Years ago, motivational speaker, Zig Ziglar said, “It is your attitude, more than your aptitude, that will determine your altitude.” I believe that is true.
I know from flying with my father as the pilot of a small plane that the attitude of the nose on a plane determines the altitude of that plane. Just so in life, our inner attitude determines how high we fly.
The big question posed by our text for today is: what is our attitude toward others? Listen for God’s word to you from Mark 9:38-50….
38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone[a] casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me,[b] it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell,[c]to the unquenchable fire.[d] 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.[e][f]47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell,[g]48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
49 “For everyone will be salted with fire.[h] 50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?[i] Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
This text actually raises three related questions about our attitude toward others. The first question is: How large do we draw our circle of fellowship?
John was one of Jesus’ closest disciples. He was one of the first people that Jesus called to follow him. (Mark 1:19) Jesus was so close to John and his brother James that he gave them a nickname, “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17). They must have had thunderous personalities. John was one of only three disciples who saw Jesus raise a girl from the dead (Mark 5:37) and who saw Jesus transfigured on the mountaintop (Mark 9:2). John was the one who later leaned on Jesus’ breast at the Last Supper and asked, “Who is it that is going to betray you?” (John 21:20) John was one of the three whom Jesus prayed with in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:33). And John was the one to whom Jesus, on the cross, entrusted the care of his own mother. (John 19:26-27)
This John, who was so close to Jesus, was apparently jealous that others, who were not among the Twelve, were casting out demons in Jesus’ name. John, apparently, wanted to draw his circle of fellowship fairly tight.
But Jesus told John not to stop those who were casting out demons in his name. “For no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.”
Jesus drew his circle of fellowship wide indeed.
As some of you know, before we moved to Stowe, we attended the Falls Church Episcopal in Falls Church, Virginia. One day I had a conversation with one of the priests there. I asked him his position on the inclusion of gay people in the church. One thing he said to me that day will forever stick in my mind. He said, “I can’t imagine that God is going to condemn me on judgment day for drawing my circle of fellowship too wide.”
Perhaps you have heard this little poem….
He drew a circle that shut me out—
Rebel, heretic, thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win—
We drew a circle that took him in.
How large do we draw our circle of fellowship? That is the first question this text raises for me.
The second question raised by this text for me is: Do we find it easy to receive from others or do we always have to be in the dominant position?
Jesus says, “For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”
It is a very important thing, a very humble thing, to serve others. But sometimes it requires even greater humility to allow others to serve us.
I wonder: when Jesus made this statement was he thinking of the woman at the well whom he asked to draw a cup of water for him to drink? Do you remember that story in John 4?
John begins the story by saying that Jesus “had to go through Samaria.”
Now, it is important to understand that no Jew in the first century “had to go through Samaria”. As John says a little bit later, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” Most Jews in Jesus’ time would go around Samaria rather than walk through that region so that they would not have to have any contact with the Samaritans whom they regarded as half-breed Jews.
But Jesus purposely walked through Samaria. We read that he…
…came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” … 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
Jesus was humble enough to serve others, but he was also humble enough to let others serve him. He did not always have to be in the dominant position.
What about you? What about me? Do we find it easy to receive from others? Or are we too proud?
One of the pastors who served as a mentor to me, Calvin Thielman, often said: “The greatest sign of mental and emotional health is the ability to give and receive love freely.” That is so true. Are we able both to give and receive love freely?
Henri Nouwen once wrote: “Receiving is an art. It means allowing the other to become part of our lives. It means daring to become dependent on the other. It asks for inner freedom to say: ‘Without you I wouldn’t be who I am.’ Receiving with the heart is therefore a gesture of humility and love. So many people have been deeply hurt because their gifts weren’t well received. Let us be good receivers.”
The final question this text raises for me is: Do we put a stumbling block in the way of the faith of others?
Jesus says, “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.”
Last week we saw how Jesus took a little child and had him stand in the midst of the disciples. Then taking that child in his arms, Jesus said: “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”
What a dramatic statement and what an awesome promise! Anytime we welcome a child in Jesus’ name, we are welcoming Jesus. And not only are we welcoming Jesus, we are welcoming God the Father! Wow!
Thus, Jesus is saying, “It’s great if you are welcoming children in my name, but if you are putting a stumbling block in the way of a child’s growing faith, watch out!”
