Jesus is a little strange in today’s Gospel reading. Here, he doesn’t look like a loving and kind person we know. He doesn’t gently encourage or persuade us to follow his way. But he only speaks in a very adamant way to enforce his dos and don’ts to us. And he talks straight out about the extreme things like self-mutilation and being thrown into hell in many times. What’s happening here? The first thing we can immediately notice is that Jesus is really serious today. Like in a school, a teacher, who is usually very kind and generous, one day find something wrong in students and come to a classroom with a serious face…yes, today is that kind of day to Jesus’ disciples. And no kidding, Jesus is telling us something very heavy and grave. So what shall we do? Well…we better listen to him carefully.
Today, the words of Jesus are not just solemn but also very difficult to understand. I personally had a hard time to figure out the meanings; I had to read them over and over again to get to the core. In today’s Gospel reading, I think, Jesus majorly talks about two things that I may title, “the two rules of discipleship.” Having this in mind, I remembered a funny meme I saw on my friend’s Facebook post, which is about the two rules of business. And I found it quite useful for us today too. Two rules of business: first, “Mind your own,” and second, “Stay the hell outta mine.” Funny and very sarcastic, isn’t it? I guess, my friend was having a bad day when he posted this. I get that. Anyway, let me use this meme to summarize the two rules of discipleship that Jesus is teaching us today. So here we go, “two rules of discipleship.” First one is the same, “Mind your own,” but second one is a little different, “Stay out of hell.”
Now, let’s look into rule number one. “Mind your own.” Mind your own business and stop meddling in other’s businesses. Jesus is clear on this in today’s Gospel story. Here, the disciples encounter a person casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Where does this person come from? The disciples were so surprised because right before they meet this person, they failed to cast out unclean spirits from a troubled child (Mark 9:14-18). The healing miracle that this nameless person does in Jesus’ name is exactly what they couldn’t accomplish.
Getting so frustrated and jealous, they go to Jesus and tell on this person to him right away, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us” (Mark 9:38). Can you feel them? They are talking to Jesus like, “We are the disciples. That person is not. That person is not authorized to do such healing business in your name. That should remain exclusive, disciples only.” To them, Jesus replies back, “Don’t stop others who perform God’s work in my name. Whoever is not against us is for us and whoever do a little thing in my name will never lose the reward. So don’t put any stumbling block before the little ones who just start to believe in me.” In short, “Mind your own business guys.” Yes, Jesus is asking the disciples and us to be more mindful of our own discipleship. It’s because, in the end, it’s all about us as individuals standing all alone before God—nobody else. So we better not waste our time looking at the others and saying this and that, but we better mind our own ways to follow Jesus. How true it is!
Then, if we try to be more mindful of our own discipleship, what should we do? Where should we begin? Now we may go over to discipleship rule number two. “Stay out of hell.” It’s sounds simple and easy. But for Jesus, staying out of hell means a serious and ceaseless practice to identify and remove any stumbling blocks from us. And these stumbling blocks may be so deeply entrenched in our lives like our body parts that they are very hard to be taken away. But here Jesus definitively says, “It’s better to enter life without one hand, without one foot, without one eye, than to have whole body and be thrown into the fires of hell.”
In the original Gospel text, Jesus doesn’t really use the word, “hell,” but rather he uses the Aramaic name of a place called Gehenna. This was an actual place called the Valley of Hinnom, just outside the walls of Jerusalem. Centuries before the time of Jesus, Gehennahad been the place of idol worship where some of the kings of Judah even sacrificed their children by fire to the Canaanite god (Jeremiah 7:31; 19:2-6). And thereafter, Gehennabecame a place where corpses of criminals, dead animals, and all manners of refuse were thrown to be decayed and destroyed. So by the time of Jesus, it was a kind of the town dump filled with burning garbage and flesh. It was a desolate place utterly filthy and repulsive to nose and eyes of people. Thus, when Jesus mentions hell, he actually talks about the place like rubbish heap of Gehenna.
