There is more than enough Spirit of God for all, so we pray for a share of God’s Spirit and imagination, that we might join the whole creation in abundant life in God now and forever.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 26 B
Text: Mark 9:38-50
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
It’s troubling how well we understand John.
John saw someone doing exorcisms in Jesus’ name, and wanted to stop him, “because he wasn’t following us.” Not one of the dozens of disciples following Jesus through Galilee. Someone the insiders didn’t recognize was doing God’s work. We know this attitude; it can creep up in our own hearts.
Former ELCA presiding bishop Mark Hanson shared a story at the Bishop’s Theological Conference last week that he’s often told publicly, so I think I can share it. When then Senator Obama was running for president, he called together a group of around 30 Christian leaders of all the major denominations and faith organizations to hear their concerns and have a dialogue. Many of this group were not supportive of his candidacy, or later of his presidency.
One of the well-known evangelical leaders asked him directly if he believed that Jesus was the way, the truth and the life, the only way to salvation. Bp. Hanson says Sen. Obama replied that yes, he was a Christian, and said what he believed about Jesus. But then the senator paused for a few seconds, and said, “But who am I to limit God’s imagination?” He then talked about how, if God chooses to draw others to God by different ways, it wasn’t his place to limit God.
Who am I to limit God’s imagination? It’s exactly what Jesus needs John and the others to hear. It isn’t theirs to limit whom the Spirit of God reaches, or to decide if someone else is in relationship with God or doing God’s work.
Jesus needs us to hear this, too.
“Give us a share of your Spirit,” we prayed this morning.
Listen to what we assumed in this prayer: there’s enough of God’s Spirit to go around, and we ask that we share in it. That God’s Spirit would move in our hearts, shape our lives, and strengthen us for our Christ path. “Empower us to bear Christ’s name” we prayed.
But who are we to limit God’s imagination? If the Holy Spirit works with other people, how is that our concern? If the Spirit moves in people with different theology, who are labeled as “different” faiths, how do we have say over that?
All we can do is pray, “Please also give us a share of your Spirit.” A share. Not control of the Spirit. Not exclusive rights to claim the Spirit’s grace. God’s abundance of love for this creation is so great, there is more than enough Holy Spirit to fill every atom of the universe.
I could stop right here. But Mark and Luke add something else Jesus said they believe is connected.
Unlike Matthew, they place Jesus’ harsh sayings about stumbling right after this episode.
This is about as graphic as Jesus gets. Millstones around necks and cutting off body parts tends to catch our attention. Which is what Jesus means to do. The early Church never took Jesus literally here, nor should we. But we must take him seriously. This is so critical Jesus uses shocking hyperbole to get us to pay attention.
Mark and Luke tie the question of causing others to stumble, or stumbling ourselves, to the issue of control of the Spirit. Trying to keep God’s Spirit for yourself, drawing lines on who’s connected to God, might cause others who believe in God to stumble. And Jesus said, it’s game over if you do that. As with all his teaching drawing all people into God’s love and prohibiting any exclusion, Jesus says it’s literally a matter of life and death if your actions or attitude cause others to fall from their belief.
But there’s only one statement about causing others to fall. There are three about causing yourself to fall. That means the question of sharing the Spirit, or unwillingness to do that, directly affects your faith, your relationship with God, your walk in Christ. And, Jesus says, emphasizing it in three ways, if that’s the case, you’ll need major surgery.
These three are no less powerful or clear when we hear Jesus’ words as metaphor.
If your hand causes you to stumble, if there are things you do, actions you take, decisions you make, that hurt others, or trip you on your path of Christly love, get rid of them. Cut them off. Some behaviors or words might be so ingrained it will feel like surgery removing them. But falling out of your relationship with God in Christ will hurt much more.
If your foot causes you to stumble, if there are places you go, directions your mind takes, that move you off the path of following Christ, change your direction. Cut off the paths that lead you to death. These might be so familiar you’ll be pained to stop walking them. Perhaps the path of self-interest, putting your needs first above all. Or the path of self-righteousness, believing you never take a wrong turn. It’s hard to change direction. But much harder, Jesus says, to stumble away from God’s love.
If your eye causes you to stumble, if there are ways you see the world, or other people, that are unhealthy, if there are people whose sin you see clearly while blind to your own, Jesus says, cut off that vision. Get new eyes from the God who loves you, eyes that can see the truth about yourself and the world, eyes that look with God’s love.
Ways of seeing the world, your life, and others are deeply rooted, and it will be painful to remove them. But far more painful, Jesus says, to miss seeing God’s transforming grace lighting up the world and your life.
If you want an easy way to walk in life, Jesus isn’t for you.
Even John the beloved disciple doesn’t understand how deeply Jesus intends to embrace every child of God. So don’t be discouraged if you’re also frustrated by how intensely Jesus asks you to follow in his footsteps.
But remember: all these disciples stuck with Jesus when others didn’t, because they found life in him. They heard words of hope about God and their lives they never heard anywhere else. After they saw him brutally killed, destroying their hope and faith, they met him alive again and realized that this challenging path of God’s love for all things, where all are included, was a path of life and joy. A path where it mattered to them deeply that they not cause others to stumble, that they remove things that tripped themselves up.
No Christian since the resurrection ever said Christ’s path was easy. But they have said it was worth it, that on this path they have found life abundant in God’s self-giving love here, and the promise of life abundant in a world to come.
So let us pray again: “Give us a share of your Spirit, and empower us.”
This is yet another grace of God’s undying love we see in Jesus’ resurrection: if Christ is alive, then God can send us and all people the Holy Spirit for our lives and faith and journey.
This is our prayer because this is our hope: as challenging as following Jesus is, as hard as cutting away things will be, as much as we want to believe that it is a path of abundant life in God’s deathless love now and forever, we don’t walk this faith alone.
The Holy Spirit longs to fill your heart and give you courage and wisdom, to bring hope when you despair, to whisper “you are loved” when you feel deepest guilt, to make your heart sing when you don’t even know the words, to make your spirit leap when you can’t find the energy to take one step.
Who are we to limit God’s imagination? But we can pray that we have a share in that imagination, that God’s Spirit will come to us now and always and change us, that we might know this abundant life. Then our lives will witness to this Spirit, until all people find themselves in God’s embrace, walking the road together.
In the name of Jesus. Amen