The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Mark 9:38-48 [49-50]

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean

The end of the ninth chapter of Mark seems to be a kind of grab bag of the sayings of Jesus. It’s almost as if Mark had some left-over material and since there was no place else to fit it in, he just threw it all in here.

Today’s gospel text starts out with one of the disciples, John, complaining about people using Jesus’ name to cast out demons when “they are not following us.” And from there the passage segues into a discussion of “little ones” and the judgment that will befall those who cause them to sin. Then it moves to some rather harsh words about what should happen when one’s hand or foot or eye causes one to sin, to a discussion on being “salted with fire,” and, finally, curiously enough, on being “at peace with one another.” What is going on here?

Well, the key, I think, to fitting this all together, is in the first and last verses. John and the other disciples are upset because they have discovered that it is possible for folk to know and have connection with, and power from, Jesus without being part of the inner circle—without “following us” as John puts it.

The implication is that Jesus is alive and loose in the world and among all sorts of people, gathering them into his service and work and life—even those who don’t profess to be Jesus people. His body is present in the world, and our task is not so much to bring him to others as it is to discover and recognize his presence in the midst of others—to see Jesus in them.

Jesus precedes us. That has always been scandalous news to Christians—to missionaries in foreign countries, to pastors who are surprised to learn that Jesus has been in the hospital room before we ever arrive there, to churches who make the alarming discovery that Jesus is at work in the community whether they are or not.

“Whoever is not against us is for us.” Notice that the cup of water Jesus says is there waiting for us is given to us because we bear the name of Christ. And it is Christ, in any form, who feeds and nourishes his body, wherever and whomever we are.

It was John’s temptation to identify the cause of Christ with himself and the ministry of the disciples. Is it not our temptation as Christians, as the Church, to do the same? Unless our hand does it, does it ever really get done? Unless we bird-dog it, is this ministry really worthwhile? Unless we condone and bless it, does it even count for good?

As a priest, I would have to say that I have a tendency to sometimes want to work alone. It’s just easier, sometimes, to work by myself, to want to disconnect from the rest of the body of Christ and simply be an efficient hand, or foot or eye.

I think most of us who have ministries in the church tend to think the same way–do the same thing. But that kind of thinking—that kind of action—that kind of example is precisely the kind of thing that causes others to stray, to stumble, to think that life without the body is possible.

But we put up an equally treacherous stumbling block when we teach “little ones” (which, by the way, I think translates best with Jesus thought as “children in the faith” rather than just children–little people). We put up a huge stumbling block when we teach other Christians to think that we have Jesus–God–surrounded and exclusive within our own little inner circle of faithful people.

There is a parable about an old woman—stingy, unfriendly, self-centered—who died and was condemned to hell. She begged for deliverance day and night, and her guardian angel, who pleads her case, is told that if it can be shown that she did one good deed in her life, she would be delivered.

The guardian angel remembers that the woman did once give an onion to a beggar. Find the onion, the angel is told, and it will be strong enough to pull her out of hell. The angel searches the earth, finds the onion, and reaches down with it to the old woman who grabs the onion and is slowly pulled upward.

As the others in hell see the woman rising, they grab hold of her. But thinking only of herself, and fearful the onion might break, she kicks them away telling them that it is her onion, not theirs.

At that very moment, the onion does break, and she falls back into hell.

It is a kind of hell to want salvation and grace apart from other sinners. It is a kind of hell to lust for separation, to try to build fences that will keep away (from Jesus and the church) anyone who “is not one of us.”

Because that just won’t happen on God’s watch. It can’t happen. If salvation and grace are available to you, a sinner, then salvation and grace are available to all sinners. That’s the way it works. That’s why it’s call salvation! That’s why it’s called grace! And if you’re going to receive it yourself, then you have to be able to extend it to others.

Otherwise, we become the separated; we become the ones on the outside looking in. Which is why we must die to our desire to be everything, to be the only thing, and to become “salted with fire,” as it were, so that we can truly receive the gifts God chooses to give us—even if they come from people who aren’t just “like us,” so we can “be at peace with one another.” God precedes us, in every situation, and in every human being–God is at work long before we arrive.

There is no more tasteless act than the constant effort to turn God’s grace into our own achievements. To be salty in this world is to know the joy within God, the inclusiveness of Christ, the life and grace and gratitude within the body of Christ and without all those exclusive little inner circles.

To be “salty” and to “be at peace with one another” will put “little ones” on the right path and cause our eyes and hands and feet to take up the happy task of their master, even Jesus Christ the Lord.

Who with the Father, and the Holy Spirit is our God