The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Word and Example
As I stand here in this pulpit, and look out over this crowd of people, one thing is clear to me: no one in this room is a biblical literalist. There are many reasons for which I am glad about that, not the least of which is the disturbingly graphic Gospel passage we heard this very morning, with all its lopped off limbs and plucked out eyes. This is probably one of the few passages that really draws a hard line in the sand for aspiring literalists, the other being the one about giving all of one’s money to the poor.
I am an Episcopal priest these days, living in a denominational land where biblical literalism is scarcely found. But I grew up in the Pentecostal tradition and so I know a thing or two about Biblical literalism. This will give you an idea of that landscape: I was once warned that if I did not take everything in the Bible literally I was calling the entire Bible a lie. Literalism or bust. There were a number of self-proclaimed literalists in my church. They were constantly distressed about the many Christians, especially those in churches like the Episcopal Church, who did not take the Word of God literally and therefore found themselves in the clutches of moral decay, of spiritual moribundity. And yet still, even they, in all their earnestness, did not take this Gospel passage literally. No one in that Pentecostal church ever personally maimed their body to save their soul. Even literalists understand this Gospel to be metaphorical in nature. And for that I am exceedingly glad. I am glad that even literalists understand that literalism has limits.
It should go without saying that self-mutilation is not what Jesus is calling for here. The maimed are not more likely to enter into the kingdom of God. Neither does half the eyes make one twice the Christian. The math does not add up.
Jesus is bringing out some big hyperbole here. He is clearly trying to get his audience’s attention – and I think he did. This is not quaint or polite language. Jesus is being a bit dramatic. He does not mean for us to take his words literally but neither does he mean for us to blow them off or ignore them. Don’t take them literally, please, but do take them seriously.
I had a little fun with my Pentecostal upbringing at the beginning of this sermon, but one of the things from that tradition for which I continue to be thankful is that I was taught from a young age that my life was my witness. What I did as a follower of Jesus mattered. We were expected to talk about Jesus. But also we were taught that no one will take your Jesus talk seriously if they do not see Jesus in your life, in your actions.
And that is not only a Pentecostal thing. It is a Christian thing. We are called to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ with our words and by our example. It’s right there in the Baptismal Covenant of the Book of Common Prayer. It’s both/and. And a rightfully skeptical world is watching the Church closely to see if the words and deeds do in fact line up.
Now I know many of you follow the news. And so you see and hear what Christians are doing out there in the world, what Christians are doing behind closed doors. And so you also know that unfortunately, they often don’t line up.
It has been said that, “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” And maybe it’s not totally accurate to say “atheists”, but unaffiliated is the fastest growing religious affiliation in our country and Christianity is the one on the steepest decline. So we might say the greatest single reason people are leaving the Church is the Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle.
It is the graphic nature of Jesus’ personal mutilation imagery grabs the reader’s attention, but it is important that we notice that Jesus’ concern goes far beyond the personal salvation of any one follower. This is not a passage about personal salvation, but personal holiness for the salvation of the world. Jesus introduces the section, frames the conversation by saying: “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.” That is a poetic way to say: “You’d be better off dead.” Do you doubt that Jesus takes this stuff pretty seriously? The journey to Heaven is a group trip. No one has to walk it alone. But no one gets to walk it alone either.
Our witness matters. We are the Body of Christ in this world. The Church represents Jesus to a world that needs to know and experience his impossible love. That is our mission: to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, the Good News of God’s impossible love. Jesus tells us that the world will know we are Christians by our love, because we will be the vessels that carry his perfect love around in this world. Do you think that is what the Church in this country is known for?
I would say right now the Church in the U.S. is best known for the child sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me…” The number of young lives and families violated by Church leaders, by people who said all the right words, who dressed the part, who committed terrible acts in Jesus’ name, should make us all sick. And if the terrible things done were not bad enough, and they definitely were, the fact that the Church hierarchy went to such great lengths to protect the reputation of the institution instead of the people is rightfully devastating to our Christian witness.
We might have this way of breaking into all of these denominations to shield ourselves from the scandals and beliefs of other churches, but those distinctions and divisions are artificial. They matter little, if at all, to the growing population of the religiously unaffiliated. And they seem to matter little in the economy of God; our baptismal font does not make Episcopalians; it makes Christians – and so does the one at First United Methodist, and so does the one at First Baptist, and so does the one at First Pres, and so does the one at St. Mary’s. We might not agree on everything but we are all members of the same family, born into the same household, sealed by the same Spirit, marked with the sign of the same cross. And in our culture, in our media, we are all often painted with the same brush, the same broad strokes – whether we think that’s fair or not.
The people we hope to reach with the Gospel of Jesus, they see a Church in this country that has traded our Christian witness to protect our religious institutions, our political parties, our business interests, our social status. Of course that is not always the case; of course the Church is also doing good in our country, is fighting for justice, is showing mercy. Of course that is true too. But the reality is: the good is expected of us because we are followers of Jesus. We’re not going to get a lot of credit for doing what we should be doing. It’s the harmful, the hypocritical, the sinful things done by those who claim the name of Christ that are dissonant and they catch the attention of a skeptical world. When the Church is in the business of putting down stumbling blocks of course people get hurt.
We are held to a high standard, a high standard of holiness – by the world and by Jesus. And that is a challenge because no one is perfect, not even those washed clean in holy waters, not even those sustained by the body and blood of Christ. Every week we admit before God and the gathered that we sin in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. In short, we admit that we sin in just about every possible way, as individuals who are individual members of the Church. Holiness is hard.
And yet Jesus chooses us to be his body in this world. He believes in us; Jesus is placing his trust in us. That is, I think, a questionable decision. But it is God’s choice even though God knows we are not perfect. Maybe that’s why God chooses us. Light shines best through cracked vessels. We have experienced Jesus’ amazing grace and his impossible love. It is ours to share; we get to share that love. It is a priceless gift, a gift that Jesus trusts us to give, to share with this world. But no one will be interested unless our lives show that that love makes a difference.
Being a Christian is serious business. It requires of us our very best. Our primary ministry, the ministry shared by every Christian, lay and ordained, according to the catechism is to represent Christ and his Church in the world. That is the most important thing that we do, what God is calling us to do: we represent Jesus. When people look at us they should see Jesus. When people hear our words, they should hear the Good News of Jesus.
That huge, but also amazing, responsibility should drive every decision we make, every cause we support, every action we act, every word we speak. Jesus is trusting us to be his body in this world. According to this Gospel he doesn’t need us to have perfect bodies – even his body has a few scars – but, by the grace of God, he does need us to be the cracked vessels of his perfect love.
 Brennan Manning at the beginning of the dc Talk song, What if I Stumble?