Stumbling or Supporting

Published: Monday, 01 October 2018

StumblingThis sermon was presented by Geoff Pound on 30 September 2018 at the Ashburton Baptist Church. It concludes with some questions for personal reflection and group discussion.

Scripture Reading: Mark 9:38-50 

Have you heard the story of the man who died and went to heaven?[1] Remembering the line about ‘in my Father’s house are many mansions’, he asked to be shown the whole range of accommodation options in which he could spend eternity.

First, he was shown a room with candles, chants and an endless Catholic mass. Then he viewed an Anglican apartment with colourful robes and creative banners. He inspected a Salvo-styled room with brass band music and flags and finally a Pentecostal penthouse that blared with loud music and shouts of ‘Amen’.

There was one room they passed on their tour where the guide had asked that his visitor be silent as they went by.

When at the end of the tour he was asked to pick a home, the newcomer was puzzled. He wanted to know more about the mysterious room that they had tiptoed past.

The guide said, “That’s where we isolate the Baptists. They wouldn’t be happy if they knew anybody else was up here.”

Today’s passage is about insiders and outsiders in Jesus’ community. It’s about setting up stumbling blocks or offering hands of support

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.” 

Mark 9: 38

For the first and only time, John is the spokesperson. He’s whining. Pointing his finger. He sounds like a child tattle-tailing: “Teacher, we saw someone… They were casting out demons in your name.”

The irony is that Jesus’ disciples had been trying to do the same but they were impotent (Mark 9: 18). Now when someone else is doing ministry well they try to stop him.

This theme will echo again when Jesus says to the disciples about children: “Don’t stop them.” (Mark 10: 14).

Note that John’s beef about the exorcist was that “he was not following us” rather than “because he was not following Jesus.[2]

This man is not one of our group. He’s from a different denomination. He hasn’t been through our training programme. He’s not licensed and ordained.

The tense suggests the man’s exorcism ministry and the disciples’ attempts to stop him were ongoing, not a completed act. “Jesus, we couldn’t shut him up so can you close him down?”

How quickly they’ve forgotten the last episode when they were arguing about who was the greatest. They had a brain fade when Jesus put a child in the midst and demonstrated the breadth of God’s welcome. (Mark 9: 33-37)[3]

But Jesus said, “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. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 

Mark 9: 39-40

Jesus cautions against keeping control and bad-mouthing others. Jesus says, “Don’t worry about others. Get on with your job.” Transform your whining and jealousy by concentrating on seeing people set free. Jesus hopes that all those in the work of healing and liberation might one day follow and speak positively of him.

The challenge is not to view other churches and others in the helping ministry as competition to beat and put out of business. Christians don’t have a monopoly on kindness and doing justice. If we take the word of Jesus: 40 Whoever is not against us is for us,[4] this means that we will actively encourage and support people regardless of whether they’re one of our church, our denomination, our faith. The call is to join hands with all those who’re concerned about setting people free.

On this question as to who’s in and who’s out, Jesus blurs the distinction. He extends the circle wider than we can ever imagine. As someone has said, “Whenever you want to draw lines in order to mark who is outside the kingdom and who is inside, always remember: Jesus is on the other side of the line! Jesus is always with the outsiders!”[5]

He’s not just talking about those who do the dramatic exorcism and healings but ordinary acts of kindness:

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.

Mark 9: 41

Jesus has been speaking about putting out roadblocks to halt the progress of others or the reward for those who offer a cup of water. Now he warns that those who set up stumbling blocks[6] will receive judgement:

“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.

Mark 9: 42

The New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has been attracting lots of attention this last week but even more, it’s the baby in her arms and at her breast that’s been the star. Three month old, Neve, with the Maori middle name, Te Aroha, has been the first baby to sit through the UN General Assembly meetings. Neve has even been wearing a UN security pass which reads, “First Baby.”

