Radical Discipleship

Mark 9:42-50

This is some passage, isn’t it? The language is obviously quite strong. The descriptions, severe. From the dramatic imagery and the emphatic tone, it is clear that Jesus is making an important point.
On the surface, it seems straight-forward- that Jesus is warning everyone not to be a stumbling block to others’ faith, especially those who might be vulnerable. This is most certainly true.
But it’s also possible that pulling the camera lens back a bit, Jesus might also be making a larger point about how we are to live as Christians.
Jesus might be describing, in quite colorful terms, the importance of proper discipleship.
No, no, no proper discipleship isn’t about maiming yourself! That’s not what I mean.
What I mean is proper discipleship as an orientation toward the well-being of others, oftentimes at the expense of yourself. It isn’t always easy and one which asks a lot of us. But Jesus spent a lot of time imploring this behavior. He describes good disciples as those who would rather sacrifice their own wholeness than threaten the well-being of the community. In this passage he discusses those things which might be stumbling blocks for others. Being mindful of those stumbling blocks and being willing to remove them is a requirement of proper discipleship.
There are many things we do which could be stumbling blocks for others. In fact, we might not even know they are stumbling blocks. The Psalmist acknowledges this in verse 12, “who can detect one’s own offenses?” It’s not always easy.
But for the greater good we, as disciples of Christ should be mindful of them and seek them out.
A friend of mine is an Army chaplain. And in his work he encountered a lot of soldiers struggling with a variety of issues, but many of them struggle with alcoholism and addiction. So years ago when they were deployed, understanding the heightened stress of the situation, he personally abstained from alcohol during that time in an effort not to be a stumbling block for his unit.
And although he often needed a beer. Really needed a beer, he chose what was best for the group, rather than his own comfort.
That’s discipleship.
Discipleship means focusing more on the whole than on your individual part. It’s a selfless worldview. And that’s not always easy. Especially these days, with self as the focus.
Self-esteem.
Self-motivation
Self-care
Self, self, self.
Not that these are all bad, mind you. Of course it’s important to take good care of yourself. But Jesus calls us to a life that requires us to reach beyond the self with a focus on the other.
It isn’t easy.
But Jesus never suggested it would be easy. And on top of this, he even suggests that his demands are to take priority over everything else. His commandments are not convenient, cozy, self-affirming add-ons to whatever else you might hold dear. They replace everything, no matter the cost to us.
My friends that isn’t just proper discipleship, its radical discipleship.
Legendary Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a lot to say about discipleship. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer strikes a hopeful tone when he writes of the commandment to follow him.
“Those who follow Jesus’ commandment entirely, who let Jesus’ yoke rest on them without resistance, will find the burdens they must bear to be light. They will receive strength.
Jesus’ commandment is harsh, inhumanly harsh for someone who resists it. Jesus’ commandment is gentle and not difficult for someone who willingly accepts it.”
By grace Jesus Christ calls us to follow him.
But it’s not normal grace.
It is costly grace.
Again, Bonhoeffer writes,
“It is costly, because it calls to discipleship;
it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.
It is costly, because it costs people their lives;
it is grace, because it thereby makes them live.
It is costly, because it condemns sin;
it is grace, because it justifies the sinner.
Above all, grace is costly, because it was costly to God, because it costs God the life of God’s son.”
The Trinity teaches us of God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Jesus on the cross; God on the cross
That is the ultimate in self-giving love.
And that’s what Jesus is calling us to.
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.
If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off.
If your eye causes you to stumble, cut it off.
These are dramatic commandments and although they are not to be taken literally.
They are to be taken seriously.
Our focus as disciples should always be lasered in on what is in service to the other. To the community.
Jesus explains that it’s better to be without these stumbling blocks-
