a sermon on Mark 9:38-50
As some of you know, I’m a bit of an active Twitterer. I’ve been using this social networking site since 2008 or so, first to connect with some friends in church work, later expanding my network to include others who share similar interests in technology and faith concerns, and most recently starting to follow some new people who share my support of the New York Red Bulls!
It takes a bit of a special person to enjoy Twitter. While Facebook can be a great way to share pictures, experiences, insights, and websites with family and friends, Twitter is a bit more intense. You can choose who to follow—whose messages will show up when you go to the site—and generally those people don’t have to approve of you following them. Messages, known as tweets, can be no longer than 140 characters, and if you include a link or a picture, the message must be shorter still. Most messages end up being pretty pithy and occasionally witty—after all, if you only have 140 characters, you have to make each one count! But even though these messages are shorter, they come more frequently. I follow about 450 people, which is a pretty manageable number, but during busy news times, those 450 people can produce ten or twenty tweets per minute!
When I looked at our reading from the gospel of Mark this morning, I felt like I was following Jesus on Twitter. This text offers us a series of short, somewhat pithy messages that can sometimes make more sense on their own than together—and if you count it up, almost all of these are 140 characters or less! But unlike many Twitterers of our time, Jesus clearly knew that context matters. He was not speaking in little random tidbits of 140 characters that were disconnected from anything else he has ever said. Instead, he was responding to questions raised by the disciples, offering insights out of an encounter with a little child whom he had welcomed into their midst because they had become so focused on questions of status and privilege that they missed the real point of what he was up to.
So in these thirteen verses, we see a series of Twitter-ready sayings that give us a pretty thoughtful look at his approach to the world. These sayings can be reasonably divided into three sets. The first was a direct response to his disciple John, who expressed what seemed to be a broader concern among the disciples that there were people using Jesus’ name to cast out demons without subjecting themselves to his authority like they had done. John’s concern sounds a lot like a modern-day copyright or intellectual property claim: “Jesus, people might get the wrong idea about your brand if these folks do the wrong thing in the wrong way in your name.”
The disciples were ready to pounce on these message thieves to get them in line, but Jesus would have nothing of it. First of all, he was glad that they were using his name and carrying his message. The ministry of healing and transformation that they identified in those days as “casting out demons” made a real difference in many lives, and he seemed to welcome the chance for more people to be touched by the power of God in this way. Jesus was not worried about diluting his brand or getting things confused—he was just excited that people were interested in the work he was doing. So “don’t stop him,” Jesus said. “No one can use my name to do something good and powerful, and in the next breath cut me down. If he’s not an enemy, he’s an ally.” It mattered more to Jesus that good things were happening than that he got full and proper credit for them.
The second set of Jesus’ tweet-like sayings shifts gears a bit. As his disciples tried to limit access to him and his message, Jesus offered some pretty outrageous responses. Those who put stumbling blocks in the way of people who wanted to follow Jesus ought to tie those blocks to themselves and go for a swim in the sea. Those who let a hand or foot help them stumble or an eye to guide them in going astray would be better off to cut it off than to face the other consequences! This was a strong continuation of his previous sayings. Jesus wanted no part of anything his followers would do that would get in the way of welcoming others to hear and share his message. No boundary should be erected to keep people out of the sort of life that he could bring them. No one ought to stand in the way of building up the community of faith. None of our actions should keep others from finding the pathway to faithfulness. As one commentator put it well,
We need to ponder the risks for us if our failures of love, our distortions of the way of Christ, our too narrow understandings of the truth, our quickness to pronounce judgment cause others to stumble as they are trying to find the way of faithful living. (Harry B. Adams, “Pastoral Perspective on Mark 9:39-50,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4, p. 120.)
Jesus closed his very tweetable words to his disciples with a third section, a strange coda about being “salted with fire” even as he instructed the disciples to “have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” I for one am not quite sure what it means to be “salted with fire” or to “have salt in yourselves.” One commentator suggests that Jesus was telling the disciples to get ready to be tested, that there was something ahead that would challenge them and they needed to be prepared and protected as salt does, that they need a preservative as powerful as salt to protect them from the fires ahead. Another links this reference to the great value of salt in the ancient world, suggesting that Jesus was telling the disciples that they need to recognize how precious they were to the work that was going on so that they wouldn’t get in the way of it. And two others wonder if Jesus might have been thinking that the disciples just needed to keep up their distinctiveness, to find a way to bring a new and deeper flavor to the world as they shared Jesus’ message in the days beyond his own time.
I suspect that no one of these interpretations is right on its own, for each of them gives us a helpful angle on understanding how we can be more faithful as we bear the presence of Jesus into our world. Whatever he might have meant about salt here, Jesus concluded with yet another great tweetable line: “Be at peace with one another.” He knew that the temptation would be great to be divided from each other and set ourselves at odds with one another, so he made it clear that the real and deep and faithful witness to his healing presence would come through the way that his followers lived together.
All these very tweetable lines from Jesus may still leave us scratching our heads a bit, wondering what exactly he wants us to take with us from these words. Is he suggesting that we need to open up our community to a few more branches of the Jesus franchise? Is he saying that there are certain actions for which there may be, as it is said, “hell to pay”? Is he trying to tell us that we need to prepare ourselves for some sort of suffering? If you take any one of these tweetable moments out of the broader context, these explanations might make sense, but in the bigger picture here, I think Jesus is trying to help his disciples—and by extension us—open up the understanding of community that we apply to those who follow him.
Being a part of this community is not about showing proper deference to authority or being in the right group. It is instead about living in the way that Jesus himself did, about offering a message of healing and new life to everyone who needed it along the way. Membership in this community is not about trying to adhere to a particular strict interpretation of the way forward but rather about opening ourselves to different ways of thinking as we honor our sisters and brothers who journey with us along the way. And the marks of this community are less about who gets cast out or who manages to survive along the way and far more about helping others to experience the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. This community finds its meaning and definition in welcoming the stranger, staying with the sick, getting to know those who are different, and supporting those who are poor. As we do all this, we set aside our fears of being cast out or not having enough because we have been welcomed into this amazing relationship of grace, hope, and love in Jesus Christ, and we simply cannot be the same.
So as we continue on this journey of faith in community, may God guide us through the difficult moments when we are tempted to cast others out, may God help us when we think of getting in the way of those who might join us along the way, and may God support us as we seek to be at peace with one another until all things are made new in Jesus Christ our Lord. Lord, come quickly! Amen.