Monday, 28 September 2015

Mark 9- do not be the cause of separation from Jesus

In today’s Gospel there is a lot for the modern person to stumble over. There is mention of exorcising demons, which is often hard for many of us to hear since we tend to live in a world that is highly suspicious of the supernatural. Jesus speaks about it being better to have a large stone tied around your neck and to be thrown into the deep, rather than place a stumbling block before a “little one.” And Jesus instructs us to cut off hands and feet and to gouge out our eyes in order to avoid “hell”, “where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched”. These statements don’t seem to match the Jesus we often think we know. For most of us we think about the kindness and gentleness of Jesus, who is quick to forgive and who carries a lamb in his arms as he guides the fold to green pastures and clear waters. As children of the European Enlightenment it is natural for us to emphasize the rational nature of the ethics of Jesus, and de-emphasize miracles and other supernatural events. Every generation and culture has aspects of Jesus they like to emphasize and other aspects they want to censor.

For example, in the first century in the Roman Empire the fact that Jesus died on a cross as a criminal was incredibly scandalous. The cross was difficult for other cultures as well. In the 16th century there was a Jesuit missionary who arrived in China, Matteo Ricci. He was a brilliant renaissance man who quickly mastered Chinese language and culture. In the style of Paul in Acts 17, Ricci attempted to find the truth in Chinese culture and use those truths to teach Christianity. A difficult aspect of Christianity for Ricci to teach was the cross. Many philosophical and moral teachings of Christianity had their compliment in Chinese values. Ricci taught that Christianity was a perfecting of those already existing truths. However, Jesus’ crucifixion was not easy to communicate. It did not make sense in that ideology, especially in a culture where authority was highly respected. Jesus’ condemnation by the highest religious court of the day was an offence to Chinese values. For this reason he didn’t present the cross right away. One day, however, a servant of the Chinese court happened to come across a realistic statue of Jesus on the cross among Matteo Ricci’s belongings. The shocked servant confronted Ricci, screaming at him, believing that he was practicing black magic in some attempt to kill the Chinese ruler. It was a horrifying image, so he thought it must have some horrifying purpose. Jesus’ moral and philosophical teachings were acceptable, but the cross was an offense.

In societies where racism is the norm, Paul’s teaching that in Christ ethnicity is transcended (Gal 3:28) is offensive. In cultures where honour is of the utmost importance, forgiveness of one’s enemies is scandalous. In cultures where they emphasize the invisible realm of the spirits, Christ’s work as an exorcist might be emphasized and his moral teaching might be considered secondary.

This is all just to say that there are cultural moods that human beings deal with in different times and in different places and the temptation is always to try to force the gospel to match our cultural mood, rather than see where our cultural views might have to be challenged. So today it might be good for us to attempt to open our minds to what the Gospel has to say to us rather than filter out the uncomfortable bits. Our current cultural mood says that everyone is right in their own way, and we should not judge, so it is hard to hear Jesus teach about consequences and judgement, and especially hell. We tend to accept scientific views of reality as the only reality, and so we are deeply suspicious of supernatural beings like demons that can assault human beings. We tend to dismiss all that as primitive superstition, or as mistaken mental illness.

Something that was taken for granted in Jesus’ day was the presence of spirits that sometimes oppressed people. There are many cultures that continue to believe this, and in these cultures there are very educated people. So this belief is not a lack of intelligence or sophistication. It is a different worldview.  We might want to dismiss this aspect of the gospel, but it is actually very prevalent. Jesus and his disciples are constantly dealing with evil spirits that are oppressing people and that ministry is constantly linked with the ministry of healing.

But, all this is secondary to our reading. Now that we have dealt (in small part) with the few cultural stumbling stones we can look at the actual meaning of the Gospel lesson.

In our reading, the disciples come across someone helping a person who is being assaulted by an evil spirit. He is using the name of Jesus as he is trying to help the person and the disciples tell him to stop.

Imagine going to Tim Hortons and you see someone standing next to a banner that says, “St. Mark’s Anglican Church” [the church where this sermon was preached]. They are buying coffee for people and are doing evangelism. Say that you don’t recognize the person and you know for a fact that they are not a member of the congregation. How would you feel? … Wouldn’t part of you want someone to stop him just in case he had some wacky ideas and gave you a bad name?

So the disciples did what some of us would hope our priest and leadership would do and ask them to stop using our name. But, Jesus is not for this plan at all. He 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.” The thrust of the message seems to be don’t cut off anyone from Christ no matter how small their connection to him.

