Week 26, Sunday. Words of THE WORD.

“All that You have done to us, O Lord,
You have done with true judgement,
for we have sinned against You
and not obeyed Your commandments.
But give glory to Your Name and deal with us
according to the bounty of Your mercy.”

O God,
Who manifest Your almighty power
above all by pardoning and showing mercy,
bestow, we pray, Your grace abundantly upon us
and make those hastening to attain Your promises
heirs to the treasures of Heaven.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God,
for ever and ever.

RESPONSORIAL PSALM (click for full Psalm)
The precepts of the Lord give joy to the heart. (Psalm 19:9).

SCRIPTURE EXCERPT (click for all readings)
At that time, John said to Jesus,
“Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name,
and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.”
Jesus replied, “Do not prevent him.
There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name
who can at the same time speak ill of me.
For whoever is not against us is for us.
Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink
because you belong to Christ (ὅτι Χριστοῦ ἐστε, hoti Christou este),
amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,
it would be better for him if a great millstone
were put around his neck
and he were thrown into the sea.
If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.
It is better for you to enter into life maimed
than with two hands to go into Gehenna,
into the unquenchable fire.
And if your foot causes you to sin, cut if off.
It is better for you to enter into life crippled
than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna.
And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.
Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye
than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna,
where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched (Mark 9:38-48).’”

Driving out demons, giving a cup of water to drink, not losing one’s reward, putting a milestone around someone’s neck not to mention cutting off a hand and foot while plucking out an eye: quite an array of actions all packed into a single proclamation. Not only is it difficult to discover a common thread among them all, many of the actions are rather gruesome, barbaric and hard to reconcile with a popular image of Jesus Who is often presented as being ‘a nice person.’ Recalling that we are listening to a section of the Marcan Gospel that many scholars view as core to the entire Gospel and having heard 2 distinct Passion ‘predictions’ over the past 2 weeks, it is safe to conclude that there is a vital point among apparent disparate actions that strikes to the core of the Gospel.
Initially, we are presented with actions involving service, particularly service that is done in Christ’s Name. These are actions that are impelled by deepening levels of unconditional love. The actions are not performed to ‘give back’ nor are they performed to get anything in return. Service in the Name of Jesus sees the need and acts practically without thinking to resolve that need. All of Jesus’ disciples are equipped not only to do this, but must do so. The fourth century saintly bishop of Nyssa, Gregory, put it this way in his Oration on Christian Perfection: “God never asks his servants to do what is impossible. The love and goodness of his Godhead is revealed as richly available. It is poured out like water upon all. God furnishes to each person according to his will the ability to do something good. None of those seeking to be saved will be lacking in this ability, given by the one who said: “whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ, will by no means lose his reward.” Yet difficulty remains, though, what vital point do these actions of service have in common with the ghastly actions of hacking at limbs and gouging out eyes that follows?

