The role of sin in the lives of the people of God is something which is often downplayed. Not that sin is ignored but the ramifications of our sin are often pushed out to places where we no longer have to really look at them. We know we do sin, we struggle with sin, but we also know we are saved by grace through faith in Christ alone, so we have the temptation to not think too much about our sin. You sin, you confess, your turn in repentance to your Lord, He is ready and willing to forgive. Every Sunday as we gather together you hear the words of absolution, “In the stead and by the command of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, I forgive you all of your sins.” Forgiveness, we treasure it, we hang on to it, we need it to endure through the sin that so easily entangles us and stains even our very best work. Yet, there are real, lasting ramifications to our sin. There are consequences which go beyond our own assurance of salvation and affect others, your family, friends, your brothers, and sisters in Christ. They can be wounded and torn by your sin, just as you are hurt by theirs. We like to believe our faith and life is only a personal thing, an individual preference with no impact on one another. You do you and I will do me. But it is not. It never has been, and I think we all know that.
In Mark 9, our Lord using a terrifying image to address the seriousness of sin in the lives of God’s people. “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believes in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a millstone tied around his neck and be cast into the sea. And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It would better to enter Heaven crippled than with two hands go into the unquenchable flames of Hell. If your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out.” In this image the cause of sin is to be rooted out. No matter how much it might hurt, no matter how disfigured you might end up, you must rid yourself of the sin, for if you do not, you risk losing the whole Kingdom. You risk losing the blessings of paradise and are greeted instead with the promise of Hell.
What do we do with a text like this? What is the response of the people of God when they hear Jesus talking this way? Because we should be honest, this is a bit of a difficult thing. He is clearly highlighting the seriousness of sin and the destruction it can do to the body, but are we really to follow this example? If you were to begin cutting off all the things which cause you to sin, where would it end? You might start with a hand or a foot or gouge out an eye but eventually you need to deal with far more problematic things, things not so easily removed, not that losing a hand is an easy thing, but you can still imagine life without it. But earlier in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has said it is, “From within, out of the heart of man that evil comes” (Mark 7:21). Can you live without your heart? Can you cut it out in a desperate attempt to remove sin from your body? Well, this seems to be a bit much. It turns Christianity into some sort of suicide cult. Most would simply water it down a bit, saying Jesus wants us to know the seriousness of our sin, perhaps even try and make changes, even painful changes to our life so we do not fall away. Others will just skip this text altogether and focus on something a little more positive.
Yet, the context in which Jesus speaks these difficult words offers a lot of guidance. The disciples had asked a man who was casting out demons in the name of Jesus to stop. The reason they gave was this man was not following them, he was not part of the group of disciples. Now this makes sense, for if you remember from last week, the disciples were just having a debate about who is the greatest among them and this guy is not even among them. But Jesus calls them to task saying, “The one who is not against us is for us.” Instead, He calls for them to care for the little ones. In fact, He says if you cause one of the little ones to sin, it would be better for you to have a millstone tied around your neck and to be drowned in the sea. That is the better option? That is something you might want to avoid. The little ones, the least, those on the fringe of the fellowship, those in need of the gifts and promises of Christ, those are to be treated as the greatest and to cause them to sin, to push them out, to demand they stop is a terrible thing.
Jesus is challenging the fellowship. He is not simply speaking about your physical body but perhaps especially about the body of Christ, about our life together, about this community right here and right now. The great sins of the people of God are not just personal, individual sins, sins you confess in your heart as you fall empty handed before your Lord. No, we can sin as the people of God, sin as a community gathered around our Lord’s promises. We can be those who exclude and push out the little ones, those who turn away from the broken and hurting, those barely hanging on out at the fringe of the community. We have allegiances to particular traditions, political parties, to world views which turn us in righteous judgment against our brother and sister in Christ.
To all of this Jesus says, get out the knives and start cutting. The pride and arrogance separating the family of God’s people must be gouged out. The self-righteous judgment that does not bring healing to those who are hurting and wounded but only lasting pain and distrust cannot be tolerated. In other words, the fellowship of the faithful is going to a be a fellowship full of scars. For to be bound to one another, to stand by the side of your sister in Christ, to care for your hurting brother, requires the removal of those things our world told us are so important. The allegiances of this world must be done away with so you can embrace one another.
The living Word of God dwells in the midst of His community. He has promised where two or three are gathered there He is in our midst. He is present. He abides with us. Now, we all know He is here in the gifts He has given, in the proclamation of the Word and in the Sacraments, in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Of course, He is here in these things for you, for forgiveness and hope. But it does not end there. He is in the actions and the words of your brothers and sisters. He is there when you see your brother who is struggling and doubting the promises are really his. He is there when your sister prays for you and tells you how you are loved. He is there when you embrace the guilt-ridden sinner and remind them of the love of Christ.
It is better for you to be lame and disfigured, to be filled with scars, to reject the ways of this world than to lose the true gift and strength of the Family of God. For this is a place of love and mercy, truth and forgiveness, hope in the midst of an age filled with lies and deception, death and decay. And it is Christ our Lord who leads the way. It is Christ alone who makes any of this possible. For He was truly cut-off and willingly so. He was separated from the love of the Father in order to save you. He bears your sins, suffers in your place, dies, and rises again. It is all so you would not be cut off from the Kingdom of God, so you would know you are forgiven and welcome in eternal life.
I always thought it was fascinating how when Saint John talks about the appearance of our resurrected Lord in the upper room, he speaks specifically concerning the marks of the nails in His hands and the wound in His side. When we think of resurrected bodies, we think of our body being perfected, healed, made complete. But somehow Jesus carries the scars of faith on into eternity. Your scars, your wounds will not last forever. They are temporal, eternal healing will come. But on that glorious day of the Resurrection, we will know our Lord by the scars of faith, scars which bind us all together, scars that turn us into a family, into brothers and sisters. So, let us have peace with one another as we love and care and forgive in eager anticipation of the glorious day to come.