What keeps us from faith?
This question may be challenging enough to answer for ourselves, but what if we are what causes others to stumble in their faith? How might this knowledge affect our walk of faith and our interactions with others?
Scripture: Mark 9: 38-50
I keep the sidewalk outside of my house clean and clear of debris. The same goes for the walkway towards my front door. A simple enough task in the warm months, a little more work in the winter. I do it because I don’t want people to trip, slip or fall. I imagine that you are probably like me.
In life, where possible, we don’t want people to stumble. We want to see them succeed and flourish. Opportunities are provided, doors are opened with the hope that everyone’s potential might be realized. That might sound grand and utopian, perhaps idealist, but I believe that as a society we want to create these opportunities.
The reality might not always bear it out. In fact, if we scan the headlines or watch the evening news we know it is not true. In Canada, 28% of the individuals in prison are First Nations. Yet, First Nations people do not make up 28% of Canada’s population (reference). In the USA, in 2010 40% of individuals in prison were African American, yet they comprise only 13% of the population (reference).
We often refer to the ‘Glass Ceiling’ to represent how far women can progress in the business world and pay equity between genders is often disproportionate.
70% of those who live in poverty are working. Minimum wage is barely a living wage, 4.8 million people in Canada live in poverty, of those 1.2 million are children under 18 (reference).
I could go on.
In our passage from Mark this morning Jesus says, “If anyone should cause one of these little ones to lose faith in me…” Other translations put it as, “If anyone should cause one of these little ones to stumble…”
Now to be sure, these things I have mentioned won’t necessarily cause people to stumble in their faith or to keep them from Jesus. Not directly.
However, we might look at how the church has caused people to stumble. Sometimes the rules of denominations are irksome or cumbersome. Sure, they are there for good reason, but we make decisions slowly.
Historically we might look at ways that the church caused people to stumble in their relationship with God. If you ever read an old account of people taking communion, this would need to be from something written before the Reformation. I know, absolutely common reading material. But if you happen to read such a document you might find a reference to ‘drinking from two cups’ when it comes to communion. What does that mean exactly?
Well the priests were concerned that the common people would be sloppy or greedy when it came to the wine. As a result, they were only given bread. It was a rare exception when someone, usually nobility, received communion from two cups. Could you imagine if next Sunday, on World Communion Sunday, I keep all the wine and juice for myself? You might quite rightly be upset, it might even cause some of you to stumble in your faith.
Of course, much of the changes which occurred during and after the Reformation were to remove the needless stumbling in faith which was occurring. It doesn’t mean it was perfect, but the Reformers felt that they came up with something better. Today we might look at some of the practices of our denomination and others and say, “That’s a stumbling block to people’s faith.” If so, perhaps there are things we should be discussing.
Often we get in debates about denominational differences. We might say that the Baptists do this, the Anglican’s do that and the Catholics do some other thing. We put up walls between ourselves, content in our own bubble. In a manner of speaking Jesus addresses this issues in our passage. John complains that someone other than the disciples is driving out demons in Jesus’ name.
Jesus says, don’t stop him. Why would we stop someone from doing something good in God’s name? I say we pray for them, that their ministry might be successful and bear good fruit. No reason why we can’t all get along. I know not everyone thinks that way, but again, stumbling blocks.
What is at stake when we cause someone to stumble in faith? It’s not just about standing in another’s way of faith but denying their individual expression of faith. When we stand in someone’s way to Jesus, we tell them that only our way is sufficient and that isn’t true. We have said that only one way is good or valid, we have denied the opportunity for someone to question. We have denied room for growth.
Often, we fall back on some form of justification. We find a way to justify our actions, to show that we are in the right. Perhaps we lean back on doctrine, maybe we say, “We’ve never done it like that before.”
Sometimes, getting out of someone’s way and ensuring they don’t stumble brings uncomfortable thoughts and the prospect of change. But let’s be clear, the church we are a part of today, the way we worship and express our faith today is radically different than what existed in the days of the early church. It is radically different from the Reformation, it is different from 100 years ago and I hope in 100 years it is still different.
If we are honest, this message that we have from Jesus today frightens us. It frightens us because most people I know don’t like change. We are creatures of habit, we like our routines and habits. On both a personal level and at the church.
This passage bothers us for two reasons. First, we are uncomfortable with how we might be challenged if we get out of someone’s way and allow for new questions to be asked. Second, we don’t like what Jesus has to say to us if we don’t get out of someone’s way. “Better to have a millstone tied around our neck … cut your hand off if it gets in your way … better to not have a foot than one that will lead you towards hell…” Some stark and rather frightening images. Words that we’d rather not hear.
Now, I don’t think Jesus really wants us to be maimed, but it does tell you how serious he is about the subject of causing someone to stumble in their faith. Our actions carry consequences and some of those consequences just might be eternal.
What Jesus is saying is that when we cause someone to stumble in their faith, we mute their voice. We eliminate their opportunity for self-discovery about the Way of Christ which we have all entered in. Let’s be clear, we all came to faith in different ways and through different influences and that’s a good thing. If we cause someone to stumble in faith, we say that their experience isn’t worthwhile, and Jesus says no to that.
We are called to invite people into the grace, love and mercy that is offered to all. But it isn’t for us to say what that looks or sounds like. Amen.
St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.