With his hell-talk, Jesus radically confronts his disciples. “If your life would end up being dumped out in the place like Gehenna, what would you do to avoid it? You would do whatever you can do. You may even choose to let go of some part of your body, than to be thrown into the cursed dump. Your life is precious. You are created in God’s image and not destined for the ash heap of the world. So what can you discard in order not to risk of discarding your entire life? Dump whatever that makes you stumble before your whole life gets dumped. That’s how you can stay out of hell.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, to be true disciples of Jesus is not easy. There are many distractions on our way. We sometimes get tired of getting no reward; we sometimes don’t like our fellow disciples; we sometimes compare ourselves to others and become frustrated. At these moments, let us remember discipleship rule number one, “Mind your own.” Yes, we better be mindful of our own discipleship always, because discipleship truly is about the personal relationship between us and Jesus, and because in the end, you and I will stand all alone before God—nobody else.
On our way to be faithful followers of Jesus, we also get to find many stumbling blocks embedded in our lives. Our big or small addictions and negative habits, our unresolved anger and emotional wounds, our troubled intentions misled by the spirit of our days, and our desire controlled by culture of this world…physical, mental, spiritual, social, and cultural stumbling blocks keep us from moving forward. At these moments, let us remember discipleship rule number two, “Stay out of hell.” We better choose life in Jesus and try our best to discard the stumbling blocks rather than to have our whole life discarded. We better keep battling against them.
Mind your own discipleship and stay out of hell…as we strive to keep these two rules in our lives, I hope and pray that we may get closer to Jesus day by day; we may be liberated more and more from the things that block us; and we may become more alive and more able in Jesus Christ. May God bless us all and lead our ways to be true disciples always. Amen.
If you are a sports fan, you may have heard about the word, “GOAT.” What does it mean? I can tell you, it has nothing to do with the animal we know. And it is not the bad name to label some players who cause a team to lose a game. Actually, it’s quite the opposite: GOAT is the acronym of “Greatest Of All Time.” Yes, this word is a really honorable title bestowed only on a handful of excellent players who are widely considered the best in sports history. For example, in basketball, Michael Jordan is always listed as the GOAT. In soccer, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo can be the GOATs. In tennis, people call Roger Federer and Serena Williams the GOATs. In baseball, maybe the Hall of Famers can be the GOATs. True, the word “GOAT” sounds a little funny, but no doubt, it’s a very hard-earned title. Sports media or magazines sometimes have debates on the GOAT-ness of some players. But some players are indisputably recognized as the greatest of all time by most people.
Not only in the world of sports but also in different fields of our life and work, we can find some people who also deserve the title “GOAT.” They are the ones who have aspired to be the best in what they do and finally become true professionals in their respective fields. Great artists, acclaimed writers, excellent chefs, pioneering engineers and scientists, good-hearted civil officers, inspiring leaders of social movement, and all the great experts in big or small areas in our lives. I think we can call them the GOATs too. Then, I thought, if we want to find the GOATs in the church, who would be qualified for the title? Who can be the Christian GOATs, the greatest of all time?
In today’s Gospel story, it looks like the disciples are already into the discussion to figure out the GOAT among them. They were heading to Jerusalem, and the disciples were obviously in a heated debate through the long walk. And Jesus is interested to know what it was all about. So when they have arrived in Capernaum and have settled into a house for a meal and a rest, Jesus asks: “What were you arguing about on the way?” (Mark 9:33) But there is no response. The Gospel says, the disciples were silent, because on the way they argued with one another about who is the greatest (Mark 9:34).
Here, their silence tells us many things. Why don’t they tell anything back to Jesus? Do they feel embarrassed because as grown-ups, they shamelessly raised their voices against one another claiming, “I’m greater than you and here’s why?” But in Jesus’ days, social class or rank was much more important and visible than now, and it’s how people ensured their social order. So in their context, the disciples’ debate is not something totally absurd or unacceptable. Then, what’s the reason of their silence? Are they just afraid of telling Jesus about the truth because Jesus doesn’t like the idea of greatness at all? I don’t think so. As far as I know, Jesus never condemns our quest for greatness. Then, what’s the reason? I think, for Jesus, the disciples pursuing to be the greatest is okay, but “the way” they try to be great is not okay. The disciples are silent probably because they are somehow aware of the way of Jesus, even though they deny it.
