Mark 9:38-50

Sun, 27/09/2009 - 09:30 -- James Oakley

With great delight we have just baptised three small children. We have just welcomed three new members into our church. That makes this a good Sunday to think about our relationships with one another. How should we, who are in this church, relate to one another? What should characterise our relationships.

As is often the case, we need to avoid the extremes. Jesus gives us two warnings in the verses we had read; he gives us two extremes to avoid. The first warning he gives us is against cliquishness. We must not be a narrow, inward looking clique. And the second warning he gives us is against thinking that sin does not matter. We must not think that it does not matter how we live our lives. It will become clear how those are two extremes as we go, but let’s look at these two poles that Jesus is asking us to steer a path between.

No time for cliques in our church, but welcome Jesus’ followers

Here’s the first part of it. Jesus says there must be no time for cliques in our church, but welcome Jesus’ followers. No time for cliques in our church, but welcome Jesus’ followers.

The conversation starts with John reporting back to Jesus an incident when they encountered an exorcist. There are several incidents recorded for us when Jesus drives an evil spirit out of somebody. Today, in the West, we are not used to encountering evil spirits like this, so we find those stories a little hard to relate to and possibly a little unnerving. The significant thing about this incident, though, was that it was not Jesus who had successfully driven out an evil spirit, and neither was it one Jesus’ group of 12 closest followers. It was somebody altogether different.

So John reports that they tried to stop this individual from what they were doing. The thing was, though, that this man was driving out evil spirits in Jesus’ name. That’s to say: He recognised that Jesus had power to control evil spirits; he did not presume to tell these evil spirits to leave on his own authority; he chose to use Jesus’ power to drive these spirits out. And so Jesus tells John to leave alone. If this man is doing what he’s doing to honour Jesus, out of respect for Jesus, recognising the power of Jesus, then that’s good enough for Jesus.

So John gets a ticking off. He’s told off for writing this man off just because he’s not one of their little group. He was a follower of Jesus, but not one of the elite group of 12. For John, the fact he was not “one of them” was reason enough to write him off. For Jesus, the fact he was following him was reason enough to include him.

The telltale phrase is in verse 38, where John explains why he wanted this man stopped. He had to be stopped because he “was not following us”. That’s an interesting way for John to put it. Mark loves using the verb “follow” in his gospel; he uses it 18 times in his short book. It’s how he talks about being a Christian; it’s about being a “follower”. Mark wants us to be a follower of Jesus. Whereas John writes this man off on the grounds he wasn’t “following us”.

That’s why I say that this is a warning not to be cliquish. Jesus is warning us not to insist that people are part of “our little group” to be acceptable to us as his followers. When we meet someone who claims to be living and working in Jesus’ name, we should give them the benefit of the doubt until and unless it becomes clear that they are doing no such thing.

It reminds me of the story in the news this week of a man I feel very sorry for. His name is Gordon Taylor, and he lives on the Isle of Wight. He wanted to marry a lovely young lady, but it just happened that her father was a dentist. His future father-in-law insisted that he had fillings and cosmetic surgery performed before he would lead his daughter down the aisle to marry him. I’m sure that only half the story made it into the news, but it seems that loving his daughter should be enough. Instead, he had to fit in all kinds of other ways.

So it is that Jesus asks us not be a clique, but to welcome other followers of his.

I find that it is the easiest thing in the world to do the opposite. It is so easy to be suspicious of those who aren’t quite “like us”. So it is that churches all too easily have invisible walls within them. Walls between those who like different styles of music, those in a different age-bracket, those who have a different kind of occupation, those with different social circles. John felt it was inappropriate when someone who wasn’t quite in their group was the one doing the miracles. And how easy it would be for us today to feel slightly uneasy if someone who’s not quite from our group is the one who is to be found where the action is.

So Jesus wants these attitudes to break down amongst us. He wants us to welcome other people because they are followers of his, not because they are our kind of followers of his. That’s the first extreme to avoid: No time for cliques in our church, but let’s welcome Jesus’ followers.

No time for sin in our lives, and don’t lead others astray

Jesus also warns us of an equally serious, and in some ways an opposite, error. He says we are to have no time for sin in our lives, and don’t lead others astray. No time for sin in our lives, and don’t lead others astray.

Jesus moves on in verse 42. He’s been saying how important it is that we look after and welcome one another. That’s the positive side of treating each other as his followers. The negative side is that we don’t lead a fellow disciple into sin.

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin”. That word sin literally means “stumble”. Whoever leads another Christian, however small or insignificant we may think them to be, to trip up and fall over. That covers individual sins – things that do not please God that we might lead them to do. It also covers the general drift when somebody stops trusting in Jesus and stops caring what he thinks about life.

