real place. It was a valley in which ancient idol religions practiced child sacrifice and forced children to walk through fire. The practice was abolished during the reign of one of the kings of Judah; he defiled the valley to make it unusable for such practices any longer. But even after the evil practices had ceased, the history and images of death, fire and punishment were inseparable from the name. Jesus says that it is better to quit your job, or lose your friends, or leave some idleness or ideology that you love behind to enter the beauty of the kingdom of God and to increase in love, joy, and peace as the kingdom expands.
To stay connected to the things that cause us and others to stumble, blocks the coming of God’s kingdom and allows the horror of human self-destruction to continue. If money makes us selfish, we need to give it away. If keeping up with the Joneses or other kids at school makes us ashamed of the gifts we have, then we have to get rid of envy. If a love of tradition causes us to reject new gifts brought in the wonder of new faith and budding discipleship, then we probably ought to throw out our traditions. Whatever we have to do to allow our spirits to grow, we need to do, so that we don’t get stuck in that dangerous novice stage of spiritual development. Getting rid of stumbling blocks is one of the first steps to moving on to spiritual maturity. Those early disciples had to stretch in ways they never thought possible to become the body of Christ. Their boundaries continued to be pulled outward to include everyone that God called to the table: Samaritans, gentiles, tax collectors, a eunuch, Paul, who had actually tried to kill Christians, oppressors, slaves and masters, women and children. It takes maturity of faith to keep up with the ever moving, always surprising Spirit of God.