Mark 9: 38-50, James 5: 13-20
I don’t know whether you have been following the case in the news this week of the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme High Court. Considerng his nomination, the Senate have heard an accusation from Professor Christine Blasey Ford that Kavanaugh sexually attacked her when they were both teenagers.
Many questions surround the case: who is telling the truth ? how can events from decades ago be properly investigated? If Brett Kavangaugh, who is now a judge, did those things so many years ago, does it have a bearing on his fitness to hold office now?
I am not going to try to adjudicate – but I did find myself wondering how ‘good’ you have to be to be a judge – for surely none of u is perfect. And I was still wondering about questions of how to be ‘good’ when I read our Bible readings set for today.
What a contrast between the two readings we heard!
The letter of James seems very positive about how we live together as a community – praying for one another, singing cheerful songs of praise, forgiving one another…
We know this is how we should live – and yet perhaps there are times when we find it incredibly difficult. But we know, basically, how to be good, and perhaps we fool ourselves that by being good and being part of community in this way we are deserving of our place in church, or on a judicial bench.
So maybe the Gospel reading, hard as it is, has more to teach us. “If your hand causes your downfall.. cut it off”.
Can these really be the words of Jesus? In our world we are a familiar with Islamic Shariah law as a proposed punishment for theft – cutting off the hand of a thief - and the thought of it is awful and barbaric. But Jesus is not suggesting a form of punishment – he is not talking about what we should do to others – he is using dramatic language to encourage people to take responsibility for their own actions. “If your foot causes your downfall – cut it off”.
In other words, have nothing to do with the sort of excuse for behaviour which says ‘it wasn’t my fault, it was my roving eye, my lousy childhood, my physical urges – that made me do it’. Jesus wants us to take responsibility for our own bodies and what we do with them. Being good isn’t about just one part of your body – it about the whole of you, teaches Jesus.
But Jesus is also clear that our responsibility does not end with responsibility to ourselves. Jesus’ disciples have found someone healing in Jesus’ name – but, they try to stop him because, they say, this person is not “following us”.
They are very sure who is in Jesus’ group and who isn’t – this person isn’t so how dare they try to heal in the name of Jesus. Jesus is clear ‘whoever is not against us is for us’. A good action is good and Godly, and can be done in the name of Jesus, even if it is done by someone surprising.
The disciples have to learn that God’s kingdom is not just their little club – it is for everyone, and is for the healing and good of everyone.
Then Jesus explains that they could do great harm by trying to limit those for whom God’s love has come – ‘if any of you put a stumbling block in front of these little ones, it would be better for you if a great millstone were placed round your neck and you were cast into the sea’.
We are responsible for what we do to others “if anyone cause the downfall of one of these little ones who believe, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone round his neck”. We are responsible for what we do with our lives – and responsible for the damage we might do to others.
This is not nearly so cheery as the letter of James – is it? We must beware getting between the little ones & the love of God – or we might end up being punished.
What does this mean – surely we aren’t excluding anyone from God’s love, and we never see anyone casting out demons and tell them to stop. What is this warning about?
Perhaps for us the message of Jesus is to make sure that we know we have a responsibility for all people – that our welcome needs to be as wide as the needs of the world.
Sometimes in the history of the church we have become too concerned with whether another person is good enough to come into the fellowship of the church. Yet Jesus teaches that God’s love is for all – God’s welcome is for all – there is no ‘good enough’ – we are all saved by the gracious, overflowing love of God.
Finally, Jesus says “you must have salt within yourselves and be at peace with one another” – our responsibility to others shouldn’t stop at not doing others harm – we must actively seek their good.
Maybe the answer to the question of ‘who is good enough to be Supreme Court Judge?’ is that no-one is, but that a person who knows their flaws but also knows the redeeming mercy of God and their need of a strong community to help them to be the best they can be is someone who has a chance of doing the job of bringing justice to others.
But if all this talk of taking responsibility for ourselves and for others and for peace itself feels like too much – it is good that we meet around the Lord’s table.
Here as we face the challenge of his Word to us we also receive the promise of his gift to us – God’s gift of his very self, to feed and strengthen us, and to be present with us always.
The Jesus who challenges to think about who we use our bodies was prepared to give his body to be broken on the cross, so that we might see the depths the love of God will go to love us, poor as we are. We do not need to be good, we do not need to chop off those parts of ourselves which have sinned, we do not have to judge others – God’s love is here at this table – and it is for us all. The goodness of God is greater than anything which might debar us.
Thanks be to God.