This is a rough, rough gospel text for today. With a text like this, instead of, “Praise to you, O Christ!” it kind of feels like a more fitting gospel acclamation would be just, “Wow, O Christ,” or even, “WTF, O Christ?”
And some of us may have already come to worship today carrying some pretty rough feelings. This has been a very difficult week in our nation. Many folks who have known the horror of sexual assault have been reliving some of their worst trauma this week. Many people have seen in these events their own experience of not being believed, whether it be about the truth of their experiences, or about their innocence in the face of harsh accusations. And I think all of us have probably been discouraged with the reminder of just how viciously divided our country has become. To those of you who are struggling, who are feeling raw and vulnerable today, I see you.
This is probably not the gospel text you would think of for a healing Sunday – it’s full of amputations and hell and unquenchable fire. I certainly did not choose it! But I hope we can dig into it and together find some good medicine. Are you with me?
Let’s start with the “If your [blank] causes you to stumble, cut it off!” part. Even though these are probably familiar words to a lot of us, it’s still pretty shocking and upsetting to hear Jesus say it. This sounds like a much harsher and less forgiving Jesus than what we are used to. But thinking in the vein of healing, sometimes harsh treatments are necessary when our sickness is really serious. When we have a cold or even a broken bone, it’s not like we’re going to start chopping off our noses or our arms or our legs. But when someone has a serious illness, like extremely advanced diabetes or widespread infection or cancer, the treatment usually has to be just as serious to save their lives – and sometimes it literally involves cutting off parts of the body.
Jesus is trying to make clear that the kingdom is serious business. And anything that gets in the way of our participation in the kingdom needs to be dealt with seriously. Last week, for example, we talked about the things in our lives that shift our focus off of God and onto ourselves – we read the story of the disciples arguing about which one of them was the greatest. And for two weeks before that, we talked about how we all wrestle with worldly things that demand our loyalty over our loyalty to God – things like: the pursuit of wealth and reputation, individual gratification instead of community building, and our devotion to promoting ourselves or our “team” or even our country at the expense of our siblings in Christ around the world. These things might even start out as good things, but when they start to draw us away from God and away from our neighbor, it might be time to seek out some serious treatment. It might be time to start cutting off the things that cause us to stumble so that we can find our way back to the path of life.
Jesus says that it’s better this way – it’s better to be maimed than to have all of our parts and to be “thrown into hell.” Yikes. Jesus is using more shocking language to underscore how serious he is. And this is language we have to be careful with. The threat of hell and eternal fire has been all too often misused within the Christian tradition. It’s been used as a club to silence people who have different opinions or who just come to the church with doubts and questions. And the idea of hell and fiery punishment has been used as a way to try to scare people into good behavior – you’d better believe the right stuff and do and say the right things, and donate to the church, or you’re going straight to hell, buddy!
As Lutherans, we have been freed from this kind of fear. We already know that we have screwed things up. We already know that we can’t earn our salvation or our place in the kingdom. Instead, we have been saved by God’s free gift of grace. We know that we have been redeemed through Christ’s act of love on the cross, and that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation – including our own human flaws and failings – will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Nothing. As Bishop Eaton has said, I think that if there really is a physical or literal hell somewhere, it is empty.
Now, that being said, I do think that, in some sense, hell is real. I think hell is something we experience on earth. Many of you have probably had a taste of hell at some point in your life. For me, hell has been feeling lonely and isolated, especially being bullied as a child and growing up without my mom. Hell has been the times in my life when faith has been a struggle and I have felt far from God. I’m sure you all can think of examples from your own lives. Hell is a place of suffering, a place of isolation and hopelessness. Hell is a place of hatred and division and prejudice. Hell is a place of death, not life. It is the opposite of God’s kingdom, the absence of God’s kingdom. Sometimes hell is of our own making, the result of our soul sickness drawing us away from God. And sometimes the hell we’re in is the result of somebody else’s soul sickness, or just because we live in a sick and broken world.
Whether we are suffering because of our own brokenness or because of someone else’s, whether there is a literal hell or only a figurative one, Jesus has come to heal us and to save us from all of it. Salvation is already ours through Christ. Period. We can stake our lives on it. But just like with physical illness, the path of healing can be long and difficult. Reorienting ourselves to God and giving up pieces of who we are can be very painful. But even the most painful healing is a sign that Jesus has not given up on us. Doctors only use aggressive treatments when they think it’s worth the risk to save a life. God thinks our lives are worth saving. God thinks your life is worth saving, and worth living to the fullest. Jesus is leading us back to the path of life, the healing path that leads to God’s kingdom.
In a little bit, you will all have the chance to come up and receive the laying on of hands and anointing with oil. You also should have all received a little slip of paper. As you prepare to come forward, I invite you to reflect on some of these things and write them on your piece of paper. What is the brokenness or sickness eating away at your soul? What in your life might need to be “cut off” in order for you to find healing? What are the things that keep getting between you and God? Where are you experiencing hell in your life right now and how do you need God to be present to you in it?
As you come up, there will be a basket for you to put your piece of paper in. We will offer our brokenness and our need for healing to God, and leave these things at the foot of the cross, recognizing that Christ is the one who redeems us and makes us whole.
Jesus loves you, my friends. And he will never stop working for your salvation and healing, even when it hurts. Come; open yourselves to Christ’s healing presence. The doctor is in.