Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21B)
September 26, 2021
Text: Mark 9:38-50
Life in Christ means the death of the flesh.
You know that the mutilation of body parts does not solve the problem of sin. It’s not that you don’t take the Word of our Lord seriously. It is true, as Jesus says, that it is better to hack off your hands and your feet, and gouge out your eyes, and so enter into life, than having all those body parts intact, “be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:47-48; ESV). It is better. But you also know that bodily mutilation won’t do the job. There are many people in our day who do not know that, so they mutilate otherwise healthy body parts, hormonally or surgically, desperately hoping this will bring them life and happiness and fulfillment. But, of course, it doesn’t. It simply leaves them even more broken, and more desperate to find justification in their identity (by the way, I’m convinced all this talk of identity, be it gender identity, or racial identity, identity politics is really a quest for justification apart from Christ). It is better to enter into life, even if that means amputation and pain. But you know that if you, today, right now, cut off your hands and your feet, and gouged out your eyes, you wouldn’t be anymore righteous. It would not justify you. Instead, what would you be? You’d be a handless, footless, eyeless… sinner! You would still bear your unrighteousness. And you’d still sin. Because the problem is not your hands, feet, or eyes. The problem is your heart. “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness” (Mark 7:21-22). So that is the part of you that needs a radical operation. Your heart is bad. You need a new heart. “Create in me a clean heart, O God” (Ps. 51:10).
All this is to say, Jesus is calling for something much more violent than at first appears. Because, to make your heart new, our Lord must first kill you. He is calling for your death. The drowning of Old Adam. The mortification of the flesh. He is calling for repentance. He is calling for crucifixion.
Where your hand reaches out to strike your neighbor, to harm him, to stop him from mighty works, or even mundane service in Jesus’ Name, to take what belongs to him, to cheat, to hoard up for yourself, to grasp what is forbidden… cut it off! Repent. Don’t do it. Stop yourself. Deny yourself. And where you have done it, confess your sins, be absolved for Jesus’ sake, and then seek to set things right with your neighbor. Like Zacchaeus, who, upon receiving forgiveness and new life in Christ, gave half of his goods to the poor, and restored fourfold whatever he had taken by fraud (Luke 19). Make amends. Restore what you’ve taken. Repair the damage. Die to self. That is the cutting off of the fleshly hand.
Where your feet lead you away from all that is good, the Church, your family, your vocations and responsibilities, away from your Father to a far off country to squander your inheritance (Luke 15)… into all the wrong places, places you’ll be led to sin, to indulge in gluttony or drunkenness, into the company of those who will encourage you in wickedness or in pride, to the bedroom of one who is not your spouse… cut them off! Repent. Stop dead in your tracks and turn around. Like Joseph in Potiphar’s house, who could not do this thing to the Master who trusts him or the God who loves him, flee from immorality and every form of uncleanness (Gen. 39; 1 Cor. 6:18; 1 Tim. 6:11). Where you have stumbled, and where you have fallen, confess your sins, be absolved for Jesus’ sake, and return to the LORD your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (Joel 2:13). That is the cutting off of the fleshly feet.
Where your eyes would look upon worthless things (Ps. 119:37), illicit images that indulge demonic fantasies, where they would look in lust upon your neighbor’s flesh, in greed and envy upon his wealth, covetously at his possessions, idolatrously at his power or fame… gouge them out! Repent. Avert your gaze. Look upon Christ. Fix your eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of your faith (Heb. 12:2), and upon His Word, that He may give you life in His ways. That is the gouging out of the fleshly eyes.
The point is, deny Old Adam and his desires. Cut out his heart. Kill him. Hang a great millstone around his neck and cast him into the baptismal sea. It is painful. It hurts. But it is better. This is what the Lord Himself works in you by this preaching of repentance, by this very Word in our Holy Gospel. And He aids you in this with afflictions, to exercise you and drive you to Himself, to bring you to the end of yourself and your own resources. Salt and fire. Salt to preserve you and arrest the rot. Fire to burn away your idols and all in you that is not of Christ. Life in Christ means the death of the flesh. That is, after all, what has happened to you in Baptism. For you have died with Christ. You have been crucified with Him. It is no longer you who live, but Christ who lives in you. And the life you now live in the flesh, you live by faith in the Son of God, who loved you, and gave Himself for you (Gal. 2:20).