Jesus takes this way to Jerusalem, takes his steps forward to fulfill his mission, that is, to obey God to the point of death. And Jesus knows, there is only one way to be the greatest victor and savior who can liberate people from the power of sin and death. And this way is the way of the cross, the way of humbling oneself and sacrificing oneself for the sake of others.
But walking on the same way, the disciples have totally different visions for their way to be the greatest. So far they have witnessed Jesus’ divine power and his great miracles: healing the sick, feeding five thousand, and even making the dead alive. On their way to Jerusalem, therefore, they expect that Jesus will finally turn the world upside down and build the glorious kingdom of God where they will be the greatest and enjoy high positions and power next to Jesus. And this lofty aspiration leads them to deny Jesus who predicts his passion and death again and again: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” (Mark 9:31-32).
To the disciples who dream of being the greatest in God’s kingdom, Jesus tells the true and simple way to be the greatest of all time: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). Yes, Jesus doesn’t mind the disciples and us being the greatest and the first. But he radically transforms the way to be the greatest. Jesus tells us, “Do you want to be the greatest, the GOAT in your life? Go ahead and pursue your quest for greatness. But be very sure that the way you should take will never be the way up, but the way down; the way you should walk will never be the way of triumphal procession but the way of the cross.”
How can we become the greatest? By taking the way to possess power and elevate ourselves for self-focused and self-serving purposes? No. We should take the other way around, the way to love others in the life-giving power of Jesus and to serve others for the self-giving and self-sacrificing purposes. And how can our church, First United Methodist Church of Montclair, become the first and greatest church in God’s sight? Our church’s motto clearly tells us the way: “Love First. Serve First.” Yes, that’s the way we become the true first church in this community. True greatness comes in loving others and serving others.
The GOAT, the greatest of all time, I hope and pray, we all walk the way of the cross with Jesus and with one another every day, so that Jesus may bestow that honorable title onto us, the faithful servants of God, someday. Until the day comes, let us love others first and serve others first as our Lord Jesus Christ showed us. Amen.
Take power away from politicians,
And see what’s left.
Take money away from the rich,
And see what’s left.
Take authority away from clergy,
And see what’s left.
Take knowledge away from intellectuals,
And see what’s left.
What’s left after those things are taken away is what they truly are.
Take soul away from me.
Take love away from me.
Take justice away from me.
Even so, if I still am alive,
Even so, if I still live on as though nothing has happened,
Who am I?
Who truly am I?
"What’s Left" – Rohae Park
Today, this simple poem invites us to a mindful reflection on our lives with some in-depth questions: “What is at the core of our life? What is the essence, the sine qua non, without which we are not truly alive and without which we cannot live on?” Here, this poet suggests a simple practice for us to come up with certain answers. I think we can call this practice the practice of imaginary deduction. It’s like we imagine taking something away from us, something seemingly significant and crucial to our life. And as we get rid of those things one by one, we will get to the point where we can tell what’s really indispensable to us among what’s left. At that imaginary point, we may find what matters most in our lives, the essential threads that make up our true selves among all the other threads that are just woven into the complicated fabric of life. For this poet, he writes, such things are soul, love, and justice. How noble he is! Then, for us, what are those essential things? What makes us truly be ourselves?
In today’s Gospel story, Jesus invites his disciples to do a similar practice. He asks them to take human things away from their sight and see clearly what’s most essential to their lives. On the way to the villages of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Then, Peter confesses, “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:29). The Messiah…this Hebrew word, means God’s chosen and anointed one. After long years of exile and oppression in their history, the people of Israel eagerly looked for the restoration of glorious and powerful David’s kingdom. And they believed that God would finally fulfill God’s promise by anointing a powerful leader, a messiah. Peter also believed in this promise of God. So, as he followed Jesus and witnessed him do miracles with divine power, he became so confident about Jesus being that Messiah. And that’s why he can easily give this answer to Jesus, “You are the Messiah.”
