+ In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti + Amen.
Text: Mark 9:35
Theme: Less is More
Dear friends in Christ Jesus,
The transparency of the gospels not only commends their integrity to us, it allows us to be tutored in the successes and failures of real people. Time and again we hear of the indiscretions of Jesus’ closest followers. Today the disciples were arguing about who among them was the greatest. It’s now 2000 years later and nothing’s changed. Real sinners need a real Saviour. It’s both as simple and as profound as that. It’s also a simplified way to understand the profound reasons why so many absent themselves from God’s house. Why is Christianity struggling? Either people don’t believe they are real sinners; or they don’t believe that here they will find a real Saviour- or both!
Jesus thoroughly knows human nature. He understands our weaknesses. Today He says, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”1 In a society captivated by high-profile athletes, schooled in attitudes of self-promotion, and generally bathed in the philosophy of self-indulgence, the model that Christ emulates here is largely a foreign concept. Political happenings are, perhaps, exhibit A. We aren’t inclined to sacrificial service by nature and the secular world won’t teach it to us. It must be taught by the Spirit. Christ is not merely the example for us; His work is substitutionary. Jesus was born into this world in humble estate and He died under the most humiliating of circumstances. He is the holy, unapproachable God, yet He lowered Himself to embrace our humanity and bear the full consequences of our sins.
The world sees little wisdom in this, but God does not see things through sinful human eyes. God sees things with a view to the resurrection. Sin blinds us to the significance of being estranged from God. Jesus says, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell.”2 These are serious words. The person who is ensnared in his sins will end up perishing eternally. How can this be prevented? Christ is talking about how one avoids hell, eternal destruction. The matter is so serious the cause of sin must be removed. Therefore Jesus speaks of removing the hand, foot, or eye if it causes one to sin. Nothing is more important than one’s eternal destination.
There is more to this issue than the avoidance of sin in outward, physical form. The hands or the feet or the eyes do not act independently of the body. The heart, mind and will form the essence of what constitutes a human being; especially spiritually. They are also the seat of sin. Our Lord Himself says, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.”3 If the foot is infected with gangrene, removing it can save the entire body. So, too, with the hand, and so forth. Still, taken to its logical conclusion, Jesus’ illustration becomes reduced to an absurdity. At some point the amputation of parts of the body no longer saves the body, but brings death to the entire body. Jesus is pointing to something more here. Yes, we must be aware of the temptations we are particularly prone to and steadfastly avoid them, but the matter isn’t thereby resolved. The desire to sin still remains.
Sinful desire is just as worthy of eternal condemnation in God’s eyes as are sinful deeds. Desire is the motivation of action. Sinful desire cannot be removed from the heart by amputation. The heart must be changed. The entire sinful nature must be crucified and raised to life again. We can’t do this on our own. That is really Jesus’ point. We cannot avoid hell on our own, we are doomed. But God, through His word and Spirit makes new people of us. In baptism our sinful nature is drowned and our hearts are cleansed. We are forgiven. Christ laid to rest the punishment for our sins by suffering for us. We could not do it. Salvation, rescue from the perils of hell is by grace, through faith.
As new creations we now live in that grace even though sin still clings to us. After conversion the Holy Spirit engages the struggle within us against the sinful nature. Remember, baptism changes us from the inside out. The heart, mind and will control those members of the body that would participate in sin. What the eyes see is filtered through eyes of faith. What the ears receive is vetted by hearing attuned to God’s truth. A purely motivated heart will lead to godly action, but no outward performance will change the heart inwardly.
Christ turned the popular idea of leadership on its head. He came only to serve. That is what He continues to do. He serves us with the forgiveness of sins declared emphatically in the absolution. He serves us with the strength and power of His body and blood through which we participate in the fruits of His suffering and death. He serves us through the support, comfort, encouragement, and even chastisement we receive from fellow believers. He is the suffering servant who was victorious through sacrifice.
Christ is always engaged in re-forging a proper understanding of relationships. It was completely counter-cultural to suggest that hospitality to children- who had no status in ancient society- should be the model for relating to one another in a godly fashion. It was a reversal- lifting up the lowest and humbling the self-revered. This isn’t a legalistic decree, but the supreme illustration of a Christ-like attitude.
Christ, of course, is pointing us beyond this temporal life. The Christ, crucified for you, lives for you- and with you, and in you, and among us. Through Him we have fellowship with the Father and the Holy Spirit. This is the very essence of life. The hope of receiving the inheritance of heaven independent of a relationship with Christ is a mere illusion. God is not an anonymous benefactor obligated to grant wishes like a genie let out of a bottle. He doesn’t run a government services or charitable organization that issues grants or subsidies through a screening process. Heaven is not a place where we privately or independently indulge in all the activities that most take our fancy.
The unmitigated presence of the Trinity is the essence of heaven. We look forward to eternity not because we’ll be free to occupy ourselves with personal agendas. We look forward to heaven not because we’ll be left unattended and unsupervised to pursue our interests. We will be fully, freely and fearlessly engaged in the sharing of perfected life. The perfection of untarnished relationships will be paramount.
What frees our tongues to sing in joyful praise of God? What opens our hearts to express gratitude for innumerable blessings? What releases us to invest our time and energies in those who are downtrodden, traumatized, lost, lonely, forlorn, living in the shadows of despair, enslaved to the capricious whims of the world? It is the absolute certainty that in Christ the last will be first. We are the last but Christ has prioritized our well-being for eternity. Every Sunday is a celebration of these truths.
+ In nomine Jesu +
Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost
20 September, 2015
Reverend Darrin L. Kohrt
1 Mark 9:35
2 Mark 9:45-46
3 Matthew 15:19