(Modified 2021-09-26: Added audio recording – sorry about the static!)
We see today in our Gospel reading what we so often encounter in the Gospels. Jesus’ disciples have some small, local concern they want him to address, but Jesus has his mind on the big picture, the cosmic picture.
John the beloved disciple, whose Gospel and letters teach us a great deal about loving one another, has a very unloving complaint. “Jesus, some dude we don’t know is going around casting out demons in your name. We told him to stop, but he won’t. Do something!”
Let’s take note of the context in which Mark records this interaction. We are in Mark chapter 9 right now. Here’s a list of what happened earlier in this chapter: 1) the Transfiguration, in which Peter, James and John are singled out from among the Twelve to accompany Jesus up the mountain and were the sole witnesses to Jesus’ encounter with Elijah the prophet and Moses. 2) when they return from the mountain, they find that in their absence, a man had brought his demon-possessed son to the other nine disciples and asked them to cast the demon out, but they couldn’t do it. After Jesus casts out the demon, the disciples ask him why they weren’t able to, and Jesus replies that “this kind can come out only by prayer.” They had, perhaps, been buoyed by their earlier success when Jesus sent them out alone to preach the good news and heal the sick. Whether it was arrogance or carelessness or some other deficiency, they had been unable in this case to help the boy. Since it occurred in front of a crowd of people and a group of Pharisees, the whole episode was humiliating. 3) After this we come to the passage we heard last Sunday. Jesus began to instruct the disciples privately about his coming death and resurrection. They didn’t understand him, but were afraid to ask what he meant. 4) Then came that lowering fight amongst the disciples about which of them was the greatest. I mean, really? Have you met Jesus? How is this even happening? But from that encounter comes the wonderful teaching from Jesus about the upside-down nature of the Kingdom of God: “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
All of that is the context for today’s Gospel lesson, and John’s childish concern that someone other than him and his compatriots is doing something as grand as casting out demons in Jesus’ name. The whole thing is of a piece with the disciples’ inability to understand what Jesus meant when he taught them about the Kingdom, and when he told them about the necessity of his coming death. They are thinking in terms of a political kingdom in their present context; a kingdom in which Jesus would oust the Roman overlords, and the Twelve would be his trusted lieutenants. In that context, it makes sense in John’s mind not to allow interlopers to do the signs of that coming kingdom. That would mean ceding territory — making space for another lieutenant to have a share of the political power.
But the Kingdom of God as proclaimed by Jesus was never about territory or political power. Jesus was never concerned merely with the slice of land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. The disciples had yet to grasp that the Kingdom Jesus was teaching them about encompasses the whole world, and all the people in it. In that context, John’s complaint is beyond petty and small-minded. We’re talking about a Kingdom of God that encompasses the macro and the micro — from a cup of water all the way up to the stars in the heavens.
The disciples wanted to draw a line that would define who was in and who was out. They were the closest to Jesus, so they’d be more “in” than anybody else. This unnamed demon caster-outer could be “in” the kingdom, but not as “in” as them, so he had to stop doing what they’d personally been given the power to do by Jesus, i.e. casting out demons. Though we just saw that that didn’t always work out for them either, if they could be undone by forgetting to pray. In this political kingdom they were envisioning, any Jew, including the Pharisees, probably, could be in, as long as they remembered not to encroach too far. After all, they might have the right ethnicity, but they weren’t among the first to believe in Jesus the way the Twelve were. And if some are in the kingdom, it follows that some must be out. That would definitely be the Romans, those jerks. And the Samaritans, though Jesus had shown a disturbing softness in that direction. I’m sure they would have been happy to lump all of our ancestors in the “out” camp, if any of them had crossed their minds at all!
The really interesting thing this passage points out about the Kingdom of God as Jesus is teaching it is that Jesus isn’t denying that some will be “in” and some will be “out” of the Kingdom. He’s just rejecting the definitions the disciples are imagining for who those people are.
“Do not stop [the man driving out demons],” Jesus said. “No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. The disciples wanted a kingdom in which Jesus was the prime minister and they were his cabinet ministers, and everyone else was a backbencher at best, or a constituent at worst. But Jesus was proclaiming to them a Kingdom with a lot less hierarchy. He had already told them — though apparently they had failed to take it to heart — “whoever wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” Now he is saying, look, it’s very simple. Whoever is not against us is for us. Indeed, he goes on, “anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward.” God is not more interested in those who can do the flashy things of the kingdom, like casting out demons. A simple gift, meeting the most basic need, is seen by God and remembered.
