People have long looked at the second grouping of these verses (Mark 9:42-50) as simply an individual warning. That reading has always caused me trouble as I either needed to treat it as completely spiritual which I don’t like, or I needed to go lopp off a hand or pluck out an eye, which I liked even less. The context of the entire segment continues from the last couple of weeks lectionary readings (Mark 9:14-37), and that is more teaching through actions to the disciples how the church (the reign of God) will function. Speaking of the church in bodily terms is not exactly unbiblical either. The first grouping of verses is clearly about how we treat those of Christ who are not of our group. This is not directed at heretics, but those who are doing good stuff (i.e. miracles! in the text) in the name of Jesus. We treat them well – maybe not join them, but definitely don’t stop them. That is the low walls portion. The church welcomes all who come in the name of Christ. This gets balanced by that second group. If someone within your tribe is causing people to lose faith – it is not good for them or the group, cut them out. This is the high standards portion and it calls for judgement. Does the crank in every congregation or synod – you know the one that is always harping on [pick the subject they don't agree with church teaching on] – does that guy or gal cause anyone to stumble? Probably not. Does an Elder of the congregation who denies infant baptism, or a preacher who ‘sleeps around’ or worse? Probably so. Its a tricky thing to pull off in a fallen world, but that seems to be the call of the church. Low walls – welcome everyone who claims the name of Jesus. High Standards – the church stands for something. If someone disagrees and it causes people to lose faith they must be called to account or cut off. The church in that way is about reconciliation and absolution. We admit where we are wrong, but we also receive that forgiveness.
Being a little meta about this sermon – it is a tough subject. I was really afraid that this was a non-stop bore fest. It interested me and I think it is important, but not really a ‘felt need’ type of thing. It is a real need – we need to be in a church as that is where we find salvation. But the jump from felt needs to real needs is not always obvious and this tended to be very intellectual which is a code word for boring.