But see Jesus’ response to Peter’s answer. He talks about the suffering, rejection, and death that he will have to go through, not the victory, dominion, and glory that a messiah is supposed to achieve. Peter cannot understand this. “What kind of messiah is he?” Or more honestly, he was asking to himself, “What benefit can I get by following this man?” “What good can he do for me?” No…for Peter, Jesus shouldn’t die like that. So he takes Jesus aside and even rebukes him, saying: “What on earth does a messiah undergo such things?” Then, Jesus rejects Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things. If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:33-34).
Jesus knows that even though Peter gives him the right answer, “You are the Messiah,” Peter’s heart is full of human things so he misunderstands what’s truly essential to his life. To this Peter, Jesus may have asked, “Take your human desire for power and honor, dominion and glory away from you. Take your misled expectation and selfish ambition away from you. Take all those human things away from you. In short, deny yourself! Then, see what’s left. What’s left in you? Is my cross left in you? Is my love still alive in you? Am I still there in your life as your Savior? Then, set your mind on those divine things that I place in your life without any price…Jesus may have asked Peter like this. And I am sure, if Jesus were here with us, he would have asked us the same.
Today we are celebrating Rally Sunday as we begin our church’s new season of ministry and as we start our new discipleship and educational programs. But for a fresh start of our church and our lives, what do we need to do first? I think we should do some cleaning first…especially, a cleaning of our hearts. For this spiritual cleaning, we need to take human things away from us, our egos, our will, our pride, our judgment…So let’s take those things away from us and then, see what’s left… see what’s left. Is Jesus Christ still left in our hearts as our Savior and as our friend? Is his cross standing and shining with God’s love and grace somewhere in our hearts? Then, follow him and take up the cross. Yes, we can start from there, again and again, as all the history of Jesus’ followers, the history of God’s kingdom started right from there. Jesus and his cross…do you believe that our life and ministry hinge on this core, this essence? Jesus and his cross, nothing else can be the essence of our faith, our life, our ministry. Do you believe it? As our life gets complicated and messy, let’s take human things away from us and hold on to the core again. As our ministry gets burdensome, let’s take human things away from us and start again from Jesus and his cross. Let’s clear our sight and be very sure about the essence of our life, the essence of who we truly are, the essence of whom we are called to be.
“Take soul away from me / Take love away from me / Take justice away from me / Even so, if I still am alive / Even so, if I still live on as though nothing has happened / Who am I? / Who truly am I?” As soon as I finished reading this poem for the first time, in my mind, I continued writing the next stanza following the poem. “Take Jesus Christ away from me / Take his love and grace away from me / Take his cross away from me / Even so, if I still am alive / Even so, if I still live on as though nothing has happened / Who am I? / Who truly am I?” Sisters and brothers in Christ, as we embark on our new journey of our ministry, I hope and pray that we all can strive to be the true disciples of Jesus Christ. Let us deny ourselves and set our minds on divine things, the essential things for we know that without Jesus, we are nothing, and without his cross, we lose the purpose of our life. And let us take up our own cross and follow Jesus in our daily lives. May our loving Jesus Christ and his wonderful cross be in the midst of our heart and guide our journey of faith always. Amen.
When Roxanne’s son Michael (we call him Mikey) was even younger than now, maybe two years ago, he believed I was like a holy person who is very close to God up high and has come down for him. One day, after a worship service, on his way out, Mikey, pointing his finger at me, asked his father in a small voice, “Pa…can we go home with God?” You know, to a child with a pure heart, I, in a long white robe and a colorful stole, could be seen more than just a human. Then his dad, Garon, replied gently yet definitively, “Mikey, I told you, he is not!” And I supported Garon, “Sorry, Mikey, I am not the one you imagine.”
I still remember this moment not just because it was funny and Mikey was so cute, but because that moment always leads me to think about the true meaning of holiness. “You shall be holy for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:45). This is what God tells to the people of God. “If you want to be in a close relationship with me, you shall be holy, for I am holy.” But how can we become holy? In what way? Let’s think about the meaning of holiness today. We feel something or someone is holy when this particular something and someone is set apart for God and dedicated to God. Right? Little Mikey saw me godly because I was wearing this white robe that distinguishes myself from him and other church members. This sanctuary also evokes a sense of holiness because it is consecrated and dedicated to God. So, it is clear: to become holy, we should be set apart for God. But the question here is, what does it really mean to be set apart?
