Lectionary 26 / 18th Sunday After Pentecost 2015
– Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
– Psalm 19:7-14
– James 5:13-20
– Mark 9:38-50
I have to be honest with you, I find today’s gospel reading to be more than a little troubling.
Because I always take Jesus very seriously when he tells us — as individual believers and as the whole church — to do something. And I always begin by considering: suppose Jesus really means what he says.
“And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to gahenna, to the unquenchable fire.”
I look at that and think: what if Jesus really means it?
Because these hands … they make me sin. A lot.
Sometimes we take Jesus at his absolute word, and sometimes we like to say, “well, he really didn’t mean *that*.” As Lutherans, we take very seriously when Jesus told his disciples, in that upper room, “this is my body” and “this is my blood.” That’s very important to us, makes the Lord’s supper more than a memorial, makes the bread and the wine more than symbols, more than mere bread, and more than mere wine.
On the other hand, like most good Protestants, we talked our way out of what seems to be Jesus’ clear teaching on divorce, and we separate on a fairly regular basis what Jesus tells us God has joined together. We don’t that teaching as literally, or even as seriously, as Catholics do, for example.
I don’t take this teaching literally — it defies all common sense. (Though maybe it is supposed to.) Most likely none of you do either. I stand before you upon two feet, hold up two hands, and gaze out at you with two eyes. I’ve cut nothing off and I plucked nothing out. And it’s not because I’m not a sinner. And I see that most of you are similarly endowed. And it’s not because you are any more saintly than I am.
But I always ask myself — what if Jesus meant exactly what he said?
Jesus speaks here of gehenna, a place of burning, associated with the coming judgment against Jerusalem. For much of his ministry, especially as he made his way closer to Jerusalem, Jesus warns his people, warns whoever will listen, of that coming judgment, a judgment which will see the city of David reduced to rubble and which will scatter the faithful people of God. Like the prophet Jeremiah, who long before called the residents of Jerusalem surrounded by the armies of Babylon to surrender, to run, because defeat was imminent and only those who fled would save their lives, Jesus is also telling his disciples to flee. To run. To be nowhere near Jerusalem when the armies of Rome show up to take the city apart stone by stone.
Which they did.
And so while Jesus may very well mean what he says here literally, I think he is more saying — if something you do, or even something you are, keeps you so wrapped up in sin that you don’t have the strength, the courage, or even the awareness, to get ready and flee the coming judgment, then you need to do something drastic — cut off your own hand! — to refocus yourself and remind yourself of what’s important. And what’s coming. Because only those who pay attention, only those who stay awake, will save themselves.
Now, I’m not the kind of preacher who will tell you that judgement is coming for *us*, at least the kind of judgment that comes attached to Roman legions besieging and laying waste to the City of David. That’s not my gift. It may very well be coming, though after a lifetime of living with “rapture” and “second coming” warnings, I tend not to put much faith in such predictions. But we still may very well need to be alive, awake, and aware, and even ready to do something drastic to our own bodies in order to save our lives and our souls.
Because as Jesus tells his disciples a later in Mark’s gospel: “Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come.”
Even as Jesus warns us, he also tells us — do not be afraid. And in the midst of telling us today that we may need to hack bits of ourselves off to flee the coming judgement, he also says — be at peace with one another.
Be at peace with one another.
Again, this is no small reminder. At the beginning of this passage, some disciples led by John come Jesus bragging that “we saw someone casting out demons in your name but we tried to make stop because he was not one of us.” Something similar happens to Moses, when Joshua sees the two unapproved elders prophesying and demands of Moses, “Make them stop!”
Some group of people, not us, not approved, not part of the club or the team, are busy acting on behalf of God in ways they should not. I mean think of it — some other group of Jesus followers *we know nothing about!* Casting out demons. Who were they? What became of them?
See, we know what peace looks like. It’s a well ordered world. It’s a nicely structured church. It’s a neat and well-groomed family. It’s a place for everyone and everyone in their place. The disciples of Jesus see themselves as the proper collection of insiders, those who belong, who are all properly vetted and approved and licensed to do just the work they’ve been called to do. When we, who belong, are gathered together, well, that’s peaceful. It’s easy — well, okay, easier — to be at peace with each other when we all are part of the same team, the same club, the same group. And we’re all headed together in the same direction.
It’s a world in which no one has to flee anything, much less cut off their foot to save themselves.
But Jesus tells us to be at peace with each other in a messy, disordered, and violent world. One in which judgment is coming. One in which we might have to flee.
It’s the presence of Christ in our midst that makes this peace possible. Because he is peace, peace in a troubled, chaotic, violent world. He is hope in anxious and desperate world. He is life in a dead world. He can tell us, “be at peace with one another” not only because he has shown us us peace, but because he is peace. He shows us what it is to live abundantly in the face of death.
James, at the end of his letter, gives us some idea of what peace means for us. Forgive each other, confess our sins to each other, pray for another, anoint one another, and if someone has wandered away from the truth, bring them back. “Because whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins,” James writes.
And might even keep his sinful hand. Or eye.
That, brothers and sisters, is how we stay awake, and alert, and ready, not knowing the day or the hour of whatever judgment is be coming. We live in peace with each other, we pray for each other, we care for each other and lift each other up. We let God worry about the order of the world, we let others he has called do the work God has called them to — whatever it might be — we let the powers and principalities do what they will and we get down to the work we know we are called to do — to love God, to love each other, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
That, sisters and brothers, is what Jesus wants when he tells us, “Be at peace with one another.”
And I’m pretty sure that he really, really means it.