“Stumbling Blocks or Salty?” by David Lloyd

September 26, 2021

If you are a visitor or new to worshipping with us, on the third Sunday in October, everyone – people who’ve started worshipping with us since this time last year, those who have worshipped here for years, our children, and our youth — will be invited to say the words of the appropriate commitment statement aloud and to have their name recorded in our membership book. I hope you are using the questions that Celebration Circle sent out by email to help you prepare for Recommitment Sunday. If you haven’t received these, put a message in the chat box to Brenda Seat.

I think Mark’s gospel may give us some other things to reflect upon. Today’s passage is linked to previous events, so rather than consider today’s verses in isolation, I want to summarize what occurred, including some portions that were omitted by the lectionary. Our starting point is that Jesus summoned five men – Simon (Peter), Andrew, James, John, and Levi – to leave their occupations and follow him. As he began preaching and healing people began following him. Early in his ministry along the Sea of Galilee, there were so many people who wanted to be healed that he asked the disciples to get a fishing boat ready so that he could preach from it. When he decided to go up a mountain for a retreat of prayer, he picked eight of his male followers to join the original four as his companions, this time leaving out Levi, the tax collector. We know them as the Twelve. In Mark’s gospel, they didn’t make any explicit statement of commitment. First thing to reflect upon: they didn’t commit to a community, they just obeyed Jesus’ call.

The ninth chapter of Mark’s gospel begins with Jesus leading Peter, James, and John up a mountain, where they saw him talking with the two greatest figures of Judaism: Moses and Elijah. They heard God’s voice, “This is my Beloved, my Own; listen to this One.” And then they were alone there with Jesus. As he led the three of them down the mountain, I can imagine their awe at their experience and their growing excitement as they began to realize that Jesus was not just a gifted healer and teacher, but the Son of God, the Messiah! Having implicitly committed to be his disciples, they’re special too! Second thing to reflect upon: commitment can bring increased faith but it can also bring unwarranted feelings of pride.

As they were about to join the other disciples, they encountered a crowd arguing with religious scholars. A man called to Jesus, saying, “A silent spirit has possessed my child and throws him into convulsions. (We would assume the boy has epilepsy.) I asked your disciples to exorcise the demon but they couldn’t.” Jesus said to his disciples who had remained below – I am sure in exasperation – “What a bunch of unbelievers! How long do I have to put up with you?” The father begged, “If you can do anything, have pity on us and help us!” Jesus mocked him indignantly, “’If you can?’ Everything is possible to those who believe.” The father replied, “I do believe. Help my unbelief,” and then Jesus expelled the evil spirit. His crestfallen disciples privately asked him, “ Why couldn’t we do that?” Jesus replied, “This kind can’t be driven out at all – except through prayer.” How humbling a moment that was for them! Third thing to reflect upon: commitment should stimulate more humility and prayer.

In last week’s passage Jesus then led his disciples through Galilee without wanting anyone else to know where they were because he was teaching them, the hardest thing being that he was going to be handed over to his enemies, killed, and after three days would rise back to life. They didn’t understand what he meant. And they were afraid to ask. Fourth thing to reflect upon: commitment doesn’t automatically confer understanding of the Christian life or dispel our fears, as Elizabeth Gelfeld helped us see so well last week.

Jesus’ message didn’t fit with their preconceived image they had of the Messiah. I suspect they were all mulling over what Peter, James, and John had told them about the Transfiguration – you don’t really think the three of them could keep that to themselves, despite what Jesus told them, do you? — and what it would mean for them: no more hard work as fishermen or laborers or struggling to find food and shelter as they walked with Jesus. Now they would be in positions of power alongside the Messiah.  It would be glory days for them!

Not surprisingly, they had begun arguing with each other over who was the greatest disciple. Can’t you just see Peter or James or John saying rather smugly, “Well, Jesus took me up to the mountain top and not you!” I suspect that each disciple believed himself to be more worthy of honors than his fellow disciple, that each would claim to be more committed to Jesus than the others, and was stating exactly what he had said or done to prove how much more committed he was than they were. Fifth thing to reflect upon: commitment doesn’t mean that dissension, conflict, jealousy, and pain won’t occur within the beloved community. For those of you who are new to Seekers, sometimes we too have had dissension, conflict and pain.

When they reached Capernaum they entered a house and Jesus asked them what they’d been arguing about during their trek. They kept quiet, ashamed. But Jesus had heard them, and rebuked them, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” And then he took a child and placed it among them and into his arms, saying, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name) welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me doesn’t welcome me but the one who sent me.”

In biblical times, in poor families a young child performed a servant’s tasks when a visitor came. The child would have washed the guest’s feet and given the guest a cup of water, would have helped serve the meal, but would not have been invited to join the meal. Jesus was saying, “You want to see an example of someone who is of low social status, who is powerless, who is the last in line? Look at this child!” The disciples must have been thinking, “Huh? A child can’t be a guest. How can a child – the last – become first? A young child can’t follow Jesus like we can.”