Each one of us here today has had an experience of the Kingdom of God that is unique to us. All that we have, we have received from God: our personalities; our histories; our talents; our quirks. We have all felt the call of God through the Holy Spirit. If you hadn’t, you wouldn’t be here right now. You’d be sleeping in, or fishing, or playing video games, or something. But as individual as we are, we all have felt the call of God, and here we are, answering and looking for answers. God has welcomed us into his Kingdom through Jesus. We walk through that door every time we approach the altar and receive Communion. The Kingdom of God in our lives is first and foremost about being — being the children of God, adopted into His family through Jesus. But since the Kingdom of God is not a place so much as it is the state in which we live out our lives, it is also about doing. At one time or another, I think all of us have looked around at what other people are capable of doing and felt inadequate. I think of all the work that goes into Faith Quest and Godly Play and Gospel in the Garden, and I feel inadequate because I know I couldn’t do all that. When we had that garage sale this summer, I wanted to quit about 2:00, but I couldn’t because of the ladies older than me who just wouldn’t stop! I stuck around all day just to save face! If God’s Kingdom in any way rested on me and what I’m capable of doing, the whole enterprise would collapse in a second. But Jesus’ lesson for his disciples in Mark chapter 9 is a lesson for me and for all of you as well. The work of the Kingdom is not hierarchical. None of it is more special or important than the simplest gestures of kindness and compassion — a helping hand, a cup of water. God sees all of it, and values all of it equally. What is required of us are ready hands and humble hearts. That’s all.
Jesus has one more thing to say about what it’s like to live in God’s Kingdom. It’s about sin, and the way we treat each other.
Jesus said, “If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck.” I discovered in my studies this week that this image, sadly, did not come from nowhere. Apparently, this was one of the inventive ways in which the Romans chose to deal with political dissidents, and a man named Judas of Galilee was executed this way around the time Jesus was having this talk with his disciples. They had likely heard of, and maybe even seen, someone die this way. It’s an appalling image, and Jesus means it to be a jolt to his hearers. He is very, very serious about this, and means for his disciples to know it. The “little ones” Jesus is talking about may be children, like the child he used to illustrate the foolishness of the disciples’ argument over who was the greatest. But “little ones” here can also just mean baby Christians. It’s a reminder of the responsibility we have when we’ve been in the Church a while for those who are coming up after us. It’s a caution to any who would teach or lead in the Church. We bear responsibility for one another, and that is no light matter.
Jesus goes on further in this manner, using shocking analogies to show his hearers that this matter of sin in the Kingdom of God is serious business. If your hand or your foot or your eye causes you to sin, cut it off! Gouge it out! When your choices are heaven or hell, better to enter heaven maimed than spend eternity in the burning garbage heap that is hell!
This too would have been a visceral image for the disciples. The Jewish people sometimes referred to hell as Gehenna. Gehenna is a valley just outside of Jerusalem. In the dark times when Israelites worshipped other gods, some committed child sacrifice there. Later on in the time of Christ, Gehenna had become a garbage dump for the city of Jerusalem. Some part of it was always on fire, so it became a very accessible metaphor for hell to the people. This is the image Jesus uses here to show his disciples how serious he is about this business of sin. If you care about not spending eternity in the burning garbage heap that is Gehenna, then you need to be willing to take drastic measures to excise sin from your life.
Now I hope you realize that Jesus does not mean that literally lopping off parts of your body will keep you from sinning. Let’s be honest: for that to work, you would have to cut out your brain and your heart. What Jesus intends is to impress on his hearers that sin in our lives must be countered by a willingness to take drastic action. Often sin can be conquered only by radical spiritual surgery.
The parts of our bodies that Jesus mentions — hands and feet and eyes — are all organs and appendages we use for doing, for doing things with our bodies. They are for work. Notice that one of the body parts Jesus doesn’t mention lopping off in order to avoid sin is your ears. Your ears are not for doing. Your ears are for receiving. Your ears are for hearing the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. And that Good News, in this case, is that if you are feeling dismayed by how serious Jesus says this issue of sin is, if you are feeling like you are maybe not up to the kind of physical or even metaphorical surgery Jesus prescribes here, what Jesus intends for his hearers is that they realize they can’t do this for themselves.
The Good News always points us away from ourselves and what we can do for ourselves, and points us toward Jesus. We’re not capable of excising the sin from our lives ourselves. We are not capable of going to the lengths necessary to make that happen for ourselves. But here’s the Good News of the Gospel: Jesus has already done what is necessary. He has gone all the way, and made the sacrifice that was required in order for sin to be excised from us. By his death, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus has cut off the sin that kept us out of God’s Kingdom. What is required of us now is that we hear the Good News with our fully-attached ears, and accept it with our beating hearts and our neuron-firing brains.
Let us pray. Jesus, we thank you that through your death and resurrection you have made the way for us to enter God’s Kingdom. Holy Spirit, we thank you that you stirred our hearts and drew us in when we heard the Good News of the Gospel. Father, we thank you that you accept us and love us, and that you give us the community and fellowship of one another to help us on this journey through life. Help us always to be willing to offer cups of water in your name, and to help one another on our spiritual journeys. We love you. In your name we pray. Amen.