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Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

When I undertook my Bachelor of Theology at Trinity College, I was blessed that several of my lecturers were among the world’s leading scholars in their particular area of expertise. One such lecturer was Brendan Byrne, who is a Roman Catholic priest, and one of the world’s foremost authorities on Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which was the unit I studied under him.

But Brendan has also published books on each of the four gospels, and he writes in an easygoing and simple style which makes sense of the most complex and hard to understand passages within each of the gospels. The current church year we are in is the year of Mark, and I have been using Brendan’s book, A Costly Freedom: A Theological Reading of Mark’s Gospel, to help prepare my sermons.

In writing about today’s passage from Mark’s Gospel, Brendan believes that it deals with both the good outside the community of faith (vv. 38–41) and the consequences of evil within the community (vv. 42–50). The passage begins with John, the son of Zebedee, telling Jesus that he and the other disciples had tried to stop a man who was casting out demons from people in the name of Jesus. Perhaps surprisingly, Jesus tells John not to stop the man, because if the man is performing deeds of power in the name of Jesus now, he is then not going to be able to turn around and start saying bad things about Jesus to people later on.

Jesus tells John that anyone who does not oppose him and his disciples is actually helping them, even if that person is perhaps not a member of their own community of faith. Jesus goes on to say that such outsiders, are performing the type of service that is expected of followers of Jesus, and such people will receive salvation on the day of judgement.

As I reflected on this, and tried to put it in our own context today, I thought it would be a bit like us listening to someone who was from a different denomination to us, let’s say someone from a Pentecostal or charismatic church, talking to a non-Christian about the Christian faith from their theological perspective, which is probably going to be quite different to our own, and then us getting angry about it thinking to ourselves they should be explaining the faith in the same way that we would.

That type of thinking would be consistent with that of the disciples in last week’s gospel reading, when the disciples were arguing among themselves about which of them was the most important of Jesus’ disciples. The disciples were more concerned with “their own sense of distinctiveness and privilege rather than being prepared to find and rejoice in goodness wherever it exists”. This isn’t to suggest that being an associate of Jesus wasn’t important, rather it simply means that what was more important than such status or standing was being prepared for costly service. 

The same could then be said for us, if we were to think that our understanding or belief about the teaching of Jesus is the only one that contains the truth about the message of Jesus Christ. We would be losing sight of the fact that God revealed to us, through His Son Jesus Christ, how He wants us to behave. And that is that we should be humble. And that we should seek to serve others, rather than waiting on them to serve us.

The second half of today’s gospel passage deals with instructions that Jesus gives his disciples on how to deal with evil within the community of faith. He begins by talking about these “little ones who believe in me”, which might be a reference to children, but which could also be a reference to people who are ‘young’ in faith, and therefore are more susceptible to being led astray than people who have developed a deeper and more committed faith. 

Jesus suggests the consequences for anyone who might lead such a person astray will be disastrous, and that it would be better for that person to have a millstone attached to their neck and to be thrown in the sea. A millstone was a large stone on a mill that was attached to a donkey, and that was turned by the donkey which pulled the stone as it was walked in a circular motion around the mill. Drowning by attaching such a large stone to a person was a Roman form of execution.

After his warning about the millstone, Jesus then utters a series of statements recommending the sacrifice of various parts of the body (the hand, foot and eye) rather than letting those body parts be responsible for a member of the community of faith causing a fellow member to be led astray in their own belief. 

Brendan Byrne believes that the principle Jesus is applying– the sacrifice of a part in order to save the whole–will determine whether someone gains or loses eternal life (which Mark defines as entry “into the kingdom of God” [v. 47]). He also believes that through these negative statements of self-sacrifice of body parts, Jesus is affirming the supreme value of life in the Kingdom of God. Which in essence means that the salvation of an individual, and that of other members of the community, is more important than anything else, and any individual must be prepared to act strongly against any self-interest or desire in order to not lose it.

If we think about these instructions of Jesus to his disciples, from the perspective of a modern day community of faith, then we can say that members of the community should be striving to strengthen one another in faith, so that everyone in the community might “enter into the kingdom of God”. 

I think that is essentially what the author of James was saying in today’s passage when he wrote, “19 My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, 20 you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” 

That’s what each one of us can do in our community of faith here at St Andrew’s. We can watch out for one another, and help to bring each other back on track, should we start to wander from the truth. And we can strive, to strengthen one another in faith.

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