A hand
A foot
An eye
Than to be thrown into hell.
Ouch.
Now this concept is also one which merits consideration:
Hell is depicted throughout Scripture as a place of torment and judgment. The fiery imagery, the horror of gnashing of teeth, and the eternal pain leaves little to the imagination in terms of its desirability.
Theologians for centuries have argued about whether Hell is a literal place. And I’m certainly not going to wade into the debate.
But I will speak to the theological implications of hell. Theologian Daniel Migliore defines hell as “the terrible weariness and incredible boredom of a life focused entirely on itself.”
Because a preoccupation with self makes it extremely difficult to experience love. And God is love.
So for me, and maybe for others, an eternity without love; an eternity without God. Well, that’s certainly Hell.
Discipleship calls us away from selfishness and toward self-giving. Discipleship calls us to be willing to sacrifice our well-being for the benefit of the community.
Pat Tillman was a linebacker for Arizona State University who as a junior helped his team make it to the Rose Bowl. That year he was voted the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year.
In the 1998 NFL draft, Tillman was selected with 226th pick to play Safety for the Arizona Cardinals. He started 10 of the 16 games of his Rookie year.
Two years later, in 2000, Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman picked Tillman to his 2000 All Pro Team after Tillman finished with 155 tackles and 2 sacks, among others.
But everything changed for the young football star the next year when on the morning of Tuesday, September 11th, terrorists launched 4 coordinated attacks on the United States, killing 2,996 people and injuring 6,000 others.
8 months later in May, 2002, Pat Tillman turned down a contract offer for $3.6 million dollars from the Cardinals to enlist in the United States Army.
Soon after, he joined the Army Rangers and was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Because for Tillman, his personal comforts, his personal career, even his personal safety was secondary to the needs of his country.
For Tillman, what benefitted the community was more important than what benefited him.
And sadly he paid the ultimate price. In April of 2004, Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire while patrolling the mountains of Afghanistan.
In some ways, the life Pat Tillman lived, the sacrifice he made, was the life Jesus calls us to- an ultimate, all-or-nothing commitment.
It’s daunting to consider, isn’t it? But it’s nevertheless what we are called to do.
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.
If your foot, causes you to stumble, cut it off.
If your eye causes you to stumble cut it off.
What is it in your life that is preventing you from living the selfless life Jesus calls us to?
What is distracting you from radical discipleship?
Revisiting the imagery of the passage, it’s easy to interpret this passage as an exaggerated illustration for keeping clear of sin. But maybe the dramatic imagery can be translated into more helpful, practical terms for our lives of faith.
Maybe…
Jesus uses the image of the hand to conjure up images of one’s handiwork, what one does or produces, or how one makes a living. And if that vocation or work is causing others to stumble or keeping you from the life God wants for you, well then maybe Jesus is inviting you to revisit whether it’s something you should be doing. “Cutting it off” in other words, for the sake of Christ’s call. Challenging words for sure.
Maybe…
Jesus uses the image of a foot, to conjure up images of our direction- what moves us toward a destination. Where are we going? What are our aims? Are our goals in life keeping with the goals of being citizens of God’s kingdom? If it’s not, well maybe Jesus is asking us to stop and change course.
Maybe…
Jesus uses the image of an eye, to represent what attracts our attention. Wandering eyes aren’t just in reference to sexual attraction. “Decisions about how one uses time, spends money, and establishes priorities are all based on where the eye is focused.” What are we focusing on, and is that in line with a life pleasing to God?
Jesus calls us to radical discipleship. A discipleship that requires us to focus less on ourselves and our personal needs and more on the needs of others.
These words are convicting and the challenges are great. Jesus has again raised the bar.
But his words are also infused with hope.
Because this self-giving, this self-sacrifice, this way of living will ultimately give us the peace that frees us.
Amen.