In today’s Gospel story, there come the Pharisees who set themselves apart from others by keeping the law. And you know what? Their name “Pharisee” means “separated one.” Anyway, in the story, they encounter a group of fellow Jews, Jesus and his disciples. And the Pharisees are taken aback by the disciples’ unholy behavior. They were eating food without washing their hands! That’s a violation of the tradition of the elders, which here means the purity law (halakha). For the Pharisees, there were many laws to keep them clean and undefiled. The Gospel tells, they even had the laws for “washing cups, pots, and bronze kettles” (Mark 7:4). But why did they follow all these rules? For hygienic purposes? Not really. They basically followed the purity law because they believed that it’s the way to set themselves apart from others, and so, to keep them holy. That’s how they maintained their exclusive relationship with God.
Here, we see that there is nothing wrong with the origin and purpose of the purity law. And if we take a close look, what Jesus thinks is the problem is not the spirit of the law but the attitude of the Pharisees toward the law. Jesus calls them hypocrites, because they keep the law to be externally distinguished as holy people, rather than to be truly holy in their hearts. To Jesus, being physically set apart is not a serious concern. What’s essential is to set one’s heart apart for God and keep it holy. Even though the Pharisees keep every law and every tradition of the elders, if their hearts are filled with judgment, they are much more defiled than the disciples who break the purity law. So Jesus admonishes the Pharisees, saying, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition” (Mark 7:6-8). To Jesus, the heart of the matter is our heart on our journey to be holy, our heart in close communion with God’s holiness. Yes, setting our hearts apart for God is the way to be truly holy.
Now we understand that to be holy, we should set our hearts apart for God. Still a question remains, “How can we set our hearts apart for God? In what way?” In today’s Gospel story, Jesus doesn’t miss this point. He says, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:14-23). In short, to be truly holy, we should set our hearts apart from what? From those evil intentions! Jesus is asking us to check our hearts whether there are any evil intentions or not. And he is asking us to do it frequently and every day like we wash our hands, like we brush our teeth, like we take shower to keep us clean, like we check our appearance and outfit for our daily life and for Sunday worship service.
How to live a holy life in communion with our holy God? Jesus teaches: we can set our hearts apart for God by keeping them from evil intentions.It is such a simple and yet onerous way to follow, isn’t it? But for the people of God who are called by Jesus Christ to experience his grace and love in the power of the Holy Spirit, this is the true way of life. Our Methodist church originated from a small group of students who gathered with John Wesley at Oxford University over 200 years ago. Their gathering was called “Holy Club,” and people around them mockingly said, “they are Methodists,” because they keep a method to live a holy life.
Their method was simple. They met every week and checked their hearts and their intentions. They confessed their sins—as we do every Sunday following the tradition—and they encouraged one another to be everyday disciples, to redirect their lives to the path to holiness. Here are some of “22 Questions” they asked to themselves every day and shared in their meetings. Why don’t we read them together?
If we are called Methodists still today and if we call ourselves Methodists, there is a good reason for us to keep this proud faith tradition. Sisters and brothers in the Lord of holiness, on our way to holiness, let us focus on the matter of our hearts than on anything else. “In the Bible the heart is not simply the organ that pumps blood through the body; it’s a metaphor for a person’s innermost core or spiritual center. ‘Heart’ is shorthand for ‘the total person,’ for ‘one’s whole being or self.’” Let us dedicate our hearts totally and unreservedly to God and to be holy in heart, for our God is holy and God sees, tests and searches for hidden intentions of a human heart. Let us make our church be the place where our hearts matter more than our rules, where our hearts beat for the good news, for the love of Christ, and for the glory of God’s kingdom. Amen.
Heidi Husted, “Matters of the Heart (Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23)” inThe Christian Century, August 16-23, 2000 p. 828
Pastor Earl Kim