One of the comforting things about the Gospel narrative is how slow Jesus’ disciples are in getting the good news of Jesus. From Mark’s perspective, the disciples never quite get it, even at the resurrection. Matthew suggests the same thing. Luke tells us that things really didn’t click until Pentecost, and even then, the apostles didn’t always run on all twelve Gospel cylinders. There were misfires and mistakes. I’m comforted by the disciples’ slowness because I recognize the same thing at work in me. I’m sure you experience the same thing yourself. We say we believe. We trust Jesus entirely for our salvation. And yet we cling like fly paper to our deeds, our creeds, our credentials, whatever we think might pull some heavenly strings, just in case God’s grace isn’t free after all and we need a pocketful of merits to bribe the doorman.
We sometimes forget that even our recognition of Jesus Christ as Lord is a gift from God. That it’s God’s gift that we are even here this morning to worship Jesus Christ as Lord. We’re apt to think that we’ve made the right choices, we’ve done the right thing. And we forget that before we even lifted a finger to do anything, while we were dead as dead can be, God did everything for us in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The death and resurrection of Jesus is so all-embracing, we often fail to appreciate just how wide and deep it is. It boggles our minds. It fuzzies our logic. It lays waste to our neat and tidy ways of doing things. And very often, we simply don’t get it. And that was true of Jesus’ disciples as well. Even when Jesus patiently, repeatedly, explained to them that He had to die and rise, they didn’t get it.
They were in Capernaum, in the house they called home and headquarters. Jesus had just stood up a little kid in their midst and told them that bending down to serve this little kid is what greatness in God’s kingdom is all about. That to receive a little child in Jesus’ name is to receive Jesus Himself. And the Father as well. He had just told them that there notion of greatness was upside down and inside out when measured by the cross to which He was going.
And yet, with the little child still wandering around the house, with Jesus’ words about greatness still echoing, John files a report with Jesus. “Teacher, we saw a man casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him, because he wasn’t following us.” We saw some guy casting out demons, but he wasn’t a card-carrying member of our group. But don’t worry, Lord. We took care of it. We told him to cease and desist. No more of that stuff going on behind your back, Jesus. We made sure he stopped that demon casting business right then and there. No unauthorized demon-casting going on behind our backs, no siree.
Sound familiar? It should. We do that too. We make Jesus our own private possession. “Come meet my Jesus.” We slap a trademark and copyright on Him. We figure we have Jesus figured out. We institutionalize Jesus, bring Him in under our boards, our committees, surround him with our institutional walls. We don’t expect Jesus to have agents in other parts of the world, at least ones we don’t know about, who don’t belong to our group. We don’t expect God to work outside our fences. We expect Him to always color inside the lines – our lines. And that’s pretty much the history of the Christian church – the attempt on our part to institutionalize Jesus, to tame the Holy Spirit, to domesticate the Gospel, and bring things safely under our control.
Think about it. Here was some unknown guy going around casting out demons in the name of Jesus. And people were trusting in Jesus because of him. And he was proclaiming the name of Jesus in places where the disciples weren’t. So you’d think that the disciples would be thrilled, amazed, overjoyed. But they weren’t, because this guy was not a member of the team. He was an outsider with no credentials, and so he had to be stopped. Never mind that he was doing it all in the name of Jesus. Never mind that only Jesus has power to silence the demons, and clearly Jesus was at work through this man. He wasn’t one of the chosen Twelve, and so he had to be stopped.
The church has done that too. We’ve shot down people for taking initiative. We’ve treated the church like an exclusive country-club of the elect instead of the inclusive sign of salvation to the world. We’ve been more worried about credentials than content, about having bureaucratic ducks in a row than in getting the good news of Jesus straight. We’ve acted as though Jesus hasn’t shown up until we arrived. It happens with our mission boards where we are supposedly “bringing Christ to the nations” or “bringing the nations to Christ” as though Christ hasn’t appeared until we show up. And then we’re surprised when people know and even believe the Gospel before we speak. And we’re surprised by this and wonder, “How can this be?” And we’re reminded that God is sneaky and subversive and has His agents scattered all over the place.
We’re reminded that the first act of evangelism and mission is not to speak but to listen, to find out what God has been up to before we showed up. Evangelism is archaeology not strip mall development. You take the time to sift carefully through the dust to see what God has been doing with this person. You look for the surprising signs of God’s amazing grace. The anonymous exorcist without the proper papers. Or perhaps, like in Russia, the pious grandmother who baptized her grandchildren after the churches were destroyed and the priests taken away. Or the stranger who speaks a gentle word of Gospel while sharing a cup of water. God is sneaky and subversive. He has agents lurking all over the place. And no one is absolutely necessary to the success of the kingdom.