No One is Beyond Hope

(painting by C&C member Pam Hancharik)

Acts 9:1-19

Chuck Colson served as Special Counsel to President Richard Nixon from 1969-1973. Once known as the President’s “hatchet man”, Colson gained notoriety at the height of the Watergate Scandal.

To put it mildly, he wasn’t highly regarded.

Slate magazine writer David Plotz described Chuck Colson as “the ‘evil genius’ of an evil administration.”

He collaborated with a group to break into the psychiatrist’s office of Daniel Ellsberg, the man known for releasing the Pentagon Papers. He had hoped leaking personal revelations about Ellsberg would help discredit the anti-Vietnam War cause.
When that wasn’t successful, he distributed information from Ellsberg’s confidential FBI file to the press.

News stories claimed Colson once boasted that he would run over his own grandmother to re-elect Nixon.

By most measures, Colson would be considered a very bad man.

It was Colson’s fierce intensity that struck fear in many who encountered him.

When it was revealed that the think-tank Brookings Institution possessed politically damaging documents, Colson proposed firebombing the place and stealing them while firefighters put the fire out.

By his own admission, Colson noted he was valuable to the President … “because I was willing … to be ruthless in getting things done”.

In March of 1974, Colson was indicted for conspiring to cover up the Watergate burglaries.

But this wasn’t the end of the road for Colson.

As he awaited arrest, his close friend, Raytheon Chairman Thomas L. Phillips gave Colson a copy of Mere Christianity, the classic theological book by C.S. Lewis, which articulated in the plain speech the fundamental teachings of Christianity.
After reading it, like a flash of light, Colson was transformed, devoting his life to Christ, and become an evangelical Christian.

Although several in the media ridiculed his conversion, claiming it was a ploy to reduce his prison sentence, Colson was undeterred. He joined a prayer group led by members of congress from both parties and set out to be a new man.
After prayer and consultation with his fellowship group, Colson approached his lawyers and pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice.
As a result, Colson was given a one-to- three-year sentence and fined $5,000
He served seven months in Maxwell Correction Institute in Alabama— from July of 1974 to January of 1975.

While in prison, God continued to work on Chuck Colson.

He became increasingly aware of what he saw as injustices done to prisoners and noticed shortcomings in their rehabilitation. He became convinced that he was being called by God to develop a ministry to prisoners with an emphasis in promoting changes in the justice system.

After his release from prison, Colson founded Prison Fellowship in 1976, which today is “the nation’s largest outreach to prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families”. Colson worked to promote prisoner rehabilitation and reform of the prison system in the United States.

In addition to these efforts, Colson wrote best-selling books and received numerous awards and honorary doctorates for his Christian advocacy. He was a well-regarded public speaker, using his experience to share a gospel message of hope to a world in desperate need of it.
Colson once said,

Where is the hope? I meet millions of people who feel demoralized by the decay around us. The hope that each of us has is not in who governs us, or what laws we pass, or what great things we do as a nation. Our hope is in the power of God working through the hearts of people. And that’s where our hope is in this country. And that’s where our hope is in life.

Power, pride, shrewdness, and corruption led to the collapse of Colson’s life. But after public humiliation and paying his debt to society, Colson elected to place his hope in Jesus Christ.
In doing so, Colson found redemption in the wake of corruption. He became an instrument of Christ, improving the lives of millions of inmates and their families across the globe and sharing the gospel.

Once known for hurting people, Colson later became known for helping people.

Once considered beyond all hope, beyond redemption, Christ used this man to become a vocal advocate for the gospel.

Because if there is one message of the gospel, it’s that no one—no one—is beyond hope.

My prayer is that this message brings comfort to you.

Because we all know people – or know of people-, whom it seems as if all hope is lost.
They’re too far gone.

Maybe it’s someone who has hurt you so badly that forgiving them is 100% out of the question. Time and again they’ve exhibited inexcusable behavior to the point where you have written them off.

Maybe they’re loved ones who continue to make bad decision after bad decision, putting themselves and others in harm’s way.
Repeated attempts for assistance- maybe from you, maybe from others, have come up empty. And it’s drained you of everything you have.