In a few minutes we are going to welcome the children of this congregation to the Lord’s Table to receive the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion. I understand that some people do not think children should be allowed to take communion before going through a confirmation class. But we need to remember where communion comes from. It comes from the Passover that Jesus celebrated with his first disciples. And Jewish children were always part of the Passover celebration. If you were to go to a Passover celebration at JCOGS, which I would encourage you to do some time, you would see that at certain points in the celebration, the children ask important questions, and the adults give very important answers to those questions.
In short, I believe that Holy Communion, just like the Passover, is for God’s whole family, including children. Now, I think it should be left up to parents to decide whether they want to have their children participate in Communion. Parents are in the best position to give their children a first-time explanation of what Communion is all about. But I also like the practice of having children come forward for Communion to receive a blessing, even if they are not ready to partake of the elements.
Bottom line, we need to recognize what an important part of our church and our community children and youth are. We need to value them and welcome them into Jesus’ presence. And we need to make sure we are not putting a stumbling block in the way of their tender, developing faith.
Last week I quoted from Edith Schaeffer and her book, A Way of Seeing. My favorite chapter in the book is entitled: “Wanted Children”. Yes, children are wanted in the kingdom, wanted by Jesus in his church, and we are warned not to cause them to stumble. Schaeffer says,
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we have the strong warning that anyone who “offends” one of the little ones or causes a child to sin, would be better off with a millstone hung about his neck and being cast into the sea! Quite a vivid picture, and one needing some solemn thought…. The just God who is perfect in His holiness has declared that people leading little children into sin—children He has said should be led to know Him—will be punished….
But then Edith Schaeffer goes on to articulate one way we often cause children to stumble spiritually without thinking about it….
A child is being robbed, being offended, or made to stumble, if that child is not given the truth with enough explanation and answers to questions so that there is a measure of understanding. The wonderful faith of a child is the quickness to believe what is told, when the one telling is confident that what is told is accurate. It is sad to have children be told things which are not true, knowing that they will discover the deception later and be disillusioned. It is also sad to have children “ask their fathers” and never get an answer which is an understandable explanation of truth. The Bible is strong about responsibility to the next generation. The millstone is not to be hung about the neck of a child but of the person harming that child. Physical, moral, psychological, and emotional harm are all bad. But spiritual harm is even more serious.
So what are we to do? Thankfully, Jesus tells us. We need to get rid of whatever causes us, or the children we are meant to serve, to stumble. Even if it is a hand, a foot, or an eye, we need to get rid of it, Jesus says.
Now obviously, Jesus is speaking here in hyperbole. He is exaggerating to make a point. Jesus does not really expect us to cut off our physical hands, or our feet, or pluck out our eyes when they offend. After all, even a blind man can lust, can’t he?
Rather, Jesus is saying we need to deal radically with the things that cause ourselves and others to stumble. It is better to do that than to end up in hell.
The word that Jesus uses for hell in this passage is Gehenna. It refers to the place outside the wall of Jerusalem where trash would be burned. Centuries before Jesus lived, children had been burnt as sacrifices in this same location. The God of Israel hated these sacrifices and Jesus obviously did too. As a sort of divine tit-for-tat, Jesus in this passage suggests that those who cause children to stumble are destined for the fire, unless they repent.
However, fire is not merely a symbol of punishment in this passage. Jesus says, “Everyone will be salted with fire.” What does this mean?
According to the Law of Israel, every sacrifice had to be salted before it was offered to God on the altar (Leviticus 2:13). As William Barclay explains,
This saying of Jesus will then mean, “Before a Christian life becomes acceptable to God it must be treated with fire just as every sacrifice is treated with salt.” The fire is the salt which makes the life acceptable to God.
Fire doesn’t simply destroy. Fire is also used to purify. God allows us to go through fiery trials in life in order to purify us.
Furthermore, Jesus urges us, his followers, to remain salty. Salt was used in Jesus’ time, as in ours, both to flavor other foods and as a preservative. Just so, we as followers of Jesus are meant to bring good flavor to this world of ours, and to preserve what is good in it.
The question is: are we doing this? In particular, are we adding flavor and preservative to the world by bringing up the next generation to know Jesus?
I return to where I began. Attitude determines altitude! What is our attitude toward others? How large do we draw our circle of fellowship? Does that circle of fellowship include children? When it comes to our relationship with others, do we both give and receive love freely? And finally, are we putting a stumbling block in the way of children in our church and community? Or are we helping them to grow in their faith in Jesus?
These are vital questions to ponder, especially as we come to the Lord’s Table today. Let’s pray…