Perhaps that was the hardest for John to swallow. His own non-necessity. There were others besides the twelve who could cast out demons in the name of Jesus. If they didn’t, others would. If they couldn’t, others could. They weren’t necessary, just as none of us is necessary. Important, yes. Beloved, you bet. Died for and redeemed, certainly. But not necessary. You can’t bear the burden of necessity, though we try. Necessity will break you down and burn you out. It’s a liberating thing to realize that the salvation of the world doesn’t rest on your shoulders, but on the shoulders of Him who stretched His arms out on a cross. He can bear it, you can’t. Nor could John.
John sounds as though he expects Jesus’ approval. But it wasn’t coming. “Don’t forbid him,” Jesus says. “Whoever does a mighty work in my name will not soon be able to speak against me. Whoever isn’t against us is for us.”
We usually say it the other way, don’t we? Whoever isn’t for us is against us. Jesus is heading to Jerusalem to die on a cross and to take the entire world with Him into His death. His disciples see things exclusively, if you aren’t for us, then you’re against us. But Jesus looks at thingsinclusively – if you aren’t against us, you’re for us. The disciples see themselves as an exclusive club. Jesus sees Himself as an inclusive Savior. He dies for the sin of the world. He is the Savior of the world. He reconciles the world to God in His death. When He is lifted up on the cross, He draws all humanity in His death. That’s what John failed to understand. That’s what the church throughout history often failed to see. And it’s what we fail to see as well.
And in failing to comprehend that Christ, in one cosmic act, has worked redemption for the world, we wittingly and unwittingly put stumbling blocks in people’s faith. Jesus has a dire warning for His disciples, and for His church – millstones tied around necks and a swim in the deep for those who would cause one of the little ones who believe in Him to stumble from their faith.
And it’s stumbling from faith that Jesus is concerned with. The word is scandalizo, from which we get the word “scandalize.” It means cause to stumble or fall. What Jesus is saying is that anyone who causes a humble believer in Jesus, a little one of faith, to stumble in his or her trust in Jesus ought to have a millstone tied around his neck and be thrown into the deep. Oh, to be sure, people will be scandalized by the Gospel. Just try telling people that every sin and every sinner is forgiven in the one death of Jesus, they’ll be scandalized aplenty. But let’s make sure that they’re scandalized by the Gospel and not by us.
What Jesus says next makes more sense if skandalizo is heard as fall from faith. If your hand scandalizes you, that is, causes you not to believe in Jesus, you’d be better off cutting it off and entering life with one hand than to burn in hell with two. Likewise your foot and your eye. But not ear! Faith comes by hearing – not by seeing, doing, or walking.
Now if Jesus were talking about sin, we’d have a lot of one-eyed, one-handed, one-footed biblical literalists running around, wouldn’t we? (This is one place where even the most hard-core fundamentalist doesn’t take the Bible literally.) Besides, we’d still be sinning with our remaining eye, hand, and foot. Besides, eyes, hands, and feet don’t cause you to sin. It’s the heart, not the hands, that’s the source of sin, and Jesus doesn’t suggest we carve out our hearts. He does that.
If the work of your hands scandalizes you, causes you to doubt that you are justified by faith in Jesus and not by works, it would be better that you not be able to do anything at all. If what you see with your eye causes you to doubt God’s promise that you are saved in the death of Jesus, it would be better that you not see at all. And if your feet take you along a path that makes you doubt that Jesus is the way through death to eternal life, then it would be better that you not walk at all. Better to lose everything – eye, hand, foot – your whole life, than to stumble in your trust in Jesus. That’s because Jesus is the only way. His death and resurrection are all you have, and all you need to make it through your death to resurrection. The alternative is really no alternative at all – undying worms and unquenchable fires, all of which is entirely unnecessary thanks to Jesus.
And then, having introduced the idea of fire, Jesus launches one of the stranger of His sayings. “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be a peace with one another.”
What does that mean? Part of the problem is that we’re not accustomed to the sacrifices. Sacrifices were sprinkled with salt before they were burned up. Salt purifies, flavors, and preserves. Salt was a symbol of purity. Everyone will be salted with fire, Jesus says. Everyone dies. Everyone is offered as a sacrifice to God. The wages of sin is death. No one misses. And what purifies the sacrifice of our death, what flavors it and preserves it and makes it acceptable to God is the salt of Jesus’ own death and resurrection. He is that salt we are to have in ourselves – the salt of His dying for our sin and His rising for our justification.
The salt Jesus had in mind was the mineralized salts dredged from the shores of the Dead Sea – a mixture of gypsum and sodium chloride (salt). It’s saltiness comes from the key ingredient (sodium chloride). If you took away that key ingredient, what is left would be bland and bitter. In the same way, Christianity without the saltiness of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the life of the world becomes bland, tasteless, insipid religion. No sting, no bite, no purification for sin.
So have salt in yourselves – have Jesus season you with His sacrifice. And be at peace with each other. What else can you do? God is at peace with you. Don’t trust your works, your vision, your walk. Trust Jesus and His Word. And if you bump into someone working in the name of Jesus, don’t stop him. Rejoice. The good news of Jesus is better and bigger than you thought it was.
In the name of Jesus, Amen