Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
“(I)f your hand causes you to sin,” says Jesus, “cut it off. It is better to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43; ESV). Well, that’s true. Better to be handless and go to heaven than have two perfectly good hands and go to hell. Beloved, have you sinned with your hands? You most certainly have. Hands accomplish a great deal of wickedness. We strike others with our hands. We take what doesn’t belong to us with our hands. We make obscene gestures with our hands. Our hands are capable of a great deal of wickedness, and our hands are guilty of great iniquity. But what would happen if you cut off your hands? Would you then be forgiven of all the sins you committed with them in the past? Would it undo the damage? Would it render you unable to sin? Of course not. Because hands aren’t the only members you employ for sin. So Jesus continues, “if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell” (v. 46). Have you sinned with your feet? You most certainly have. Our feet carry us places that we should not go, places that are dangerous to our souls, places of false worship, places of lust and coveting and fornication, places of debauchery and lasciviousness. Our feet lead us away from our legitimate vocations and the duties of love we owe to our neighbor. What would happen if you cut off your feet? Would you in this way be forgiven? Would this finally prevent you from sinning and being a sinner? No. Because your feet aren’t the only members you employ for sin, either. Ah, and then there’s the eyes. “(I)f your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (vv. 47-48). Have you sinned with your eyes? You most certainly have. Your eyes lust and covet. They look enviously upon the things that God has given to others. They look lustfully at members of the opposite sex, or worse, the same sex. Perhaps they look at evil websites or read dirty romance novels. They look disdainfully at some, angrily at others. They look into things that God has not given you to look into. What would happen if you gouged out your eyes? Would that take away your lust and covetousness, your hatred and anger? Would that prevent you from sinning? No. Because even if you literally did what Jesus says here, mutilating your body in this way, you’d be a handless, footless, eyeless sinner… but a sinner you’d still be.
Because in reality it is not your hand, or your foot, or your eye that causes you to sin. And we haven’t begun to talk about your other members, like your ears that delight in gossip, or your tongue that loves to spread it and to speak curses and put down others, or your other body members that are used in the transgression of God’s Law. All of these you use for sin, but they don’t cause you to sin. The real problem, what causes you to sin, is your heart. As Jesus says elsewhere, “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. All these evil things come from within” (7:21-23). Your heart is the problem. So much for the old cliché, “follow your heart.” Don’t do that. Look where it will lead you. It is your heart that needs to be cut out of you. By God’s Law, leading you to repentance. You need a new heart, by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, leading you to faith in Him and His death and resurrection for your forgiveness, that you may have eternal life. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me,” we pray with King David (Ps. 51:10). And He does, in Baptism, as we saw this morning, putting to death the old Adam in us, born in sin, born spiritually blind, dead, and an enemy of God. By Baptism, as He did this morning with Bryson, He raises us to new life, gives us His Holy Spirit, gives us faith in Jesus Christ, unites us to the death and resurrection of Christ, washes away all our sins in His blood, and makes us God’s own child. Baptism saves us (1 Peter 3:21). It is a washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5). All who have been baptized into Christ are baptized into His death, buried with Him by Baptism into death, so that, just as Christ has been raised from the dead, so we, too, may live a new life (Rom. 6:3-4).
Baptized into Christ, it’s a death and resurrection, a drowning and an arising, a crucifixion and an empty tomb, with and in Christ Jesus, who died and who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit. In Baptism, we’re salted with fire (Mark 9:49). Fire purifies and salt preserves. Baptism is the fire of purification, like when gold is refined in the fire. It is melted down into a liquid so that all the impurities rise to the top to be skimmed away. Such fire hurts us, beloved. Repentance hurts. Crucifying the sinful flesh hurts. Because we have to face up to the ugly truth of our sin and uncleanness, and we have to die to ourselves. It is bitter medicine. But the Lord Jesus gives it to us for our good. And He administers it for the sake of the Gospel, that we have full and free forgiveness of all our sins in Him, and eternal life, including the promise of the resurrection of our bodies on the Last Day.
Baptism also makes us salty. We become salt in the world. We flavor the world with our confession of Christ and works of love. God prepares us for this very thing. It starts in Baptism and is sustained by the preaching of that Word and the reception of the body and blood of Jesus in the Lord’s Supper. Without these things, our faith dries up and begins to die. The salt loses its saltiness. This is a very practical thing. Baptism is always a reason for rejoicing. But how many children do we have whom we’ve baptized here at Epiphany, and then we never see them again? (Kristina, I’m not implying you’re going to do this with Bryson. I’m sure you’ll raise him in the faith and in the Church. But here’s a good opportunity to talk about this very issue.) In Baptism we enter the Church and eternal life, a life of faith in Christ. But if we have our children baptized and then never come back to church, or if we ourselves are baptized and then never come to church, that’s like being born and then never eating. What happens then? We die. If you aren’t coming to church, your faith is dying, or maybe already dead. Repent. Get back to church. Get your children to church. Frankly, if you aren’t bringing your children to church, Jesus has a terrifying word for you in verse 42 of our Gospel lesson. Read it, tremble, repent, be forgiven, and make the situation right. Again, not going to church is to your faith like not eating is to your body. You can skip a meal here and there. You shouldn’t. It isn’t good for you. But you can usually get away with it. Then again, if you don’t eat for days, you may survive, or you may not. You will certainly become weak and begin to have health problems. And if you never eat, well, then… you’ll die. So it goes with our faith when we starve ourselves of God’s holy Word and Sacrament. You can skip church now and then. It isn’t good for you, and you shouldn’t skip church, but you’ll probably survive. If you skip a lot of church, you’ll be very weak and sick spiritually, and you may not make it. If you never come back to church, the terrifying truth is that your faith will probably die. You’ll lose your saltiness. Because here, in the Church, is where Jesus is, for you, with His Word and the Sacrament of His body and blood and the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren, to feed and nourish you, to preserve you in the Christian faith, to forgive your sins, and to keep you salty, so that you can have salt in yourself, living the life of faith active in love. Here is where Jesus performs the divine heart transplant you need as a sinner, to give you life. And without that, it isn’t worth having hands or feet or eyes. Because life in Christ is the only real life there is.
Hard words of Law from Jesus today. But here’s the comfort. Jesus died for you, so that you don’t have to die, so that you don’t have to cut off your hands and feet or gouge out your eyes, so that you don’t have to go to hell. Jesus died for you so that all your sins are forgiven, you are redeemed, and made God’s own in Holy Baptism. Jesus died for you so that you can go to heaven. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead so that you can have eternal life. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead so that you know without a shadow of a doubt that He will raise you from the dead on the Last Day. The promise is for you and your children. So repent. Die to yourself. And cling to Him. Cling to Him by hearing His Word. Cling to Him by eating His body and drinking His blood. Come here, to His Church, where He’s really present for you, to feed and nourish you in your life of faith and strengthen you for each day lived in Him. In this way, He fills you with Himself. In this way He cleanses you with His fire and salts you with His salt. In this way He gives you a new heart, a heart that beats with faith toward God, and fervent love toward one another. In Christ, it is a heart that will never die. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.