The ritual of welcoming a guest involved a mutual upgrading of social status. The host’s social status increased: “My guest can see that my household knows how to welcome someone properly.” And being welcomed properly enhanced the guest’s social status: “My host did for me what he would do for an honored guest.” When the gospels relate how people welcomed Jesus into their home there is an implicit, or occasionally explicit, message: “I welcomed Jesus, who’s a famous healer and one who can match the Pharisees in debates on the Torah, into my home! And my welcome makes Jesus socially respectable. I am worthy of respect and now so is Jesus.” But in the unlikely event that a child could be a guest, the child had no social status to reciprocate to the host. I suspect the disciples were thinking, “A person who welcomes a child in Jesus’ name can’t become worthy just by doing that. And how can the person be worthy if they’re not one of us? We’ve given up everything to follow him, we’re the committed ones! We’re the worthy ones!” To the disciples Jesus’ words must have been confusing and hurtful as he burst their bubbles of pride. Sixth thing to reflect upon: it is our actions toward those with the least power and social status, not our commitment, that matter. As these events make clear, Mark’s theme is that Jesus’ disciples never quite fully understood Jesus’ messianic message, whether he explicitly taught them, told parables, or worked signs and wonders.

In today’s passage, which begins with the very next verse, John informed Jesus in front of the rest of the disciples that someone who was not a disciple, not “one of us,” had been curing people of evil spirits in Jesus’ name, “so we told him to stop.” Why did John say this? Did he do it confessionally, feeling ashamed that they had stopped a person of faith from healing when they themselves lacked sufficient faith and prayer to be able to expel the evil spirit from the boy? I’ve discussed this possibility with Sharon and she thinks that this was John’s reason.

I disagree. I believe that John said this without irony, totally tone deaf, as if he hadn’t heard what Jesus had just said. John and the other disciples had seen the Pharisees claim the role of faithful pious Jews who followed all the religious commandments – “the righteous” — distinguishing themselves as from those that wouldn’t or couldn’t follow the commandments. John doesn’t seem to understand that the disciples had done the same thing, dividing their fellow Jews into the “in” group who gave up everything to follow Jesus and the “out” group, everyone else. After the Transfiguration, the disciples knew they’d be coming into their glory with Jesus as the Messiah. How dare someone who hadn’t received all of Jesus’ teaching, who hadn’t had their challenging experiences with Jesus on the road, use Jesus’ name to heal someone. Was this other healer trying to steal their glory, their reward? Seventh thing to reflect upon: commitment might lead us to unconsciously drawing lines between our in-group and everyone else.

Jesus responded to John by expanding their circle, “Don’t stop people who perform miracles in my name. Anyone who isn’t against us is with us.” (The disciples had seen his encounters with the scribes and Pharisees enough times to know who his enemies were.) But then Jesus continued: “Anyone who welcomes YOU, who gives YOU a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah, won’t lose their reward.” He was saying, “Guys, such a person has more faith than you do. You’re the servants. You’re the powerless children. You’re the ones with no social status. Accept it.”

John had made the disciples’ commitment to Jesus a stumbling block to others but Jesus wouldn’t allow that. Jesus went on to say that if his disciples hinder those who believe in him, it is better for them if someone put a millstone around their neck, threw them in the sea, and they drowned. Their pride in their commitment, their sense of exclusiveness, were also creating stumbling blocks for themselves. If their hand or foot or eye caused them to stumble so that they did not love God totally AND their neighbor as themselves, it was better for them to be maimed or drowned.

I still remember a preacher from college saying that instead of wearing crosses, we should have an arm amputated as a symbol that we had given it for Christ! When Sharon and I first came to the Church of the Saviour in 1971, on Recommitment Sunday no less, I was young, full of Christian zeal, and felt a costly commitment was the kind of commitment to God I could make and should make, so it is understandable that I was attracted to a congregation where the vast majority stood up to recite a membership commitment that included the statement, “I unreservedly and with abandon commit my life and destiny to Christ.” That was a powerful moment. There were a number of people in the Church of the Saviour who had made costly commitments, and it was and is appropriate to honor them for it. Unfortunately, over the years I have thought a costly commitment to God was the only kind of commitment everyone could make and should make.

I like being challenged to live up to my commitment as a Steward, and to the disciplines of the Learners and Teachers mission group, even though I sometimes – frequently – fail to live up to them. But I have made the act of commitment into an idol, have been guilty of the sin of pride, unconsciously believing that those who make the Stewards’ commitment are somehow more worthy than those who make the members’ commitment and those who make the members’ commitment or more worthy than those who don’t. In truth, I’m no better than the disciple John. How have I not understood that each of us exercises the gifts we have been given in the best way we can and makes the best commitment we can in our circumstances? Why has it taken me so long to understand that loving in the Jesus way includes acceptance and forgiveness? Have I been so rigid about commitment that I have been a stumbling block to others’ faith, a stumbling block to you, my brothers and sisters? I know to my shame that the answer is yes. Eighth thing to reflect upon: our commitment can create stumbling blocks for others and for ourselves.

Jesus finished by reminding the disciples to be salty with each other. Salt is necessary for the body to stay healthy, and when we rub meat and fish with salt we preserve them for later consumption. In biblical times, eating salt with someone bound you together in loyalty. Roman soldiers were paid in part with salt; our word “salary” comes from the Latin “sal” for salt. Jesus was reminding his disciples to be life giving and life enhancing, not stumbling blocks, to each other and to others.

How can we be salty? By being inclusive, constantly widening our circle. By being humble, ready to ask for forgiveness and ready to offer it. By engaging in prayer, especially confessional prayer, regularly. By accepting each other as we are. By loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Let us pray that as we make our commitments next month that we vow to be salty, not stumbling blocks. Amen.

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