Scandalous Savior, Scandal-less Faith

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[Jesus said:] “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched’” (Mark 9:42-48).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The last few weeks we’ve been reminded over and over how slow Jesus’ disciples are in getting the Good News of Jesus Christ. Jesus foretells His death and resurrection, and Peter gets up in His face and tells the Lord it is not going to happen on his watch. Jesus rebukes impetuous Peter: “Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” A couple of weeks ago, we heard how when Jesus’ disciples are unable to heal a boy with an unclean spirit, Jesus has to teach them a lesson on humility, faith, and prayer. Last week, we heard about the disciples arguing about which of them is the greatest in Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus uses a child as an object lesson to teach them true greatness comes in humble service to all.
And to think, these are the men Christ has chosen to be His apostles, His ambassadors to a dying world—men who are slow to learn, too proud to ask for help. God does, indeed choose the foolish, the weak, the low and the despised to accomplish His plan of salvation. That, in itself, is so scandalous that many who might otherwise follow Christ, dismiss Him and His wisdom as foolishness.
I don’t know about you, but I’m comforted by the disciples’ slowness in understanding, because I see the same thing happening to me. I’m sure you do, too. We say we believe. We say we trust Jesus entirely for our salvation. And yet we still cling tenaciously to our deeds, our creeds, our credentials, and whatever else we think we might need to open the pearly gates, just in case God’s grace isn’t free after all, and we need a little something in our pockets to bribe St. Peter.
It is easy to forget that even our recognition of Jesus Christ as Lord is a gift from God. But it is! It is God’s gift even that you and I are here this morning to worship Jesus Christ as Lord. We’re apt to think that we’ve got something to do with it. We’ve made the right choices. We’ve done the right thing. And it’s just a darn shame that more people wouldn’t do the same thing. We forget that before we even lifted a finger to do anything, while we were yet dead in our sins and trespasses, God did everything for us in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The death and resurrection of Jesus is so counterintuitive, we Christians even fail to appreciate just how scandalous it is to Old Adam. It messes with our minds. It lays waste to our neat and tidy ways of doing things. And very often, we simply don’t get it. And that was true of Jesus’ disciples as well. Even when Jesus patiently, repeatedly explained to them that He had to die and rise, they didn’t get it. His teaching would usually just go right over their heads and they were afraid to ask Jesus what He meant. When they did catch on to what He was saying they would refuse to accept that such a thing to could happen to their Lord.
Like in today’s Gospel. With the object of Jesus’ lesson about greatness still running around the house in Capernaum that Jesus and His disciples call home and headquarters, John files a complaint: “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” Don’t worry, Lord! We took care of the problem. You’ll have no unauthorized use of Your name going on here as long as we’re around!
I’m sure that Jesus’ disciples thought He would approve. But He doesn’t. Instead, He says something that sounds a little strange to us: “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in My name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of Me. For the one who is not against us is for us.” That’s right. “The one who is not against us is for us.” We usually say it the opposite way, the exclusive way: If you’re not for us, you’re against us. But Jesus turns it around and stands it on its head. It’s inclusive: The one who is not against us is for us. You see, the only way out of Jesus’ kingdom is to rebel against it, to oppose it, to resist it, to reject it. We must never seek to prevent others from preaching and proclaiming Christ, even if they are not part of our specific group. We must proceed carefully, leaving the final judgment to Christ Himself. Who knows through whom the Lord will work?
One of the great geniuses of the Lutheran reformation was that it didn’t create a new church. There was no such thing as a Lutheran Church, simply Lutheran churches. Churches that taught the same thing about how a sinner stands justified before God, declared righteous, innocent and blameless for the sake of Jesus Christ alone. But they didn’t form a new church; they simply reformed the churches. And they were able to see the church in any gathering in which the Gospel was purely taught and the sacraments were correctly administered. In other words, the Lutheran reformers allowed for the “unknown exorcist,” the one who proclaims the kingdom even though he isn’t “one of us.”
But it isn’t always that way. Sometimes we act as if we think if they aren’t Lutheran, they aren’t Christian. And Jesus would remind us: If they aren’t against us they are for us. There’s the key to understanding the kingdom of heaven that Jesus is bringing by His dying and rising. It is both exclusive and inclusive. It embraces the world inclusively; yet it is exclusively Jesus who does it. The world has no other Savior, nor does it need one. Jesus Christ is the all-sufficient sacrifice of atonement for sin, the perfect Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
It also reminds us that we have no exclusive claims on Jesus, even though He has an exclusive claim on us. That means we don’t assume that God hasn’t arrived on the scene until we have. It means we’re more inclined to listen to what God has done before we got there. He has His secret agents scattered all over the place: the Eldads and Medads who prophesy in the camp of Israel, the unknown exorcist who is casting out demons in the name of Jesus, the nurse who prays with her patients, the trucker who tells others on the road the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ, the pious Russian grandmother who baptizes her grandchildren when the churches are destroyed and the priests are taken away, or the stranger who speaks a gentle word of Gospel while sharing a cup of water. God is sneaky and subversive. He has agents lurking all over the place. And no one is absolutely necessary to the success of the kingdom. Certainly not you or me.