And that is what justifies you and brings you into life. His loving you and giving Himself for you. For all your sins of hand and foot and eye, for all the evil that flows from your heart, the wickedness that infects your mind, the members used for what is impure and unholy… Christ Jesus stretched out His hands to be nailed to the wood. His feet trod the way to Golgotha, and were affixed to the stipes. His eyes were not averted from the will of His heavenly Father, or the love of those for whom He bore the mutilation of His flesh. But they were closed in death… your death, for you. It is better, He declares., that by the wounding of my Body they enter life; that by my enduring the hellish wrath of God poured out for their sins, they not be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched. His heart was torn open, and from it flows the blood and water of your redemption and cleansing. And so, His Body, broken and lifeless, was placed into the grave, sealed in by the stone, all His members, crucified, dead, and buried, for you.
But not just done to death. That is not the goal. What good would that be? That would be like seeking identity and justification in mere mutilation. Life, that is the goal. To enter life. And so the Third Day. That same Body, wounded, pierced, expired, and interred, has sprung to life again. He is risen. He lives. His hands now animated to serve you, to hand feed you that same crucified and risen and life-giving Body. His feet to come to you, to dwell with you, to make His tent you. His eyes fixed in love upon you. His lips open to speak to you. He breathes His Spirit and life into you by His Word. You are enlivened. Raised up out of the waters. To walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:4).
That means new hands for you, even now, to reach out and aid your neighbor in his bodily needs, to do him good, to work for him, prosper him, give to him, all the while not counting on the work of your hands to make you righteous, but grasping instead by faith the salvation that is given to you freely in Christ, who is Himself your righteousness.
It means new feet washed by the Lord Himself (John 13), absolved feet that run the way of God’s commandments (Ps. 119:32), beautiful feet on the mountains that bring good news (Is. 52:7; Rom. 10:15), feet shod with the readiness given by the Gospel of peace (Eph. 6:15).
It means new eyes, opened by the Lord Jesus who gives sight to the blind (Luke 4:18), eyes that look to Christ in faith, and to the neighbor in love, eyes that look upon all human life as sacred and redeemed, precious in God’s sight, worthy to be held in honor and protected by you, whom the Lord has lifted from the pit of death, to Spirit-filled, resurrection life.
It means a new heart, a heart of flesh and not of stone (Ez. 36:26), a right spirit within you, the joy of God’s salvation, and the upholding of His Holy Spirit (Ps. 51). It is a heart that beats with the love of Jesus Himself, for God, and for the neighbor. So your whole body becomes a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship (Rom. 12:1).
Now, all of this in great weakness in this present life, of course. Simul iustus et peccator. At the same time righteous and sinner. Repentance is daily. It is constant. The daily drowning of Old Adam. The continual crucifixion of the flesh, cutting off the fleshly hands and feet and eyes. And daily living by faith in the new reality of Christ who was delivered up for your trespasses and raised for your justification (Rom. 4:25). Daily the new man emerges and arises to live before God in righteousness and purity. Continually you need the forgiveness of sins and new life, and that is what Jesus continually gives you as you daily hear the Gospel and believe it.
But the Day is coming when the old will have perished forever, and this new life will be manifest and complete in your body. When Jesus comes again, visibly, His hands raised in benediction, His feet trampling the serpent’s head, His eye on those who fear Him and who hope in His steadfast love (Ps. 33:18). Then He will lower His hand and pull you out of the grave. He will raise you from the dead, hands, feet, eyes, and all your members, your reason and all your senses, sanctified, righteous, never again to lead you into sin.
Life in Christ means the resurrection of the body. That is what Jesus is doing as He brings you to repentance and faith. He is tearing down the old and broken. Behold, He is making all things new. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.