“Defying the Lines”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
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.” (NRSV)
One of the painful realities about living in human community is that at some point, each of us is going to feel left out. Some feel it first at home—thus terms like “black sheep” and “red-headed stepchild.” Virtually everyone feels it during school—especially middle or high school. Some never suffer that loneliness as acutely as others, but feeling pushed to the edge is a universal experience. And no matter where one feels it, the message is pretty much the same: “Go away. You’re not one of us.” And oh, how that hurts!
Among the sins of the church, and perhaps chief among them, is its blatant, and often willful, marginalizing of certain human beings. There’s no use denying it, especially in a culture still suffering the effects of human slavery. We say that all are welcome. And perhaps all are welcome—to visit. But are all people truly welcome in the church? In this church?
Even Jesus’ own disciples draw lines. They boast to Jesus that they muzzled someone who had been casting out demons in Jesus’ name because, they said, He wasn’t one of us.
Jesus is not impressed. What? You stopped someone from healing people in my name—because he wasn’t one of you?
Don’t do that again, says Jesus. If folks are helping others in my name, even if they don’t really know me or care much about me, leave them be. There’s no ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Anyone who truly cares for others is one of us.
The presence of God and of God’s eternal Christ is not limited to professing Christians. If we think we can lay that kind of claim to God, then we’re declaring that God is small enough to fit into our minds, our doctrines, our imaginations. In John, when Nicodemus struggles with the same need for control, Jesus tells him, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” (John 3:8) God is Creative Love and Redemptive Justice on the deepest, broadest, and most incomprehensibly gracious scale. And it’s a sad irony that Jesus’ disciples—ancient and modern—often have the most trouble understanding and accepting that.
Apparently feeling the need to get his disciples’ attention, Jesus launches into a stomach-turning tirade. If you become a stumbling block to others, he says, tie that block around your neck and throw yourself into the sea. If your hand or foot causes you to sin, rip it off. If your eye causes you to sin, yank it out.
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God?
In three months, we’re going to get all sentimental and glassy-eyed about the birth of gentle Jesus meek and mild. And here he’s telling us to mutilate ourselves when we’re unfaithful!
A group of us are reading Richard Rohr’s book, The Universal Christ. And last Monday night we discussed the chapter on the Lord’s Supper. In that chapter Rohr makes a distinction between ceremonies and rituals. “Ceremonies,” says Rohr, “normally confirm and celebrate the status quo and deny the shadow side of things.”1 That is to say, they artificially comfort and validate us. They make us feel right enough in and of ourselves to draw lines that define who’s in and who’s out. In contrast, says Rohr, a “true ritual offers an alternative universe.”2 And that is to say, it transforms us. It gives us new hands, feet, and eyes with which to experience and engage the world.
Rituals have to jolt us, though. They have to shake us up so that we canimagine God differently, and so that we can understand that the possibilities for us far exceed our comfortable but rather inert symbols. Think about it: We’ve not only ceremonialized the images of cross, body, and blood, we have domesticated them into jewelry and tableware engraved with the names of donors. But those same images shocked and offended first-century Jews. Implying uncleanness, they defied the well-defined lines of the Law.
The sacramental images of eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ should unsettle us and make us think. And we tame them when we think only about Jesus “dying for my sins.” When we lift that cup to our lips, though, we are defying lines. We are, says Rohr, acknowledging that all blood that is spilled unjustly is Jesus’ blood.3 The disrupting image of the Eucharist calls us to see Christ’s body and blood in all suffering. We, then, commit to the cause of Creative Love and Redemptive Justice, those gracious new hands, feet, and eyes that have replaced the selfish ones Jesus dares us to get rid of.
Maybe it helps to read Mark 9 in light of Jesus saying things like let whoever is without sin throw the first stone, and take the log out of your own eye so you can see the speck in your neighbor’s eye. (John 8:7 and Mt. 7:8) In that context, we hear Jesus challenging our rampant theological, social, and political polarization. And honestly, when I’m talking with someone, especially these days, I often catch myself trying to sniff out the things that not only distinguish me from them, but the things which I think grant me a right to judge. If I were to take Jesus’ teaching literally, I should be nothing but a torso tied to a millstone lying at the bottom of the sea.
Following Jesus gives no one authority to judge. Indeed, it calls us to demonstrate the grace and forgiveness that we can access only by the grace and forgiveness of God.
That grace, that forgiveness is the salt of which Jesus speaks. What is saltyabout true disciples is their willingness to live as signs of God’s kingdom on earth. And Christ-like saltiness is costly seasoning. Discipleship is not about engaging the world as ones who enjoy heroic certainty and authority. It’s about loving freely and serving vulnerably as Christ loves and serves.
This week I came across a quotation by tennis great Arthur Ashe, who was known for his bold advocacy on behalf of those in need. “True heroism,” said Ashe, “is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but to serve others at whatever cost.”4
The heroism of discipleship doesn’t conquer the world. It transforms the world. It heals the world. It salts the world with grace. Autocrats and despots will always wage their wars. They will always draw lines and divide people with fear and hate. Nonetheless, God’s eternal and universal Christ is always padding around the edges, sowing seeds in good soil, kneading in yeast, sprinkling salt, and evoking acts of radical hospitality and non-violent justice by true disciples—whoever they may be.
The job description of the Christ includes defying the lines established by kings, nations, and even religions. And inasmuch as we follow Jesus in defying those lines—in doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God—we will experience “peace with one another.” For we discover the peace of which Jesus speaks when we recognize the deep interdependence within the Creation, and when we embrace one another as fellow laborers in the fields of God’s kingdom.
Indeed, how can we labor effectively (much less enjoyably!) without the peace created by welcoming ALL people—family, friend, enemy, and stranger?
1Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe. Convergent Books, NY, 2019. p. 133.
3Ibid. p. 134