This means when we start hearing or seeing stuff we don’t like or approve of, we need to take a deep breath and be careful not to cause someone to stumble in their trust in Jesus. That was one of Luther’s defining pastoral principles, similar to the first rule of Hippocrates in medicine: “First, do no harm.” With Luther, that went, “Don’t cause the pious faithful to stumble in their faith.” That’s why Luther was so slow and intentional and careful in instituting changes, even changes like receiving both the Body and Blood of Christ in the Supper. He didn’t want anyone to think that God was now pleased with them because they were “doing it right.” Or that God was pleased with them for ignoring the Pope. Or that God was pleased with them for any reason other than the death and resurrection of Jesus. If we fail to understand this, we place stumbling blocks to people’s faith.
And it’s stumbling from faith that Jesus is concerned with in our text. The word is skandalizo, from which we get the word “scandalize.” It means cause to stumble or fall. What Jesus is saying is that anyone who causes a humble believer in Jesus, a little one of faith, to stumble in his or her trust in Jesus ought to have a millstone tied around his neck and be thrown into the deep. Oh, to be sure, people will be scandalized by the Gospel. Just try telling people that every sin and every sinner is forgiven in the one death of Jesus—they’ll be scandalized, all right. But let’s make sure that they are scandalized by the Gospel and not by us. Our words and actions should not be scandalous, but “scandal-less,” without scandal.
What Jesus says next makes more sense if skandalizo is understood as “stumble from the faith” rather than “cause to sin.” If your hand scandalizes you, that is, causes you to not believe in Jesus, you’d be better off cutting it off and entering life with one hand than to burn in hell with two. Likewise your foot and your eye. But it wouldn’t keep you from sin. Your hand doesn’t cause you to steal or harm your neighbor. Your foot doesn’t carry you to forbidden places. Your eye doesn’t cause you to covet. Your tongue doesn’t cause you to lie or gossip. Your private parts don’t cause you to lust or lead you into carnal sins. You could cut them all off and you would still sin. The problem goes much deeper than body parts. As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, it’s the heart that is the source of sin, and Jesus doesn’t suggest we carve out our own hearts. He does that through His means of grace! And He promises us a new, clean heart to go in its place.
No, Jesus isn’t preaching morality and ethics here. Jesus is preaching the kingdom, a radical kingdom that justifies the ungodly and declares sinners to be righteous in a righteousness not their own. And the religious world would throw a big speed bump in front of you and say, “Wait a minute, you’ve gotta do something to be saved.” And that, my friends, is what Jesus is talking about. You see salvation by grace alone through faith alone for Jesus’ sake alone is a scandal, a stumbling block, to the religious world, because all religions, save one, are in the business of doing things to get right with God. And it’s all that religious doing and religious seeing that’ll land you straight in an unquenchable fire and undying worm of a hell that is entirely unnecessary because Jesus has died for it all on a cross.
And if you think this is all overstated or just some rhetorical excess, remember where Jesus is going as He says these things. He’s going to the cross. He’s going to suffer for the world’s sin. He’s going to have His hand and feet pierced. He’s going to be blinded in the darkness of Death itself. He’s going to suffer the outer torment of the fire of hell you deserve, the inner agony of the worm that never dies. He’s going to the cross to save you, to prepare a place for you, to take that stumbling carcass of yours through death to life, to win for you a salvation that your hands and feet and eyes could neither conceive of nor accomplish for yourself. Your life, your forgiveness, your salvation, your faith, cost Jesus His life on the cross. That’s why He’s so protective against anyone who would cause you or any of His little ones to stumble in their faith. Losing a hand or a foot or an eye is nothing compared to losing your salvation.
Nothing is more important than retaining faith unto eternal life. Do not place a stumbling block before your neighbor’s faith. Let nothing come between you and the Savior. Live in your Baptism through daily contrition and repentance. Come to the Lord’s Table often to receive His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith.   Hear Christ’s Word of forgiveness through His called and ordained servant. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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