The vital point? Simple. A Person, a Divine Person, the Person Jesus the Christ. He is the fulcrum point upon which the edifying and grotesque actions balance. Driving out demons, mighty deeds in His Name, doing because one belongs to Christ all flow from ‘belonging to Christ.’ The violent actions that leave us scratching our heads trying to make sense of their place in the Gospel are the heroic lengths one must employ to prevent ‘not belonging to Christ.’ Consider Jesus’ Words: “Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ (ὅτι Χριστοῦ ἐστε, hoti Christou este), amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.” As far as this translation is concerned, the key is ‘belonging to Christ.’ ἐστε (este), translated here as belong is the Greek verb “to be, to exist.” Belong, while not an erroneous word to translate ἐστε, does seem a bit weak, especially how it is understood in contemporary culture. We as people belong to something or to some organization. To say that I or another belong to another person is somewhat awkward, even among married couples as I clearly learned a few days ago: “I am not hers!” my good friend protested until I asked, “Is she yours?” He suggested that the conversation was too deep to have over a beer, and the rib eye steaks were done. But the conversation was nonetheless revealing and it certainly had me thinking about this text. Do we really get what it means to belong to Christ? Belonging to Christ is not a decision that I make on my own and then sign-up. I do not ‘join’ Jesus the way I join a civic, fraternal or sororal organization. While I certainly contribute something to those organizations, I also intend to receive something in return – AND – when that organization is no longer useful, I decide to no longer belong.
We ought to consider rendering ἐστε as existing since it delivers a vastly different picture of the disciple’s relationship with Jesus. The disciple is essentially one “who exists because of Christ.” Who I am, what I do, etc… is all grounded in the reality that my existence as an individual and everyone else’s existence is because of Jesus Christ, period. That realization unleashes awe, reverence, treating the other as precious, treasuring life and creation since they exist because of Christ. Consciousness of this and the consequent actions springing from this develop, grow and mature over time. Adrienne von Speyr wrote in Mark: Meditations on the Gospel of Mark, “The question is: Are there degrees in this belonging to the Lord? I think we must answer in the affirmative. There is a lukewarm belonging: one knows in some fashion who the Lord is, one has views about him that do not contradict his teaching but that do not give rise to a full surrender to him. It is this surrender that is decisive in belonging to the Lord. A person can probably consider himself to belong completely to the Lord in every state, insofar as this state is chosen in a will to serve, in a striving to give over everything he has to the Lord—not just a glass of water, but his whole life. The Lord himself acknowledges that the disciples belong to him who were particularly called and who, at least at the moment when they came, did not yet know for what they were giving their lives. He reckons it as merit to those who likewise acknowledge him if they possess enough belief and insight to acknowledge that the disciples belong to him and, therefore, are not afraid to offer them something in his name. They try to do this, like the disciples, in the Lord’s name.”
It is precisely in this growing maturity of ‘existing because of Christ’ that one must adopt a ‘zero toleration policy’ of sin. While the intention of the Sacred Text is not a horrific, physical chopping of body parts, the Sacred Text is clear: there are times when each must employ downright heroic efforts to combat the ‘yes’ to sin that always weakens ‘existing because of Christ.’ Sin cannot be soft-pedaled. Sin cannot be described as a ‘necessary development task or issue.’ Sin cannot be rationalized. Sin must be acknowledged as the affirmation of self-existence, a solitary world of disconnected living in which relational living and love, built on the surrender of self to the Other and others, cannot exist let alone grow.
Thankfully, the words do not end here and in fact they cannot. As horrific as sin is to ‘existing because of Christ,’ sin does not have the final word. The final word belongs to “God the Father of Mercies” – God the Father Who we acknowledge as Almighty because of His limitless love in the forgiveness of our sins (today’s Collect). The only power sin has is the place and power each of us gives it in our lives. Breaking its power begins with a human expression of sorrow – not just a spiritual or mental act asking for forgiveness; not just a 'quickie prayer’ but a human expression – with our heart AND lips. The same Saint Gregory quoted above wrote to the flock of his day employing medical terminology as an analogy for Christian living. When it came to sin, he spoke clearly of the need to voice sorrow aloud to the priest or bishop because that was the way for sin to ‘get out’ just as the body vomits poison from the stomach (he also had some other graphic descriptions of the digestive system for expunging other sins from the body.) The point is that God our Father is waiting to forgive, desires to forgive and wants our word of sorrow – expressed humanly (soul AND body, heart AND lips) – so that the limitless mercy of His forgiveness can flood our lives (spiritually and bodily) and bring healing that each may live fully a life ‘existing because of Christ.’

“God the Fathers of mercies,
through the death and resurrection of His Son
has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the
Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins.
Through the ministry of the Church may
God give you pardon and peace.
And I absolve you from your sins in the
Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

I know the joy experienced when these words are prayed over me as a penitent by a priest or bishop. I know also the joy of praying these words over people in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. When was the last time you ‘heard’ these freeing words? God the Father of Mercies is calling you and there is a priest who can’t wait to pray them aloud over you as well!