Mark 9:38-50 is all about how we treat those who belong to Jesus. Jesus’ teaching begins when his disciples observe a person – outside their own group – doing something powerful in Jesus’ name. This person is successful – causing healing for some people previously agonized by demons. But the disciples report that they tried to stop this person – because he wasn’t in the close-knit group of those following Jesus as his students.
Once Again, The Disciples Don’t Get It
The disciples were worried about who was in and who was out, who belonged and who didn’t. They were more concerned about whether these miraculous acts were being done in the proper way than they were about the actual healing done in the name of Jesus.
It’s interesting to note that prior to this conversation, the disciples themselves had been unable to cast out an evil spirit. Maybe that’s part of the trouble with their attitude here. Instead of approaching this healer in gratitude and celebration because people were made well — instead of seeing this as a sign that this tiny kingdom-of-God-movement was growing in a positive way –— this little band of disciples tried to stop to this guy from performing other miracles because he has used Jesus’ name without permission. Once again, Jesus’ disciples don’t seem to get it.
In response to them, Jesus teaches, “Whoever is not against us – is for us”. Then he exaggerates two scenarios and gives us, his current disciples, a choice. We can either be stumbling block disciples or we can be a cup of water disciples. Which will it be?
We can either be disciples who point fingers and set up scenarios where the Christian faith needs to be practiced through some narrow way of exact standards that we create for ourselves and others to try navigate. Or we can be disciples who walk in the way of generosity and reward, with ridiculously simple standards, knowing that Jesus’ grace leads the way.
Stumbling Blocks vs. Cups of Water
Are we stumbling block disciples or cup of water disciples? One way leads to millstones and self-amputation. The other way leads to rewarding witness and belonging. A big contrast!
We can spend our discipleship being unreasonably hard on ourselves and others, setting up stumbling blocks like hurdles on a race track – to judge who makes it over those hurdles and who trips up on them. In this extreme, Jesus says, if you are going to go that route – it would be better for you to cut off your own limbs or have a millstone put around your neck, so you could be drowned at the bottom of the sea. Because when faith is about setting standards so enormous as to demand people live perfect lives, then you’ll have to incapacitate yourself and likely won’t survive, because it’s impossible to live in such a way.
“We can spend our discipleship valuing the generosity of Christ’s love. We can receive it for ourselves like a cup of water which refreshes and revives us.”
On the other hand, we can spend our discipleship valuing the generosity of Christ’s love. We can receive it for ourselves like a cup of water which refreshes and revives us. If we see ourselves along this discipleship route, when we sin, or fall short and grow thirsty, we trust that God in Christ Jesus loves us, forgives us, and generously doesn’t punish us -but rather restores our souls. Having received Christ’s generosity in our own lives, we can offer that generosity joyfully to others. And that generosity is again, ridiculously simple to share. Like a cup of water.
Consider this example. Two weeks ago, I taught a baptism class for church families preparing to have a child baptized. 11-year-old Amy (not her real name) sat in on the class with her parents – because Amy herself wants to be baptized. She was a refreshing cup of cold water in our baptism class alongside several other couples who had infants with them.
11-year-old Amy participated with adults in class discussion. She read from the Bible when other adults were too shy to do so. She stepped forward to help me demonstrate how to position a person’s head when the pastor is splashing water on them in baptism. She smiled broadly with joy telling us her parents adopted her from foster care on her birthday! What a remarkable child of God Amy is! She is so ready to be baptized! And that night we helped her family sign her up for weekly middle-school Christian Education in our AMPED ministry as well!
Amy is one of those ‘little ones’ Jesus speaks of today = not just little in age but new in her enthusiasm for being a follower of Jesus. It would be the biggest travesty, if any of us would put stumbling blocks in Amy’s path! Should any one of us accidentally or on purpose put anything in the way to squelch her joy in getting to know Jesus – it would be better if a millstone were hung on our necks and we’d be thrown into the sea.
Nurturing Faith Journeys
So, how are we, as a faith community, as disciples of Jesus, going to keep offering drinks of water to Amy in her young life, so she’s nurtured and encouraged in her walk as a disciple of Jesus? We’re seeing some examples today of that positive encouragement through the simple gifts: the giving of Bibles, through our children’s singing later in worship, through Christian education for our young people in church school and AMPED. But what more can we be doing for young Amy and her family? How can we be simply more generous and joyful towards any “little one” in faith at Good Shepherd – whether they are a child or an adult?
Our New Testament reading from James gives us some other suggestions: We’re to pray for one another, sing songs of praise together in cheerfulness, confess our sins together so we can repeatedly receive forgiveness, and offer prayers and anointing for the healing of the sick. Those are tips for joyfully belonging to Jesus and one another. These are simple pieces of advice – tips for how to care for each other – because, Lord knows, in these times we live in today, we need fewer stumbling blocks and more tenderness in our walk together as the body of Christ
I hold dear a memorable time of receiving a cup of water from people’s love and faith from a few years ago.
The Beauty of Christian Community
Pastor Joe now works with our Food Pantry, but a while back, that was my role. So, I’d try to physically check in with our Food Pantry volunteers briefly on Thursday mornings and then I’d head back to my office. Well, as many of you remember, my physical appearance changed for a while 3 years ago while I was undergoing breast cancer treatment. During that cancer battle, no one ever made an announcement to our pantry guests about what had been going on with me. No one publicly announced, “O Pastor Sheryl, she’s having chemo” or “she’s batting cancer”. But pantry guests had known just by looking at me. And there were stretches during my many months of treatment that I didn’t check in on the pantry on a Thursday as I was either home not feeling well or didn’t have the energy to walk from my office to the pantry.
I find it hard to put into words how humbled and honored I was when, shortly after my treatments were completed, I began to regularly go down to the food pantry again for my brief check ins. All of a sudden, in those early weeks of my return, GUESTS at our food pantry, people I didn’t know at all, several each week – would stand up one at a time from their chairs in the waiting area to walk over to me and interrupt me to ask me how I was doing. Some personally told me that I was looking so much better. Others said to me privately that they had been praying for my healing. Still others shared that they too had gone through a cancer treatment. I feel emotional just remembering about how I’d been loved and prayed for by those others who were caring for me in Jesus’ name – but they were not specifically part of this in group of known disciples of Good Shepherd Church. What a beautiful experience, to be told personally of the care of others beyond our own church membership!
“Whoever is NOT against us – IS FOR us.” Jesus said. And whomever gives YOU a cup of water to drink because YOU bear the name of Christ will be rewarded.
What do we need more of – together as followers of Jesus —- stumbling blocks or cups of water? What does our world need more of —- stumbling blocks or cups of water? May we joyfully offer what Jesus would have us give.
Thanks be to God. Amen.