Maybe its someone who seems to have had every possible opportunity- every conceivable advantage– but never seems to be able to lift themselves up out of their challenges. We see this a lot with famous actors, athletes, and musicians.

Sometimes it’s addiction. Sometimes it’s mental illness. Sometimes it’s just poor judgment.
But regardless of the reason, hope seems to have escaped them.
They’ve ruined every opportunity.
They’ve burned every bridge.
Hope is lost.

To many, Paul would have fit this category. If you were a follower of the Way, as the writer of Acts describes early Christians, Paul, or Saul at the time, was about as bad as one could be. He brought terror to those outside of his worldview. He was known to not only threaten, arrest, and imprison Christians, but torture them as well. It is no surprise that when Ananias heard God order him to go tend to Saul, he was reluctant.

To early Christians, Saul was lost. Without hope. Lost to the dark side.
But that’s usually when Jesus makes an appearance. And he does on the road to Damascus.

But if you notice, Saul isn’t instantly restored through this appearance.
Jesus works through Ananias. Jesus appears to Ananias and has him go, lay hands on him and says,
“Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

And immediately, he regained his sight. He arose and was baptized.

Ananias became an instrument of Jesus to help Saul restore his hope and step into the future God has planned for him.

Thomas Phillips became an instrument of Jesus to help Chuck Colson restore his hope and step into the future God had planned for him. By something as small as handing him a copy of an inspirational Christian book.

Where could Jesus be using you to help someone the world has deemed hopeless? How could you be an instrument God uses to restore someone’s hope and help them step into the future God has planned.

We can all become instruments of God’s grace. We can all become like Ananias, summoned to go to someone and offer them the love of Christ. A love, which can have transformative power.

They usually aren’t dramatic scenes as Paul experienced on that road. Oftentimes, they are as simple as offering someone forgiveness. Reminding them of your steadfast love. Staying persistent in prayer. Or offering them a book.

No one is beyond hope.

Paul experienced this personally and deeply. And he shared this experience most notably in his letter to the Romans when he wrote,

I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In Christ, hope is ours.
In Christ, hope is for all.
No matter what.

May it be so.

Amen.

