Scripture Readings: Esther 7:1–6, 9–10, 9:20–22 | Psalm 124 | James 5:13–20 | Mark 9:38–50
“…be at peace with one another.” (Mark 9:50b)
This is certainly a word from the LORD for our day, isn’t it?
This last week, here in New Brunswick we’ve had another COVID change of plans: due to rising cases, new restrictions and emergency measures have been enacted in order to slow down the spread of the virus again, and protect our communities. Mandatory masks are back, and vaccine passports are everywhere… all with the intention of preserving life.
But as we’ve known for some time now, not everyone’s on board with how our Province or Country has handled the COVID-19 restrictions so far. Some see them as being far too lax, and others argue their far too strict… and these conflicting views and tensions have turned lots of people against their neighbours… undermining our sense of unity and co-operation just when we need it most to face the external threat of this dangerous virus. Instead of fighting this common foe, we turn and fight each other.
This isn’t the vision or mission that God has entrusted to the Church, though we Christians have certainly played our part in making a mess of things too. From the very beginning, God had created humanity for something more… for true fellowship both with Him and with one another. As those who trust in Jesus Christ, God’s Son, the Church is meant to be a tangible community, experiencing in Christ what it means to be the family of God, and inviting all those around us to share in this New Life as well… through the Holy Spirit to do our part to make God’s Kingdom not only a future vision to hope for, but a present, life-giving reality.
There are all kinds of threats to this mission though. Some external, some internal. In our reading from Esther this morning, we heard about one of the obvious ones: when people like Haman are actively seeking, for a whole host of reasons, to undermine, attack, and eradicate God’s people, attempting to end our existence.
I say ‘our’, not because I have had to face this kind of persecution personally… but because there are many of our Christian sisters and brothers around the world who have, and who continue to, even today. As uncomfortable as we Western Christians may find it now, living in a largely secular society after centuries of wider cultural influence, I find it very hard to compare this sense of unease with the actual life-and-death danger that many Christians are still facing in other parts of the world. As co-members of the body of Christ, we often need to be reminded to pray for the protection, perseverance, and peace of our fellow believers… and not to pretend that when we can’t simply do things the way we want to that we’re being persecuted. Life is full of challenges, not all of them amount to an attack.
In Esther’s case, however, we find a very real threat to God’s people… to the Jews living in exile under the Persian Empire… the ancient superpower that had overthrown Babylon not long before. Because of a grudge against Mordecai, the cousin of Queen Esther, Haman, a powerful political leader, planned to have all the Jews executed. As the story unfolds, Esther bravely puts her own life on the line on behalf of her people to expose Haman’s schemes to the King. And because of her actions, the King spares her people, and puts Haman to death instead. Through much of the book, God’s people were living under the threat of death, in the end this threat is defeated, and the life of their community is saved. Esther is a book of hope for those who seem to be powerless, inspiring them to trust in God, and try to do what is right.
This is an example of an obvious external threat, but what about internal ones? In our reading today from the Gospel of Mark, our Lord Jesus exposes two serious threats working within the Church to undermine and compromise God’s purposes: the dangers of divisiveness… and indulgence.
By divisiveness, I mean the impulse to turn our backs on others. To turn against those we disagree with, and see them as the enemy… assuming we are the righteous ones, with no need for ties to those others who believe and behave differently. For example: not too long ago, most Christian denominations had little to do with each other. We saw our differences as deeper than what we held in common. Even now, there are many Christians today who are deeply suspicious of their brothers and sisters in Christ who come from different backgrounds, or who’s walk of faith seems strange. I’m not trying to deny that there are real differences, between Christian groups… even significant ones… I’m just pointing out a pattern at work that all too often drives us further apart… undermining God’s purpose to draw us all to Himself, and to each other.
Obviously, we Christians aren’t the only ones who’ve embraced divisiveness… continually looking at all of life through the bitter lens of “us vs. them”. This threat is at work at all levels of human society… undermining any attempt at working towards unity… causing unending conflict through hard-heartedness.
