Cut it Out
18th Sunday after Pentecost
Grace, Mercy and Peace to you from God our Father and His only Son, Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, Amen.
There once was a shepherd, a good shepherd, who loved his sheep very much. He had great compassion for them as he worked very hard to purchase the sheep so that he could have a decent livelihood.
He tended his sheep faithfully, keeping an eye out for predators and making sure his flock had good pasture and protection from bad weather. He often reflected on the different personalities the many sheep of the flock had.
One sheep in particular, an older ewe, had a particular character that caused problems among the rest of the sheep. In general, she was a good ewe and bore fine lambs; but she had a trait that was causing this good shepherd some problems.
You see, the shepherd was very diligent in providing rich green pastures for the flock, and had build good sturdy fences around his land to prevent predators and the neighboring flock of sheep from coming onto his property. Yet this ewe would spend all her time finding weak places in the fence to make a hole to squeeze through to gain access to the other field.
This was not a good thing mostly because the shepherd in the adjacent field was not a good shepherd or tender of the pastures there. He didn’t care about overgrazing the land or making sure the flock had clean unpolluted water. So, the scrubby, unhealthy grass and parasite infested water infected this strong headed ewe and she would bring back these illness causing parasites to the healthy flock.
But this was not the worst of his problems. This sheep that constantly sought the unhealthy pasture was teaching her young lambs and other sheep the same behavior. After many months of retrieving this strong-willed sheep from unwholesome fields, the good shepherd had a decision to make. In order to keep the rest of his flock healthy and safe, to keep his precious sheep away from the danger of sickness and death, he had to kill the wayward ewe.
As Christians, we acknowledge illness and death as a symptom of sin. Our Lord Jesus Christ knew the truth about our sin and what it does to his Father’s children.
Our Lord speaks to us about our sin as it is seen by God – evil and deadly. He tells us to repent, to turn away from our sin and walk in the opposite direction. He tells us to stop following the path to eternal separation from God Almighty and to follow the true path, the way that is Christ Jesus.
We try. Lord knows we try. Those who have not heard the word of our Lord walk aimlessly in the dark of their sin. They know no better and sometimes are even possessed by the malevolent lust for things of this world. They do not repent because they are ignorant of their sin.
Those who have heard the word of God cannot claim ignorance as an excuse to remain in their sin. Knowing we are sinners, we know which path to follow. We struggle against our sin as it eats away at our soul. Like an infection that leads to certain death, we constantly must make decisions on the path.
The decision seems to be simple, cut off the sin or die. Yet we still ponder the choice. We turn our face to God but our mouths still water for sin. We don’t want to give up our precious material desires. We know that to walk the path of righteousness and salvation in our Lord will keep us safe and happy, but our feet seem to have a mind of their own moving us toward that which causes us harm. In some instances, we work against the boundary of God’s law to return to our sin – running to its embrace.
In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, positioned over the deepest part of that ocean, the Mariana Trench, the captain of our naval destroyer brought the ship to a dead halt and announced a ‘swim call’. This meant that the sailors were allowed to swim in the ocean around the ship.
As with others who had gone before me, came the time for me to leap from the ship into the ‘deep’. I jumped into the water off the aft-deck of the ship; a height of about 30 feet. The fall was exhilarating but the momentum of the fall plunged me far beneath the surface of the water.
Even though it was a bright sunny day, in an instant the water around me became black as night. As I looked down into the abyss, I saw nothing but a vast void of dark, unending water. For an instant I wondered when I would stop traveling down and the buoyancy of the air in my lungs neutralize my plunge and allow me to swim to the surface without fighting gravity.
At that instant, a feral fear gripped me as I knew that I was not in an environment where I could survive. I knew I was in a domain where great and terrifying creatures could devour me with ease. I could also see the light above that showed me where I needed to be – where I should be. The moment came where I knew I was no longer being pulled down and I began to swim toward the light with great expediency.
We often think we are in control. We think that our minds, our willpower or courage are able to overcome our sin. We often fail because sin is more powerful than we are. It surrounds us in its unfathomable dark vastness. We may think that we can delve into the deep of sin all the while able to make our way back to life in the light of God. We may think nothing can harm us, but our sinful flesh soon finds itself separated from the life-giving breath of God.
As our Good Shepherd, Jesus knows our sin and he knows the final penalty for our sin. He used the hyperbole of physically cutting off the parts of the body that cause us to sin.
“If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell…” [Mark 9:43-47]
Jesus knows that we will be tempted to plunge ourselves into the sin filled world even thought we cannot survive in such a world. He knows when we are where we should be and out of our element.
He could have let us drown. He could have killed us wanton disobedient sheep in order to redeem the few, but God could not accept the loss of one of his flock. Instead, the Good Shepherd laid down his life for the sheep.
Jesus Christ came down from heaven, was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man. Being truly man and truly God, Jesus Christ fulfilled the Law in perfection.
Through his death by crucifixion, Jesus Christ made the payment for our sins. In his resurrection from death, we are made alive again in him. We no longer need die in our sin. Jesus tells us our sins are forgiven. As sinners drowning in this world, Jesus tells us “I am the way, the truth and the life.”
It is true that we still live in this world. We are still subject to the commandments of God, but we do not cut off our hands when they get dirty. Just as we wash our hands when the dirt and grime of our day-to-day lives soil them, we are cleansed from our sin by the baptism into our Savior’s death and resurrection. Jesus Christ stands before our Father in heaven and declares us pure and righteous.
In the Sacrament of the Altar, we are forgiven time and time again through the same body and blood that was sacrificed on the cross so long ago. The forgiveness of Christ is as infinite as the love of God in His grace. The Apostle Paul asks:
“What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” [Romans 6:1-2]
The answer is this. We remain in Christ by reading his word. We partake in the communion of his body and blood. We pray for the Holy Spirit to counsel and guide us. We turn from the promises of this world and walk green pasture of life eternal.
If your hands grasp for food or drink that destroys this body, cut off the hand that offends by taking hold of the cross in the body and blood of Christ. If your eye lustfully seeks out the flesh, pluck it out by reading the Word of God. If your feet lead you the pit of iniquity, cut off the foot that offends by walking into the house of our Lord.
We will stumble and we may sometimes fall, but we can never be taken from the hand of our Good Shepherd. [John 10:28] We take comfort in the body of Christ through the Holy Spirit. We pray for each other and we forgive each other. More importantly, we seek out those who have wandered from the fields of the Lord.
James the Just in his letter to “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations”, [James 1:1] shows us how this kind of life looks —as a child of God whose life is molded by the gospel of God’s grace.
“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? … the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. [James 5:13-16]
“My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” [James 5:19-20]
As children of God we pray, we forgive, we heal and we seek out those who wander from the Lord.
We do all this by the grace of God through the Holy Spirit. Sin has offended our Lord and He has severed the fatal limb from His creation. Through Christ, we now walk in newness of life.