A Matter of the Heart

Mark 7: 1-8; 14-16; 21-23

I will never forget when I was younger my sister and I, who were occasionally prone to bickering and fighting, were in quite the heated altercation. I can’t even remember what it was about. But in a moment of anger, pure white-hot rage, I yelled at the top of my lungs,
“GO TO HECK!!!”
Now my sister thought little of it. In fact, she was probably reveling in the fact that she had clearly gotten under my skin. But it’s at that moment when I heard the dreaded sound. Like a fierce warning. That loud, rhythmic clip clopping of high heels colliding with hard-wood floors.
My breath tightened. My sister and I both knew what this meant.
The moment seemed to hang in balance. Neither of us saying another word. I dare say we barely moved.
The dreaded sound drew closer, the heavy pounding of hard wood floors shifting to the muffled, progressive stomp ascending the stairs.
In an instant, my sister’s door threw open and there in the doorway was my mother.
All red hair and fury, glaring at me.
“Justin Brook Seaford. What did you just say?”
In a panic, I responded, “I said go to HECK, Mom! I didn’t even say the word!!”
“But you MEANT it,” she responded. “Which is just as bad. Now go to your room.”
I slinked off in shame, baffled at how my strategically edited verbal assault on my sister had backfired.
I’ve never forgotten that experience, so props to my mom for some effective parenting! And although different in scope, it illustrates one of the messages in today’s Gospel.
In the passage, Jesus is trying to teach the disciples, Pharisees, and even us, that it’s the meaning behind the purity laws that are important, not just the rote adherence to them. The motivations of the rituals.
It’s what they mean.
Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees and legal experts at the time who are calling him to the carpet, wondering why he and his disciples are not living according to the “tradition of the elders”, by not purifying their hands with water before eating.
Jesus lashes out, quite forcefully, accusing them of being hypocrites by quoting Isaiah 29:
This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far away from me.
To Jesus, it is apparent that the Pharisees and legal experts aren’t concerned with hygiene, they’re more concerned about making sure people are publicly following of the rules.
Because this was a big deal at the time. And before we get too judgey, it’s important to note that the intention of the officials was mostly sincere and devout. The observance of the law was meant to be a witness to the nations around them; to give glory to God. In the midst of Roman occupation, these laws were seen as a way to protect and preserve the Jewish faith.
But in execution, well, let’s just say the intention was lost. These rituals or traditions had devolved into legalism, where the intention was no longer the driving force. Legalism takes into account outward actions, but not inward feelings.
There’s an old story about this criminal who was a devout Muslim. As you know, a follower of Islam is required to stop everything and pray at certain times during the day. As a result, they have to carry prayer mats with them at all times. Well this story has this man chasing someone, knife raised in the air, ready to pounce and murder him. Just then, the bells ring out signaling him to pray. So immediately he stops, pulls out his mat, says his prayers as fast as he could, and then rose to continue his murderous pursuit.
Legalism can make what were once devout, meaningful rituals into meaningless external exercises.
The focus becomes more on appearances than honesty.
It’s sort of like when you catch your kids breaking a rule and you call them on it and they passively snap, “Sorry” and then continue on, without truly expressing regret or remorse.
Jesus is announcing that he isn’t concerned about the outward appearances as much as what originates from the heart. Jesus is more concerned with what’s animating the ritual. What’s behind it. Jesus is more interested in what it means.
Because rituals and traditions, in and of themselves aren’t bad as long their meaning is sincere. This is why Jesus doesn’t reject the Mosaic Law or reject the issue of defilement. What he’s rejecting are the interpretations of these laws, referred to as “traditions of the elders.”
Some background:
Originally for the Jew, the Law meant two things: first and foremost, the Ten Commandments, and also the Pentateuch, which are the first five books of the Old Testament. Now it’s true that in the Pentateuch there are a certain number of detailed regulations and instructions. But in the matter of moral questions, they were content with Jews interpreting and applying these moral principles for themselves.
But in the 4th/5th century before Christ there came into being a class of legal experts known as Scribes. These folks needed definition. The needed these principles expanded and detailed into a thousand little rules and regulations governing every possible action and every possible situation. Life was no longer governed by the principles, but by these rules. Originally known as the “Oral Law”, eventually these were written down and became known as the “tradition of the elders”.
And to Jesus, these interpretations—these “traditions” had deviated from their intended meaning.
They no longer served their intended purpose, to draw us closer to God.
Depending on the tradition, many of us grew up having to don our “Sunday Best” when we went to church. Any of you remember that? Now at my church in Elkin growing up, you didn’t set foot in that place unless, for guys, you had on a sport coat and tie, and for ladies, you had on a dress and perfect hair. That was just what was expected.
Now if the intent for dressing up is to demonstrate respect and reverence for God, then dressing up is perfectly appropriate. Should maybe even be encouraged. But if its real intent is to show off and bring attention to yourself, well then, Jesus would maintain that its missing the point.
It’s all a matter of the heart.
It’s sort of like volunteering, serving, doing good deeds not for the service itself, but so you can be seen as a “good person”.
Let’s be honest. We are all occasionally guilty of this, aren’t we?
In this passage Jesus is imploring all of us, really, to focus on the heart. Jesus has rarely been about the externals. He urges us to be mindful of our motivations. Not to do things just for appearances, like a ritual whose meaning has been manipulated. But to behave in a way that is an authentic expression of a pure, loving heart.
His heart.
And that is available to us through Christ.
Because as a result of our Baptism, we are indeed joined to Christ. His heart becomes our heart. His purity becomes our purity. In doing so, Jesus is able to work through us so that our actions are HIS actions- pure and sincere.
Each and every day.
I really mean it.
Amen.