TITLE: On Swamping Small Boats SCRIPTURE: Mark 9:38-50
In the Gospel lesson for last week, Jesus took a child in his arms and said:
"Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me" (9:37).
Christ calls us to love children and to do what we can to help them. We can all appreciate that.
This week, Jesus sounds as if he is still talking about children. He says:
"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" (9:42).
That's pretty graphic, isn't it! It you cause a little one to stumble, "it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea."
A millstone was really two stones –– a large bottom stone and a smaller top stone. The idea was to place grain between the two stones and to turn the top stone so that the stones would grind grain into flour.
Families would have a millstone to grind grain for their daily bread. Those millstones were fairly small –– but you wouldn't want to go swimming with one hung around your neck.
But they also had large commercial millstones where a donkey pulled the top stone. You especially wouldn't want to have to go swimming with one of those big donkey stones tired around your neck.
When Jesus said, "It would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck," he used the word for those big, donkey-stones. It was as he had said, "If you cause one of these little ones to stumble, it would be better for you if the Mafia would stick your feet in a pail of cement and feed you to the fishes."
Pretty graphic, indeed!
As I said, last week Jesus talked about welcoming children –– or helping children. This week he talks about "little ones who believe in me." That sounds as if he is talking about children again.
But when Jesus used those words, "little ones who believe in me," he was talking about little ones in the faith –– new Christians, perhaps –– or people whose faith was delicate and not fully mature.
In his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul gives us a good example of what Jesus meant about causing a "little one who believes in me" to stumble.
The church at Corinth had many problems. Paul wrote, "It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father's wife (1 Cor. 5:1). Paul called the church to "drive out the wicked person from among you" (1 Cor. 5:13). Why?
For one thing, the church would be putting this man on notice –– telling him that his behavior was immoral ––that he needed to repent and to change his ways. It was a way of giving the man a wake-up call –– warning him that his soul was in mortal danger.
But, for another thing, it was important for the church to disassociate itself from public scandal. The non-Christian population of Corinth would condone many kinds of sexual immorality, but even pagans would be put off by a man living with his father's wife.
So who cares what people think? Christ cares! Christ cares, because public scandals in the church can cause not-yet-mature Christians to leave the church. They also cause outsiders to say, "YUK! Look at what those people in that church are doing! I want nothing to do with that!"
That's the kind of thing Jesus was talking about when he warned his disciples against putting a stumbling block in the path of "these little ones who believe in me" (v. 42). He was saying, "Don't conduct yourself in such a way as to make it difficult for others to believe in me." He was warning, "If you do allow yourself to become a stumbling block to young Christians, God will punish you."
There is another good example in that same letter to the church at Corinth. It had to do with meat sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 8). There were pagan temples in Corinth, and they conducted animal sacrifices. After the animals were sacrificed, the temples made the meat available for sale. Because the temples accepted only top-quality animals for sacrifice, temples were the place to go for the best cuts of meat.
The Christian community was divided. Some Christians said, "We shouldn't eat meat that has been sacrificed to pagan gods." Others said, "We aren't worshiping pagan gods. We're just buying quality beef. The temple's the place to get it."
So Paul weighed in with this thought. He said that there was only one God, so pagan idols didn't amount to anything. Christians could buy meat at pagan temples.
But there was something else to consider. Some not-yet-mature Christians might misunderstand if they saw a Christian deacon standing in line at a pagan temple. They might think that the Christian deacon was worshiping the pagan idol –– and that might cause them to lose faith in Jesus.
So what should Christians do? Should they feel free to eat meat sacrificed to idols or not? Paul's answer was that Christians could buy meat at pagan temples. They could eat it. They could serve it to their guests. No problem!
BUT –– and this was a big BUT –– BUT they needed to "take care that this liberty of (theirs didn't) somehow become a stumbling block to the weak" (1 Cor. 8:9).
In other words, a new Christian or a person contemplating joining the church might misunderstand if he or she saw a Christian lined up at a pagan temple to buy meat, with the result that the new Christian might begin to doubt the Christian faith. Paul said that, if we do things that cause people's faith to falter, we are guilty of sin. He concluded:
"Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall" (1 Cor. 8:12).
What does this mean for us? It means that we need to be sensitive to the vulnerabilities of others. It means that some kinds of acceptable behavior become unacceptable when they would cause a weaker Christian brother or sister to stumble and fall. It means that we need to consider the effect of our behavior on other people.