The second threat, indulgence, goes to the other extreme, sacrificing all other commitments in order to “play nice”. On the surface at least indulgence seems like a much more positive and welcoming option, eager to downplay our differences for the sake of unity. But unity at all costs has a dangerous shadow side as well… providing protection for all sorts of destructive forces at work in our midst. We can see indulgence when serious sin and abuses covered up, sometimes in the name of protecting a community’s reputation… or when the vision God gives of human flourishing is traded in for an attitude of “anything goes”… even if that means endorsing ways of life that are deeply destructive.
This threat is also at work, not just in the Church, but all over our world… it’s the threat of corruption… of loosing integrity by not upholding vital commitments… promising peace and life, while actually leading towards death.
And here’s the crazy thing about divisiveness and indulgence: they seem like opposites, but they lead us to the same result… towards the spiritual death for any community. They are two sides of the same coin… two different but deeply related dangers. Our response is not about choosing one side or the other… we need to exchange this whole deadly coin for something else. Something that actually brings us the New Life God has in store for us.
In our passage today, our Lord first addresses the threat of divisiveness when His disciples tell Him they shut down someone who was ministering in Jesus’ name, not because they were doing something wrong, but because, in the disciples’ words: “he was not following us.” (Mark 9:38). These words set off the response that we heard Jesus give this morning, one which is concerned, from first to last, with the life of their growing community.
“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. Whoever is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9:39-40). Christ reminds His disciples that God’s mission is not about their egos… or about their need to make sure everyone was following their lead. God’s mission was bigger than them, just as it’s bigger than us too. We’re all drawn in by grace to take part in it, but we’re just one part of a greater whole… united by Christ and what He has done, and what He is still doing through the Spirit to bring in God’s kingdom. Their impulse to shut others down was not in line with the work they had been called to do. For one moment, can you imagine what it might look like today if instead of shutting each other down, Christians all actually worked together to make God’s good Kingdom known? What would happen if we listened to Christ’s command to strive to truly “be at peace with one another”? Probably much more than we could ask or imagine.
But our Lord doesn’t linger on the danger of divisiveness… Jesus quickly turns to address the threat of indulging sin… and of being the cause of others within God’s family to fall. “If any of you” He says to His followers, “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.” This is serious business. Far from ‘anything goes’, Christ seems incredibly invested in the fate of His “little ones”, and our fate as well.
To drive home the point that we need to take the dangers of indulgence and sin seriously, Christ uses some violent imagery to communicate how high the stakes really are: if our hand, or foot, or eye causes us to sin, cut it off, pluck it out… “it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands [or feet, or eyes] and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.” (Mark 9:43). Jesus is clearly calling for drastic measures in dealing with the things that drag us towards destruction. When He says we must cut off our hand or foot, or pluck out our eyes if they cause us to sin, we know that simply removing body parts may make it harder to act on our impulses, but it won’t do much to touch the root of our sin problems… our hearts.
Jesus is using these vivid and visceral images to stress how damaging sin can be, both in our own individual lives, and in our communities… both secret and systemic sins… and how important it is that we do not indulge them, but deal with them. Christ calls us as His people to cut off all that keeps us from sharing in God’s New Life.
Because ultimately, that’s what Christ’s mission and God’s Kingdom is all about: reuniting humanity and the Living God, which neither divisiveness or indulgence can lead us towards. Instead of this deadly coin Christ offers us another precious treasure that holds together the need to separate from sin, and the need to join together. The gift of God’s holy love.
Holy love leaves no room for indulgence of sin, but inspires devotion to what is right in the eyes of God.
It also fights against divisiveness that sets ourselves against other people, instead it drives us to do all that we can to share God’s New Life with them as well.
Holy love does not err on the side of strictness that fractures communities, and it does not err on the side of laxness that lets dangerous forces run amok.
St. James reminds us what this Holy Love looks like in community: It looks like praying for one another. Not hiding our sins, but confessing them, forgiving them, and dealing with them together, so that it can’t drag us down… remembering the One who laid His own life on the line once and for all at the cross, not just to forgive us, but those people we’re tempted to think are our enemies too.
In Christ Jesus, God has embraced us in holy love. Not cutting us off for our failures and sins, but reaching out to us in mercy. Not leaving us captive to our destructive desires, but welcoming us to walk with Him in righteousness and peace for all eternity. So with the Spirit’s help, may we cut off the impulses of divisiveness, and indulgence, and instead be led and transformed by the life-giving power of God’s holy love… so that we can share His holy love with our hurting world. Amen.