Jesus says that there is nothing more serious than leading somebody else: either into some specific sin, or into abandoning their discipleship of Jesus altogether.

Can you see, now, why this is the opposite error of failing to welcome someone as a disciple. We should be welcoming as a church, but to be so accepting of others who follow Jesus that we accept their sin is not a good thing. It is actually a very unwelcoming thing to do.

At this point, Jesus brings us back from the speck in our brother’s eye to the log in our own. He only spends one verse talking about the dangers of leading others into sin; he spends 4 or 6 verses on the dangers of sin for ourselves. He tells us to get our own house in order first of all. Jesus tells us how important it is that we deal ruthlessly with our own sin.

And he does it by talking about body-parts. Body-parts that symbolise the actions they perform. He’s not saying we should amputate our limbs, but he is saying in no uncertain terms just how seriously we should deal with those things in our lives that cause us to sin. So if our hand causes us to sin, we should cut it off. Deal with the hand that reaches out to take things it should not. If it is our foot that causes us to sin, we should cut if off. Deal with the foot that wants to go places it should not. And if our eye causes us to sin, we should gouge it out. Deal with the eye that looks at things and desires things that it should not.

In a moment, I’ll suggest some examples. But for now it is more important that we hear the overall point Jesus is making. Sin matters. Sin matters very much because sin leads people to hell. So Jesus tells us we are not to put up with it. We are to have no time for it. We are to flee from it, and to get as far away from sin as we can.

The fictitious story is told of a rich lady who needed to employ a new chauffeur. She advertised, short-listed and finally called 4 of the applicants for a test-drive. She got in the back, and she asked them to drive along the grassy field above the white cliffs of Dover as fast as they could and as close to the edge as they could take her. Time to test their skill.

In got the first driver, and drove at a fair speed about 10 yards from the edge of the cliffs. The view was amazing. The second driver thought he ought to be able to beat this without too much problem, so he put his foot down, a cloud of dust shot out behind the car, and he took her just a yard away from the edge. The third driver knew he had a challenge on, but he was confident of his ability; he took the car at 65 miles per hour just one foot away from the edge. The crowds gasped. He was pretty confident he would get the job, but everybody knew there was still one more driver. The fourth driver got in, and took the car at 25 miles per hour a full 50 yards from the edge. The third driver breathed a say of relief!

But the lady gave the job to that fourth driver. She said, “I don’t want a driver who will dice with death and take me as close to the edge as he can. I want a driver who will keep me safe, who will stay away from the edge.”

And Jesus says to us: Be Christians who stay away from the edge.

Again, I find it is the easiest thing in the world to do the opposite. So easy to think that sin does not matter. To assume we’ll be able to pull out. To assume that it’s not actually that serious if we succumb. So we go as close as we can to sin without crossing the line. But Jesus says that sin is not to be diced with. It’s to be avoided like the plague. That applies as much to specific sins as it applies to the general sin of wandering away from him.

So, to think of specific sins, what does it mean to amputate the limb that is at fault?

If watching particular programmes or channels on TV leads you to sin, find the remote and turn off. Or sell the telly and cancel the license. If having internet access leads you to sin, disconnect. If the particular job you have makes avoiding sin difficult, change job. If you find you do things that don’t honour God when you drink alcohol, or that one drink always turns into one too many, stay on soft drinks. And if all of that sounds a little too radical, that is precisely Jesus’ point: Sin is serious, and no steps we might take to avoid sin are disproportionate.

It’s like I say, we must have no time for sin in our lives, and don’t lead others astray either.

Conclusion: Follow Christ and let him take your sin away

So, those are the two extremes Jesus wants to tell us about. We must have no time for cliques in our church, and welcome Jesus’ followers. And we must have no time for sin in our lives, and not lead other astray either.

So what’s the answer? How are we to keep this right attitude to our sin and to one another?

The key is to recognise that sin does not ultimately come from our hand or our foot or our eye. We thought about this a few weeks’ back in chapter 7. Sin comes from our hearts. We don’t need a leg amputating, we need a new heart! And a new heart is precisely what Jesus promises to all who follow him. That new heart gives us the ability to change, to say no to sin and yes to Jesus. That new heart entails full and free forgiveness for the past as well.

And once we’ve received a new heart from Jesus, we’ll be totally ruthless with the sin we find recurring in our hearts. We’ll be gentle and patient with others when they let us down, and we would certainly not lead them into more sin. And we’ll welcome others, whether they fit our “type” or not, because knowing that we are all forgiven sinners totally levels the playing field

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