Neve’s dad, Clarke, is the primary carer, especially when Jacinda has to give a speech. Clarke said, “I wish I could have captured the startled look on a Japanese delegation inside the UN yesterday who walked into a meeting room in the middle of a nappy change.”

Even without a word, Jacinda, Clarke and Neve are saying something very powerful about children, about careers and parenting.[7]

Doesn’t it sound like Jesus still has the child in the midst, possibly still in his arms? Not only is he saying that the last is to be first by being placed in the very centre of the community but there’s a warning here for those who trip them up and cause their belief to waver.

The millstone was a heavy stone that crushed grain as some donkeys or bullocks walked round and round. It’s like those tyres that are filled up with concrete to hold up a volleyball net.

Whatever image we know, you wouldn’t want it hung around your neck if you’d been thrown into the sea. This is one of the harshest sayings of Jesus and it’s directed toward those who cause a little one to fall away. Jesus is serious about injustice. He’s absolutely opposed to those who diminish the lives of the least instead of helping them to thrive.

That’s not all. Jesus is on a roll, as he thinks of things that causes us to stumble:

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. 45 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. 47 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, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

Mark 9: 43-48

What violent talk. This should come with an R18 rating. Don’t tell this to anyone who self-harms.

The Roumanian author, Petru Dumitriu, in his novel, Incognito, tells a story from the forest. Long wooden shoots had been built in the forest to slide the tree trunks down to the valley and then to the river. These shoots were hundreds of metres long. They were smooth and polished. The foresters used them not only for the logs. They’d sit on the bottom of the shoot and they’d toboggan down to save them a long walk.

One day a man got his foot caught in a hole in the shoot. He couldn’t get his foot free. At that moment he heard the shout of warning which meant another log was on its way down. He looked up and saw the thing coming. He still couldn’t free his foot. So up with his axe. He hacked off his foot and jumped clear just in time. He was crippled for life, but at least he was alive.[8]

If you find such a story startling and repulsive, that’s just how Jesus wants us to feel. In his most violent language, he calls us to cut off an offending member to save our whole body from destruction.

Jesus gives not one but three scenarios of self-mutilation to get his point across:[9]

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.

If your foot causes you to stumble, hack it off.

If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out.

I like Deborah’s reflection that she shared as we were preparing for this service.[10] Perhaps the hand represents those things which we do which cause us to stumble. The foot represents the places where we go that trip us up. The eye represents those things we see that cause us to stumble.

Are we going to take these violent words of Jesus literally?[11] If we did our church next Sunday might look like the Accident and Emergency department at the hospital. This is Aramaic hyperbole. Jesus is speaking in bold and capital letters. He pushes his language to the limit. Even though self-mutilation is forbidden in the Jewish law Jesus encourages this because he wants to warn us of the dangers.

If we don’t take such radical action, Jesus says we’re heading to hell, to the unquenchable fire (v44, 46, 47) or literally Gehenna.[12] In v48 he describes hell as a place where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. (48)

It all sounds very grim. It’s hard to understand how worms keep alive in the fire but Jesus wants to paint a gruesome picture. If we aren’t to take the hand, foot and eye surgery literally, are we to take the existence of hell literally?

We’ve learned enough to know that stumbling blocks are real and they’re to be cut out before we descend down the slippery slopes.

Our reading ends with an unusual, salty thought:

“For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 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.”

Mark 9: 49-50

The fires of hell may have got Jesus thinking of the fires of persecution coming upon his true followers. Perhaps Jesus thinks that his followers might be like sacrificial offerings that were first salted before they went to the fire.

Salt is used to purify so this might highlight the idea of being free from stumbling blocks and other impediments. Salt brings out the taste and flavour so Jesus might be emphasising the call to a distinctive life.

In the Hebrew Bible salt is a symbol of the covenant.[13] The idea is that when we eat with someone we are sharing salt (Ezra 4:14).[14] To share a meal is to share fellowship and to be in covenant with the person.

Today and last Sunday’s reading is all about conflict and strife. The arguing of the disciples as to who was the greatest, today’s conflict with the strange exorcist and then setting stumbling blocks in front of others and ourselves.

