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30th September 2012 Trinity 17 ThDr. Petr Jan Vinš


Sermon (Click Link to Listen)

Bible Readings: Psalm 19. 7-14; James 5. 13-20 & Mark 9. 38-50

Petr  Jan Vins and Lenin

ThDr. Petr Jan Vinš is the one on the right 😉 Photo used with permission 😉

Text of Sermon

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out;”

I do not see many one-eyed, one-handed in wheelchairs with us today. So is there something wrong with our adherence to the Gospel? Well, may be we shouldn’t take those words of Jesus too literally. I suppose the Good Shepherd would not want his flock jumping on one leg behind him… And needless to say, some Christians have taken this literally. Some, like the great theologian Origen have cut off delicate parts of their anatomy to prevent falling prey to temptation. But what is the message of the today’s Gospel then…? Let’s have a look on the broader context of those words.

The Twelve think they’ve unveiled a scandal: someone outside their elite circle has been caught in the act. Doing what? Some terrible sin? Not really. He was acting in Jesus’ name and actually casting out demons in his name. Terrible! Unheard of! We’re the Twelve! That’s our job. That’s our privilege. It is just like if someone of you would stand up and start giving a sermon instead of me.

So the good apostles are offended. And how ironic that is. Earlier in chapter nine of the same Gospel, none of the Twelve could exorcise an unclean spirit from a boy. Now here they want to forbid someone who is doing the same thing, but successfully. So not only is he doing something what they suppose is reserved for them, he is doing it way better. Oh, I think we can all understand how they felt…

But what about Jesus? Does he say: only the one with a certificate of exorcist practice signed by a certifying authority is allowed to perform or attempt a prayer of liberation?. No. He simply states: “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me.” Not really what the Apostles expected to hear.

So is anyone allowed to do anything without an official permission of the Apostles – or of the Church in our times – as long as it is supposedly in Jesus’ name? Well, there is a limit to it… There is another exorcist story in Book of Acts. There, some Jews are trying to exorcise someone ‘in the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches’ – which by the way is very historically reliable, as we have quite a few magical texts from the 1st to 3rd Century of Jewish or even pagan origin, that try to take use of various holy names – something as if we today would pray in the name of Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha and Sai Baba hoping that at least one of those would work. So… such a practice is blamed. Why actually? Isn’t it “in Jesus name” as well?

The point is: one cannot do something in Jesus name without taking the commitments of being a follower of Jesus. No-one can be a Christian on a “try-it-for-free three month subscription” basis. Therefore the harsh words about the hand-cutting after.

So, again… how should we understand this? The historians and Bible experts would tell you that it was not a Palestinian custom to refer to an abstract activity but to the specific member of the body which is responsible for it. This belongs to the realism of Jewish thought. So it is in fact the sin itself, that we should cut off and throw away. So Jesus, as a good Palestinian Jew which he was, uses graphic, real-life language, not to call us to engage in extreme examples of self-harm, but to make a radical point about discipleship. He explains us, what does it mean to do something, to live “in his name”.

So, if we cut away our sins, there is also a fulfilment of the words “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.” It does not only speak about causing others to stumble, but also about ourselves. We are indeed sometimes putting stumbling-blocks before ourselves – be it a stumbling-block of our habits, our convenience, our laziness… Jesus constantly reminds us what is at stake. About throwing into Hell he speaks. Which is again a very real-life example, as the word he uses in Greek of the New Testament is Gehenna. That is the Greek name for the Hinnom Valley, where the carcasses of unclean animals constantly burned.

Not really a tourist destination. Again, we shouldn’t take this very literally, but – same as the amputating metaphor – should show us the consequence of being removed, separated from the God’s love and mercy.

He is telling us there is a choice of two destinies in eternity – one full of joy in his Father’s presence, the other empty of it, having chosen to be absent from the Father’s love. And it is the first path, that we want to go…