Let me give you an example. Will Willimon told about a summer job he had in college. He was working for a man who taught Sunday school. The man even started every work day by gathering the workers together and teaching them the Bible.
But after the whistle blew, the Bible-believing Dr. Jekyll turned into an abusive Mr. Hyde. He yelled at people. He humiliated them. In one case, he fired a man who had been a loyal employee for forty years –– terminating him "without prospects or pension."
If you worked in such a place, how would you feel the next morning when the man required you to gather round so that he could teach you the Bible? Probably not very good! His behavior would cause you to doubt the value of the Christian faith –– of the church –– of Christ. It was that sort of thing that Jesus was talking about when he said:
"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's been lots of years since Willimon worked for that man, so it's likely that the man has since died. I can just imagine his funeral. They surely talked about his Christian faith. They surely mentioned that he taught Sunday school. They surely talked about him teaching his employees about the Bible. He surely got a big write-up in the local paper –– and a big tombstone. There were probably many cars in his funeral procession.
But I wonder what Jesus will have to say when he sees that man face to face. I wouldn't want to be in that man's shoes, because he was a "stumbling block" Christian. He surely turned a good many people off to Christianity by his abusive behavior.
So what does Christ expect of us? When we travel through life, we leave a wake behind us. Is our big wake swamping the small boats that we pass along the way? Will Christ condemn us if we are guilty of hurting the "little ones" in our midst?
I am of two minds about that. First, I have to acknowledge that Jesus will hold us responsible for behavior that turns people away from faith –– away from the church –– away from faith. As your pastor, I need to warn you that he will hold you accountable if you ignore the effects of your behavior on other people.
But second, we must also acknowledge the grace of God. Very few Christians go through life without creating a stumbling block for someone –– without swamping someone else's boat –– sometimes without even realizing it. If Christ came to forgive our sins, then he will need to forgive our "stumbling block" sins.
But the big message that I want you to hear is that it isn't just our behavior that is important, but also the effects of our behavior on others.
Your big test probably won't be when someone points a gun in your face and says, "Renounce Christ or die." Your big test will probably come when you are tired and stuck in a supermarket line that comes to a halt when someone disputes a price with the clerk. It is in moments like that that we need to pray silently, "God, give me the grace to get through this" –– because we never know who is looking –– and we never know whose boat we might swamp if we respond the wrong way. And we never know who we help if we respond the right way.
Let me close with a few questions. Give them some thought. The first one is this: Is your behavior at work embarrassing Christ? Second: When your children see how you behave, does that make it more difficult for them to be Christians? Third: Does your sexual behavior embarrass Christ and the church? Fourth: Does the way that you use drugs or alcohol make you a poor witness for Christ? Fifth: Does the way that you treat people in the supermarket embarrass Christ?
There are many more questions that I could ask, but think about those this week. Learn to treat every human contact as an opportunity to vote for or against Jesus.
HYMN STORY: All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name
The words for this hymn were written by Edward Perronet (1726-1792), whose family had been Huguenots who, before Edward's birth, fled from France to Switzerland and then to England to avoid persecution. Perronet's father, Vincent Perronet, became a Church of England vicar, and pastored a church in Shoreham for 50 years. The father was a friend of both Charles and John Wesley.
The son, Edward –– the writer of this hymn –– was a hot-tempered man who started as a Church of England pastor –– and then became a Methodist –– and then was involved in the split of the Methodist Church from the Church of England –– and finally became a dissenter and served an independent congregation for the balance of his life.
This hymn was first published in 1789, and was paired from the beginning with the hymn tune, "Miles Lane," by 19-year-old William Shrubside. While it is still associated with that tune in many hymnals, most American hymnals use the tune "Coronation," written by an American, Oliver Holden, in 1793.
Some of the original words have also been changed. Dr. John Rippon, a Baptist minister, rewrote some stanzas and wrote one new stanza for his 1787 hymnal. The result is that the words for this hymn differ from hymnal to hymnal today.
The hymn is a tribute to Jesus' lordship. It portrays Jesus as a king –– with angels at his feet –– with a crown on his head –– with "ev'ry kindred, ev'ry tribe" singing praise to his majesty. And it celebrates our opportunity to be part of the celebration –– to "join the everlasting song, and crown Him Lord of all." It promises to be the grandest party ever, and we are all invited!