Every Easter and Christmas churches are much more full than any other time of the year. … Mainly it’s people who call themselves Christians, but don’t really make a priority of going to church the rest of the year. They call themselves Christians. They believe in God and in the afterlife, but they don’t really have an interest in investing time in learning about Christ or his ways. It can be easy to discount these people for not taking their faith seriously and not contributing to the work of the church. I’ve even heard them called “tourists”. Jesus may tell us to not cause them to be disconnected from him, no matter how weak and fragile the connection. A small connection is still a connection. A positive feeling towards Christ is still a positive feeling and not a negative feeling.

The Pope is visiting North America and on the internet I’ve recently seen some protestant Christians posting negative things about the Pope (and the Roman Catholic teachings about the Pope). I wonder if they need to hear Jesus’ words, “Whoever is not against us is for us”. It doesn’t mean we agree on everything. Others might be drastically wrong about some things, but Jesus’ words should have weight here. Do not damage another person’s connection with Christ thinking they aren’t one of us.

Don’t disconnect people from Christ. In fact, cut out anything that blocks the path to Christ. If it is your hand, cut it off. If it is your foot, cut it off. If it is your eye, gouge it out. Whatever is in the way of your path to Jesus, get rid of it. 
 There are a couple ways to read Jesus’ teaching here. One, is to ask ourselves (as individuals), what causes me to sin? Does my hand cause me to steal? Do my feet cause me to betray my friends? Does my eye cause me to lust? Surely we know that sin is deeper than this. Otherwise a prisoner full of murderous rage, would be considered sinless and holy since his opportunity to act out his murderous inclinations has been taken away. We cannot cut off all our appendages and senses and hope to be holy and sinless. Unless our desire is to be as holy as a fencepost. No, what causes us to sin is a disposition in our heart that doesn’t trust God. That is what has to be cut out. But, that doesn’t make it any less drastic and serious. We have to treat this spiritual amputation with as much seriousness as we would treat an actual physical amputation. Jesus uses very strong language here- he speaks of amputation and gouging of eyes, and being cut off from God in hell. Jesus couldn’t use more serious language to speak about this. It is no less serious just because we look at this as a spiritual amputation. In many ways it is more difficult. In fact, it is impossible without the work of Christ’s Spirit.

There is another way to read these words though, and they might actually fit better with the rest of the passage. in this way we read it in light of the Christian community, rather than the individual.  A disciple has cut someone off and told them to stop using the name of Christ. Now Jesus says that those who will be cut off will be those who cause others to stumble. The Greek work here is close to our word for being scandalized, which is to be so put off that a person is willing to walk away from Christ in disgust. In the Bible Christians are sometimes called the ‘body of Christ” (1 Cor 12). A healthy body means that all the parts are looking out for the whole. If the eye is about to be damaged, the hand rises to protect it, and the feet move the body away from the danger. Perhaps Jesus is thinking about this kind of body- specifically, his body. Reflecting on Christ’s words, suddenly if the hand causes the body to sin, we are to cut it off. The disciple had cut off the stranger with the weak connection to Christ, but now Jesus warns them about placing a barrier between people and him. The disciple is the one in danger for placing a stumbling block before the one who was using the name of Jesus. The ones to be especially careful of are his little ones- the ones with immature faith, or weak faith. He may in fact be warning us that if we cause people to stumble, if we cause people to lose their faith in Christ, then we may be in danger of being amputated for the sake of the health of the body. It would be better to be thrown into the ocean with a massive rock tied around your neck. Don’t be the cause of someone falling away from Christ.

This means that we should also pray for those who have hurt us in the Church, or who have tempted us to walk away from following Christ. We should work hard to try to forgive them because Jesus says they are in an incredible amount of danger. Jesus couldn't use stronger language to speak about the danger they are in- he speaks about amputation of limbs, gouging out eyes, drowning with a rock tied around your neck, and being separated from God's presence in Hell. According to Jesus these people are in incredible danger. 

Some of Christ’s teachings are hard to take. It is medicine, not candy. Some medicine tastes good and is comforting. It relieves guilt and spiritual pain. … Other medicine is very hard to swallow. Instructing us to amputate limbs and organs that might cause us to enter eternal separation from God in hell…. That is a hard pill to swallow. Our present cultural mood we find ourselves in makes that a hard teaching. So some of his teachings will clash with our cultural values, but sometimes his teachings are hard because of our human inclination towards sin. That makes his teaching hard no matter who we are or what culture we come from. It may sound simple- do not be the reason someone becomes disconnected from Christ. The hard part about this teaching is how seriously he takes this. It is so serious he invokes amputation, eye gouging, drowning with a rock tied around our neck, and hell. It is hard medicine to swallow, but it is still medicine and it is for our good.

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