After all this, Jesus finally calls his disciples to renew their relationships, to eat with one another, to be a people who are distinctive. So please, pass the salt.

Questions for Personal Reflection and Group Discussion

Scripture Reading: Mark 9:38-50 

38 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.” 39 But Jesus said, “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. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 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.

42 “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. 43 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. 45 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. 47 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, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

49 “For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 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.”

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.” 

Mark 9: 38

Look around. Where do we see these accusations and attempts to stop others from doing good?

Where do you see such a tendency in yourself?

Why do we want to stop people doing good, who are not part of our group, church, denomination and faith?

But Jesus said, “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. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 

Mark 9: 39-40

Flesh out these words of Jesus.

How do you square this statement, “Whoever is not against us is for us” with what appears to be an opposite statement in Luke 11: 23a and Matthew 12: 30a?

Far from stopping those not of our group, how do we actively encourage and support such people? How might we more effectively join hands with all those who’re concerned about setting people free?

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.

Mark 9: 41

Any comments to make or insights to share on this statement not only about dramatic exorcists but those who give a cup of water?

Erecting Stumbling Blocks

“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.

Mark 9: 42

What are the various types of stumbling blocks that are put before children?

How can we best remove these stumbling blocks and actively support children in their belief in Jesus and desire to enjoy life in all its fulness?

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. 45 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. 47 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, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

Mark 9: 43-48

How do you respond to this harsh language and violent talk?

What ways spring to your mind regarding hands, feet and eyes that cause people to stumble?

If we don’t do literal amputations, how do we cut these things out?

How do you understand the punishment for those who cause others to stumble—tossed into the sea with a millstone or being sent into hell?

Have Some Salt

“For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 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.”

Mark 9: 49-50

How does this salty talk link with what has come beforehand?

What is Jesus calling us to do regarding salt?

Prayer

Confess our jealousy and urge to control those who do things differently from us.

Ask God to show you practical ways to support others doing kindness and justice.

Pray that we might be saved from causing others to stumble and by our lives be a tower of support.

 

[1] Wm. Loyd Allen, ‘Common Features in the Changing Face of Baptists’, Review and Expositor, 95 (1998), 17-38, 18.

[2] The word ‘name’ occurs frequently in chapter 9, viz. 37, 3839, 41. This seems to indicate motivation.

[3] This continues the theme of the disciple’s misunderstanding. Throughout Mark’s Gospel the disciples don’t get it. They appear confused, lacking in understanding and often resistant.

[4] Interesting that an opposite statement appears in Luke 11:23a, Matthew 12: 30a.

[5] Richard A Jensen, Preaching Mark’s Gospel, (CSS Publishing Company, 1996), 149.

[6] The Greek word for the phrase ‘put a stumbling block before’ is skandalize-to scandalize. This is a technical term in Mark for rejection of the kingdom message (Mark 6:3) or desertion of the way (Mark 14: 27, 29). It occurs in the sower parable ‘when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word they stumble and fall away’ (Mark 4:17).

[7] Eleanor Ainge Roy, Jacinda Ardern makes history with baby Neve at UN General Assembly, The Guardian, 25 September 2018.

[8] ‘The Courage to Cut’, in Robert Raines, Creative Brooding, (London: The Macmillan Company, 1969), 79.

[9] Self-mutilation is forbidden in Jewish law (see Deuteronomy 14:1)

[10] Thanks for this insight to worship leader for this service, Deborah Paterson.

[11] There are Christians like Origen who cut off a member and others who have practiced the ‘mortification of the flesh in its various forms. See Mortification of the Flesh, Wikipedia.

[12] Gehenna refers to a hell-like place of judgement or it may have referred to a burning rubbish heap in the valley of Hinnon, outside the old city of Jerusalem.

[13] See Leviticus 2:13B; Numbers 18:19.

[14] This salty discussion draws on Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, 264, who also cites H. Fledderman.