John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. 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.
‘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. 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.
‘For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.’
Ask a hundred people to identify their favourite Bible passage, and it’s likely not one of them will mention these verses we just heard from Mark’s Gospel:
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut if off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two hands 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.
What are we to do with these words from Jesus? We assume that he is not talking about literal amputation: plucking out eyes, cutting off hands and feet. We recognize that the language of the Bible is sometimes so vivid and concrete that it perplexes us. We think we know what Jesus is not recommending, but that by itself leaves us nowhere. In the course of these strange verses, what is it that Jesus calls on us to do?
To answer this question, we need to understand the context in which these teachings were given. One of the best ways is to view these verses from within the context of the Christian community. The story of the text begins with Jesus’ disciples’ concern over another person who was not with in their group but was casting demons out using Jesus’ name and authority. Jesus noted their concern but forbade them from stopping this person from doing what he was doing. He explained that those who do the same work as our Lord was also doing the work of God and was in support of Jesus.
These preceding verses emphasizes that God’s community and his work is not exclusive to any particular group. One of the things that the recent Christchurch earthquakes have brought about, is that Christians from different denominations have enjoyed closer fellowship with each other. This has led to a sharing of our resources and a coordinated effort in caring and bringing the good news to the wider community. Our common experience of suffering has brought us closer together in doing our utmost to reach and support others in our community.
It is in this context that Jesus speaks about how we care for and support one another within the family of God. The cutting off our hands, eyes or feet if they go off to do things that not only bring harm to ourselves but to our relationship with God and with others in our Christian community teaches us about our responsibilities and the care we must practice when relating with God and with each other.
We are called to be careful so that the way we live will not cause others within the Christian community to lose faith. We should not take each other for granted and are encouraged to be watchful over our actions. Therefore, Jesus uses strong words when he tells us to take drastic measures to cut away known actions that would bring God’s name to disrepute and affect the common faith and witness of the Christian community.
The imagery of ‘salt’ is used here in Jesus’ teaching (v.50). Often this imagery has been used to speak of the Christian’s ability to influence the world. Being salty people, add value to whatever and whomever we encounter in life. This is the nature of the Christian community. It is through this ability to influence that others will be helped and not hindered in finding faith in God.
In our epistle reading this morning, James gives careful instruction of the way the Christian community is to maintain their saltiness in the world. This begins from within the Christian community. The way we treat and care for each other is the means which we not only maintain our saltiness in the world, but also the way the wider community receives a witness of the gospel of Christ.
He begins with prayer as a regular community activity of the Christian church. He asks the question, “Are any of you suffering hardships?” – you should pray – is his immediate response. Sincere prayer is an expression of our care for others, especially when we do not have all the answers or the means to aid others in their hardship. Prayer calls us to turn to God acknowledging our finiteness and expressing our dependence on God’s wisdom and help.
Next he asks, “Are any of you happy? If you are, sing praises.” In other words, continue to express a positive worshipful spirit of gratefulness to God and in doing so we will nurture a positive attitude towards others.
Finally he asks, “Are any of you sick?”
Call on the leaders of the church to:
- Pray over the sickness
- Anoint with oil in the name of the Lord
I am aware that we are not all gifted with the power to heal, but may I suggest that we learn to get alongside the sick and in doing so, help lift their spirits and put them in a positive frame of mind. This assures them of God’s care of their treatment through the skilled hands of the medical profession. I recently visited a parishioner who was preparing to undergo surgery. Because this person was advanced in years she was very anxious whether the procedure would cause post-operative complications and affect her normal active lifestyle.
Little did I know that this was the case when I arrived at her home prior to surgery. So after listening to her concerns and realizing that this was bothering her, I offered to pray with her. It was a simple prayer asking for God’s peace to bring relieve to her anxiety. After the prayer she was visibly comforted and her worry was lifted. She thanked me and said that she could now face the procedure with an assurance that God will care for her. My prayer did not heal her but it did put her in a positive frame of mind to receive the healing of God through the hands of the surgeon. Visiting her after the operation, she was in good spirits and told me that everything went well surgically.
Next, James mentions the practice of confessing our sins to one another in the family of God. The confession of sins is a practice that we rarely see in church communities today. However, through the liturgy each Sunday, we confess our sins corporately. This corporate expression is an acknowledgement that we are a work in progress operating under God’s grace. This practice reminds us that we are never above the need of God’s mercy and secondly it helps us to be less prejudiced or judgmental towards others who struggle with wrongful behavior.
Although Christ has forgiven us once and for all, we recognize that we are still learning to be Christ’s disciples. This acknowledgement allows the nature of God’s Spirit called meekness to be nurtured in us. Through meekness, we learn not to be quick to judge others and secondly, we develop a spirit of generosity. The development of meekness often brings healing in our relationships.
Under such environment, the Christian community provides a place for restoration and recovery especially of those who may feel that they have no place in the church. This is because such people think that they are not good enough or will never be good enough to be part of God’s family.
Today as we reaffirm our baptismal commitment to Christ, let us be reminded of our Christian commitment to avoid anything that may bring disrepute to God’s name and cause harm to the faith of others.
We are reminded to maintain our “saltiness” by keeping a prayerful worshipful caring heart for one another. We are encouraged to nurture a spirit of meekness by acknowledging our finiteness and embracing a belief in God’s unconditional love for the world we live in.