Texts: Numbers 11:4-29; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
However, in Namibia during the resistance to Apartheid, the Lutheran churches there were faced with a problem. Luther had used this “Two Kingdoms” doctrine to justify his resistance to the Peasants’ Revolt during the Reformation, claiming that the princes had the divine mandate to enforce secular law; and in Namibia it was being used to justify not only Apartheid, but also the silence from the Christian community against it. As Luther had thought, so many Lutherans decided that Apartheid was a creature of the left-hand kingdom and so was not something that the Church had any cause to speak against.
Jesus still has the toddler in his arms when John, perhaps eager to curry favor with Jesus for his zeal, tells him about how they have been trying to stop a guy who is exorcising demons in Jesus’ name. I can almost imagine Jesus sighing, shaking his head and saying, “John, buddy, I know your heart’s in the right place but that is actually the exact opposite of what I’m saying right now.”
Welcoming the little child, Jesus says, is the epitome of greatness; greatness isn’t about being higher than everybody else, but about stooping so low that nobody is beneath you. Today we get the corollary: there are more important things in the world than being correct. Because that’s what this is all about: correctness, righteousness. John doesn’t say that this exorcist is not following Jesus; he says the guy isn’t following us. The implication is that he’s not doing it correctly or perhaps not for the right reasons because he’s not one of us; we can’t control what he is doing or how he does it. We are right, and that makes us greater than him.
Jesus reminds John—and us—that just because somebody isn’t following us doesn’t mean they are not following Jesus. Throughout the rest of our lives, we are used to forming tribes based on everything from which sports teams we cheer for, which companies we work for, where our brand loyalties lie, our political beliefs, and on and on; and that is to say nothing of how we divide ourselves into similar groups along lines of race and class.
Now, tribalism isn’t necessarily a bad thing; sometimes it can be helpful, like when we split kids into different grades in school based on age and ability level. We do this so that they can learn with other people who are in the same place they are developmentally and academically. Sometimes it’s really helpful for us to be among a community of people with whom we know we have connections or things in common; but tribalism quickly becomes evil when we use those artificial divisions to justify hatred or prejudice against people from other groups.
It comes as no surprise that we also become tribal in our faith, dividing ourselves into Catholic or Protestant or Evangelical, into Mainline or fundamentalist. Again, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when that becomes our primary identity, rather than our identity as God’s children, that faith that is no longer rooted in Christ; instead, it is rooted in our own alliances and our own convictions. If we are no longer following Jesus but instead following ourselves, then we have to ask where we are being led. Jesus reminds us that the answer to that question may very well be that we are being led straight to Hell.
In order to avoid steering ourselves away from Christ and into the false hope of a false gospel and falling into the “unquenchable fire,” Jesus warns us that we will need to make sacrifices. If something is causing us to stumble, to be led astray, to fall away from our absolute trust in him, we are better off to amputate whatever it is in which we have misplaced our faith. Obviously, cutting off hands or feet or tearing out eyes is not how we keep from sin; but if your arm was gangrenous, you’d be quick enough to amputate, right? If your liver was riddled with tumors, you’d have it removed, wouldn’t you? In spite of the pain and inconvenience of living without being whole, you’d be alive; so Jesus challenges to consider why we aren’t willing to take the same steps to protect ourselves from the torments of tribalistic faith?
When Jesus talks about Hell, he uses the word “gehenna,” which is a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew words meaning “the Valley of Hinnom.” The Valley of Hinnom (“Gehenna”) is a valley outside of Jerusalem in which, back in the bad old days, idolatrous Israelites used to sacrifice their children to the god Molech. Because of the sinister rituals that used to take place there, the valley became associated with evil and punishment. Rather than a threat of God’s eternal punishment, Jesus may be warning us about the idolatry of tribalistic faith and the agony that it causes. Whereas the gospel of Christ offers life, the false gospel of our own greatness can bring only death and grief.
Our doctrines and traditions are what make us who we are, and that can be a really good, really rich identity; but if those things are keeping people from seeing the light of the gospel, then perhaps they are in need of amputation. “It is better to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to Hell,” Jesus says. Maimed Lutheranism in Namibia is better than a dead Church that has been sacrificed on the altar of Orthodoxy and no longer has any good news to offer anyone.
What we believe and confess and proclaim about Jesus and God’s kingdom is important; but it is not so important that it should not be carefully examined and, where it is found wanting, changed. If we refuse to listen to our siblings in other traditions, to our siblings outside the Church entirely because our beliefs are so sacred to us, we must ask ourselves: who are we following? Are we following Christ into the reign of God, or are we steering ourselves to the pit of Hell?
This, of course, is not to say that we should give up all principles and doctrines; those things are good and necessary, but they are not always universally true. We need to consider context. We are called to listen—not necessarily to change our minds, but to be open to learning from the people around us who have different perspectives and may be able to see things we cannot: the little ones Jesus takes in his arms and tells us to welcome.
In the end, the Church that would respond to God’s call to proclaim the good news to the world is the Church that is willing to die; to give up and cut off our need to be great, to be right or pure or “holy” or whatever else we think will make us closer to God. The only “rightness” that matters is not ours, but Jesus’. And that brings us right back to where all this started, when Jesus told his disciples that he would be betrayed into human hands and killed. The faithful Church trusts that God will do for us what God has done for Christ: that after being killed, we will rise again.
We proclaim this truth every week in this meal, when we eat and drink Christ’s body and blood, trusting in God to continue that work of resurrection in us. When we share this meal, we do so with the understanding that resurrection can only follow death. Unless we are willing to risk death, we are not willing to risk resurrection.
This extends beyond theologians writing treatises and academics in ivory towers. This text invites us to consider who we are as Christians both in and out of worship every day. What are we doing—or not doing—that might be a stumbling block for those seeking the good news of Christ? What are those things that we hold onto so dearly that might be a stumbling block to others?
The good news is that God’s Church is very big: all these different flavors of Christianity—Catholics and Protestants and Evangelicals, Mainline and Fundamentalist—help God’s Church to be more diverse. Jesus invites us to see our differences not as a liability, but as an asset: if somebody doesn’t fit in the Church here, then maybe they find that they fit better over there. In order to do that, we must first remember that these people with whom we disagree so strongly are our siblings in Christ. We can and should discuss what is helpful and unhelpful about the ways we interpret scripture and live out our faith, but in the end our identities are not that we are Lutherans or Methodists or Catholics or Bible-Believing Baptists or anything else. Our first, our foremost, our only identity is that we are all baptized children of God.