Stumbling into hell?

Demons and hell and self-mutilation, sprinkled with salt and unquenchable fire. Whoa!

Whatever happened to last Sunday’s Jesus? What happened to the gentle teacher who made it so easy to remember Mister Rogers? What happened to the nursery-painting-Jesus, the smiling man surrounded by the little children of the world, black and yellow, red and white?

This is no zero-calorie, honey-sweet Jesus who doesn’t offend anyone; this is holy fire and salt with a bite. This is Mark’s way of shaking us out of our unholy habit of making our own personal Jesus in the image of what we like to call our needs. This is Jesus pushing back against our desire to domesticate him to our own little world where we have prepared a place for him.

On the way to Jerusalem, on the way to the cross, the disciples had been arguing with one another who was the greatest. Jesus took a little child and put it among them, and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Without a doubt he surprised and confused them when he told them that the littlest ones, the ones without any power or status, are indeed the earthly embodiments of the great God of heaven who desires to be with us.

I wonder if Jesus was still holding the child in his arms when John responded, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

Jesus was speaking about welcoming little ones, but his disciples were concerned about what others were doing in his name. Ironic, isn’t it? Jesus urges us to learn to see the presence of God in the ones we so easily overlook, like the very child in his arms, but our eyes are busy watching the competition instead.

“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” Yes, you heard that right. Not ‘because he was not following you’ or ‘because he was not following with us.’ “We tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” Ironic, isn’t it? Jesus is teaching his followers to see the world through his eyes, but we are busy observing and judging the actions of others who don’t see things our way.

The greatest irony, however, may well be that only a few verses earlier in Mark, the disciples were unable to do anything when a father asked them to help his son who was being tormented by a demon. They couldn’t do anything, because they didn’t pray (Mark 9:14-29). But now, instead of celebrating that great works of healing and liberation in Jesus’ name were being done outside their circle, they intervened as if they had the exclusive copyright on Jesus’ name.

Lack of spiritual grounding, failure to bring about healing, lack of attention, obsession with status, and jealous protection of what we consider our turf – the emerging picture of Jesus’ followers is not very attractive. Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, and we claim to be following him, but Mark holds up a mirror and for a moment we realize that we are suffering from serious ADD. Our eyes are not on the one who is going ahead of us; our feet are not pointed in the direction he is going; and our hands are busy doing many things. We stumble over our attitudes, our priorities, our distractions, ourselves.

Mark confirms that stumbling is quite common among disciples, and to the degree that it puts an occasional dent in our pride, tripping over ourselves is perhaps even to be welcomed. But our lack of attention and our misdirected desires have consequences not just for us but also for others.

Just like the disciples were not able to cast out the demon from the boy because they were not rooted in prayer, we will not be able to do our part in God’s mission of healing, liberation, and wholeness unless we are spiritually rooted in the presence and power of Christ. We need to be grounded not just for our own well-being and wholeness, but for the sake of others, for the sake of the gospel and the world.

Just like John overlooked the child in Jesus’ arms because his attention was elsewhere, we will be blind to the presence of God in the powerless unless we have our eyes opened by the living Christ. We need to have our vision adjusted not just for own sake, but for the healing of the nations.

As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are to be fully engaged in God’s mission: our hands the hands of healing, our feet the feet of messengers of peace, our eyes the eyes of compassion, our lips the lips of truth. We bear the name of Christ in order that we might be conduits of God’s grace and mercy, and anything that blocks their flow must go.

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 go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.

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.

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.

I hear these terrifying words, and I don’t know what to make of them; their brutality shocks me, their violence disturbs me. My immediate reaction is silence. My inclination is to joke, “Now if your other hand causes you to stumble, you’ll find it difficult to cut it off since you have only that one hand left.” I want to joke and laugh to release some of the tension, yet at the same time I know that these words are no laughing matter.

Throughout history, people have been scapegoated and cut off from their communities for allegedly causing others to stumble. Heretics were cut off and burnt at the stake lest they cause the body of Christ to stumble. Dissenters were cut off and disappeared lest they cause chaos in the body politic. No, these words are no laughing matter.

I wonder if they are meant to shock us; because so much is at stake, and we don’t get it when Jesus tells us to stop obsessing about status and start paying attention to each other. Perhaps he speaks of decisive, violent action, because nothing else gets our attention.

I am reminded of a wolf who stepped into a trap and it snapped shut. For an entire day, she tried unsuccessfully to free herself, pulling and biting the chain, trying to pry open the steel jaws with her snout. The next day she bit off her own leg, leaving her foot in the trap. She was limping, but she was free, she was alive.

You know it’s not your foot that’s causing you to walk off the trail, literally or metaphorically. It’s not somebody’s hand that’s causing them to lash out and hurt their spouse or a child. It’s not my eye that’s causing me to ignore the needs of others or to see only what I want to see.

It is my lack of attention to the reign of God that’s causing me to stumble. It is my being absorbed with myself, my status, and my needs that’s pulling me off the way of Christ. Jesus says that this path of self-centeredness can only end in hell, and I believe him. I don’t believe, though, that hell is a place of God’s making. Hell is what happens to life when we have it our way.

The path to life requires that I let myself be transformed by the grace and mercy of God. It requires that I attend to and trust the voice and word of God, that I keep my eyes on Jesus and my hands ready to serve others. It requires that I don’t try to domesticate Jesus by showing him the place I have prepared for him in the house of my life. It requires that I follow him on the way until we get to the city where all are at home.

As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to be fully engaged in God’s mission with all our heart, and soul, and might. We bear the name of Christ in order that we might be conduits of God’s grace and mercy, and anything that blocks their flow must go.

The imagery of cutting limbs and gouging eyes is disturbing, but it reminds us that faith in Christ isn’t just a matter of the heart feeling strangely warmed by the touch of grace, and then seeking to repeat or prolong that feeling. The transformation of the self in the image of Christ includes the removal of all that hinders the flow of grace – walls of suspicion, boulders of pride, dams of greed – and removing those obstacles can be painful. Our spiritual formation as disciples of Jesus Christ is not just a matter of heart and mind, or of attitudes and opinions. Our hands and our actions must invite and proclaim the reign of God. Our feet must become familiar with the way of peace and the path of forgiveness. Our eyes must learn to completely follow the gaze of Christ, our ears to pay attention to the still, small voice, and our lips to be careful in what we say and sing.

When and how do we learn these things and develop these new familiarities? First and foremost in weekly worship, in the presence of the living Christ in the community of believers. Then in our daily attention to prayer and work.

In the end, it is not our willingness to go to violent extremes with ourselves or with others that allows us to enter life. It is God’s unwavering commitment to us and our redemption, and our willingness to allow God to do this work with us.

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