“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.’” — Mark 9:42
Christian unity was a particularly hot topic in the last half of the 20th century. The Roman Catholic changes brought about by Vatican II had a great deal to do with this. Most major Protestant denominations put together offices dedicated to ecumenical work. The rise of globalization in and through trade and technology helped to foster this. In the mainline Church world the World Council of Churches and National Council of Churches are expressions of this undercurrent. In the evangelical Church world the Lausanne movement was part of the expression of this idea. As the world has pulled back from unrestrained exuberance for globalization, the Church has also slowed its attempts at full integration. The modernist belief in powerful, centralized, unifying systems and bureaucracies has given way to a post-modernism that enjoys and celebrates distinctions within the diverse tapestry of life on our globe. This has been a healthy shift for the world and the Church. We have learned to work together in beautiful ways, and backed off of the attempts to create common expressions of belief that hide our natural distinctiveness. Not only has this been healthy, but I believe it is a move faithful to scripture too. In the first part of the reading today we learn about an episode when the disciples came upon someone who doesn’t normally hang out with them casting out demons in Jesus’ name. They are incensed, and they try to stop him. This is our first key. The disciples are trying to enforce a kind of unifying purity in the kingdom, but they are only able to try, not succeed. The kingdom of God is a messy thing to humanity. How can it possibly encompass this entire rabble of which we are a part? They bring their frustration to Jesus, and he has cautionary words for them. He points out that the outsiders are naturally working on their behalf by spreading the power of the name of Jesus. I find it particularly instructive that Jesus does not encourage the disciples to go back and invite these folks into their specific fellowship, and he does not encourage the disciples to go spend more time with these other exorcists. Valuing diversity within the Church means that we acknowledge the work of Jesus in the various expression of faith, join in when necessary and not restrict, but it doesn’t mean we should all become a monolithic structure.
The second part of our passage shows Jesus at one of his most hyperbolic moments. I do not think Jesus is calling us to actually mutilate our bodies (such a position would be at great odds with the care we are required to take for God’s creation and our understanding of our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit), but I think we are being reminded of the seriousness with which we are to take holiness. It should be an extreme concern for every Christian to avoid and turn from sin. Jesus takes it a step beyond and says that an even greater concern of every Christ follower should be avoiding causing others to sin. Did you notice the distinction between personal sin that could lead to maiming and causing others to sin that could lead to complete destruction?
There is a huge shift in verse 49. Up until this point in the reading fire has been bad, a characteristic of hell. Now fire has become a part of a good seasoning of a person. Many a song and story have been written about difficulty forming character. We even talk about being refined by God’s fire (from Isaiah to Zechariah to Malachi to 1 Peter). Jesus has just invited the disciples to purge themselves of sin and live lives of holiness. He explains that this will be hard, like taking a bit of fire upon themselves, but it will ultimately be to their benefit, for they will then be salty/good. The neat thing about salty Christ followers is that by virtue of their holiness they are able to live at peace with others. As we live out lives of personal and social holiness, we begin to find a kind of Christian unity that truly enables us to receive the cup from others (verse 41).