The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

In this passage from chapter 9 of Mark’s Gospel, we see Jesus showing his great insight into human nature, his profound and disturbing understanding of the flaws of those whom God made and whom God loves so dearly, we human beings.

John said to [Jesus], ‘Teacher, we saw someone* casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ 39But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. 40Whoever is not against us is for us….(Mark 9:38-9)

The disciples are very troubled about who should be involved in ministry. All through this chapter the disciples are troubled. We need to look at the whole of the chapter to understand why this is so. At the end of chapter 8 of Mark’s Gospel, in a passage we read two weeks ago, we witnessed the scene at Caeserea Philippi, the scene where Jesus turns towards Jerusalem, telling his disciples what will take place there, and invites those disciples to follow him. Immediately following on from this, in the first verses of chapter 9, the transfiguration takes place. Jesus is transfigured before Peter, James and John and they hear the voice of God, naming Jesus Beloved. We can only imagine how rattled the disciples must have been by these seemingly conflicting events.

The remainder of the chapter shows the disciples struggling. A father brings his son possessed by a demon to Jesus saying that the disciples were unable to cast that demon out. Jesus seems exasperated at their lack of faith. He speaks with the father, finding out what has been happening and how long it has been happening but most importantly looking in that father for signs of faith. The Dean pointed out last week the poignancy of the father’s cry: “I believe, help my unbelief.”

For the disciples, though, this was a story of failure – “Why could we not cast it out?” They said to Jesus. (9:28) After this, Jesus tells these disciples for the second time about what will happen to him in Jerusalem, and then we see them arguing about who will have the places of power when kingdom comes. And Jesus tells them about the special place of children in the kingdom.

Finally, in our passage this morning, we see the disciples struggling with the idea that those who they did not see as belonging with Jesus were bringing life to people. And we may well be challenged in the same way – is it possible that God can work through those of other denominations, or other faiths, or those of no faith, or even us on the days when our unbelief seems to swamp our belief. Can we see God at work in places that we would not have believed God to be present? Whoever is not against us is for us….Jesus says to these disciples who seem to have less and less idea about what is going on.

Jesus then returns to the idea of children, children that we heard last week are so close to the heart of God, and children who are vulnerable to being misled – If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me,* it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. Jesus says. (9.42)

And here begins a series of statements that seem so strange, almost absurd, that it is difficult to hear them. What can Jesus mean when he says that it would be better for us to be thrown into the sea with a millstone around our neck than to cause a little one to stumble, what can he mean when he says that we would be better to lose a hand or a foot or an eye than to stumble ourselves and be thrown into the unquenchable fires of hell? Is it possible to take such sayings seriously?

As many of you know, a group of us are studying the book Meeting God in Mark by Rowan Williams. Rowan Williams writes about Mark’s Gospel being particularly a gospel where misunderstanding often takes place. Strange parables and sayings leave the disciples and the hearer of the gospel baffled and Rowan Williams says that this is deliberate. He writes, “More than once in the Gospel we hear Jesus saying something like, ‘How do I make this clear to you? What can I say to you? Don’t you understand yet?’ This is a Jesus who is searching for ways to communicate truths for which there are no clear and simple words. …this is … a Gospel which on every page has a very strongly worded health warning to the reader: don’t think you’ve got it yet!”[1] We are perhaps not meant to understand, in other words, it is perhaps the case that not understanding is a healthy place in the spiritual life.

In another book, Rowan Williams talks about Jesus using “carefully calculated shocks”[2] to speak about God. Surely being told that we would be better to lose a limb than to stumble is such a “carefully calculated shock”. Why does Jesus speak in this way? How can it help us to glimpse the ways of God? It is as if, by such shocking statements, Jesus strips away our foundations. I think that, like the disciples, we are rattled by such shocks. I think they leave us vulnerable to the truth.

And so what is a possible truth that Jesus would have us ponder? He is talking about stumbling – either our causing a “little one” to stumble, or us stumbling ourselves. And the stumbling is in the context of faith. “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me …,” Jesus says. He seems to view it very harshly if any of us causes another to commit a sin, or if something about our life causes us to sin. Sin. One theologian called sin the failure to let God be God. The Ten Commandments give us much insight into the categories of sin – those commandments being summed up in the great commandment of Jesus to love God and love neighbour. Sin when we fail to love God, fail to love neighbour. It is woven into all our lives, day by day in fact.

In 2005 the Pulizer Prize for fiction was given to the writer Marilyn Robinson for her book Gilead. Gilead is a letter from a dying father who is an old man, to his seven year old son. The father married for the second time, late in life. He is a pastor, as were his father and his grandfather before him. Woven in letter to his son are many stories from the father’s life and many reflections on the things of life and the ways of God.

The father tells a little of his own grandfather who lost an eye in the American Civil War.

“I believe he was a saint of some kind. When someone remarked in his hearing that he had lost an eye in the Civil War, he said, “I prefer to remember that I have kept one.” …I wish you could have known my grandfather. I heard a man say once it seemed the one eye he had was somehow ten times an eye. Normally speaking, it seems to me, a gaze, even a stare, is diffused a little when there are two eyes involved. He could make me feel as though he had poked me with a stick, just by looking at me. Not that he meant any harm to speak of. He was just afire with old certainties, and he couldn’t bear all the patience that was required of him by the peace and by the aging of his body and by the forgetfulness that had settled over everything. He thought we should all be living at a dead run. I don’t say he was wrong. That would be like contradicting John the Baptist.”[3]

I wish you could have known my grandfather. I heard a man say once it seemed the one eye he had was somehow ten times an eye.

There’s something I need to tell you. I think Jesus might have meant it. About it being better for us to be thrown into the sea with a millstone around our neck that to cause a little one to stumble or to lose a hand or a foot or an eye than to stumble ourselves and be thrown into the unquenchable fires of hell. I think Jesus might have meant it. He would try as hard as he could to reach us, to help us, transform us so that we wouldn’t cause little ones to stumble or to stumble ourselves. He’d do everything he could. But if we just couldn’t change I think he might have meant it. That it would be better for us to lose a hand or a foot, it would be better for us to lose an eye, even. It would be better for us to lose an eye, so that we might be able to see.

[1] Williams, Rowan Meeting God in Mark (London: SPCK, 2014), p. 45.

[2] Williams, Rowan The Edge of Words (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 145.

[3] Gilead by Marilyn Robinson p. 36.