Did you ever use that little phrase, “I'd give an arm and a leg” for something? It means you really, really want something. So bad that you'd even sacrifice an irreplaceable part of the body for it. At least, figuratively. Yogi Berra, who dies this past week, once quipped, “I'd give my right arm to be ambidextrous”.
Now, obviously, Jesus doesn't want us to go around cutting of various parts of our body. But his strong words here are meant to jolt us out of a complacency toward sin. He is showing us in strong and certain terms that sin is a deadly serious problem. One that we far too often take far too lightly.
“It's no big deal” we rationalize. “It doesn't hurt anyone else.” “Just this once.” “No one will know.”
Think of the things we say to minimize and justify our sin. Or we try to change the subject or shift the blame. “Who are you to tell me what to do?” “Doesn't the Bible say not to judge?” “Hey, it's not my fault... it's that woman you gave to me.” or “The temptation was too strong. The Devil made me do it.” Maybe your favorite is, “I'm only human” or “Nobody's perfect”. Or if someone harms you, you think you can harm them back – tit for tat – take the law into your own hands.
Jesus would have none of this. For him, sin is a big deal. For the Father, sin is a big deal. He doesn't wink at it or ignore it. He doesn't excuse it or accept your lame excuses. He is a just and fair judge who does what he says, and punishes the guilty. Yes, but that's not the whole story...
Jesus would have us take our sin seriously. Serious as a heart attack. Serious as life and death. For that's what sin always leads to, death, that is its wages. And not just earthly death, but eternal death. Yes, hell is real. Most of what we know about it comes from the lips our Jesus himself. A place of unquenchable fire and everlasting anguish. One way of looking of it is to be “cut off” from God for eternity. And isn't it better to have a hand or foot cut off, than to be cut off from God?
Yes, according to Jesus.
But it doesn't seem like such a good idea to take the advice Jesus gives in our Gospel lesson today, does it? If you hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off. If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. And if we did take this word literally we might see a lot of blind and handless and footless people hobbling around. But to extend the principle further, if any part of our body involved in sin is to be destroyed, then there wouldn't be anything left of us. For we are corrupted, thoroughly, through and through.
And sin cuts us off. It cuts us off from God, and it cuts us off from each other. Think about how it is when there's a sin hanging out there between you and a fellow Christian. Instead of peace there's this gulf, a separation, a distance that seems like it cannot be bridged. Sin is what breaks relationships and puts people at enmity with each other. Sin is what creates “us” and “them”. And as Christians, we want no part of that. When your brother sins against you, Jesus says, go show him his fault - with the hopes he will listen and you will be reconciled. When you sin against your brother, confess it, ask for forgiveness, and be reconciled to one another in Christ.
But our real problem, our first problem, is that our sin cuts us off from our God. A holy God is by nature set apart from sin, sinfulness and sinners. We deserve to be cast out from his presence. We deserve to be exiled from paradise like our first parents were from the Garden. Our sinful nature and our own sins cut us off from God.
Our eyes lust and covet. Our hands steal and strike. Our mind is full of twisted thoughts and ideas. Our mouth, as James says, is a wild beast and a raging fire. And even the human heart, which so many hold in such esteem.... follow your heart, do it with all your heart.... Jesus says it is out of the heart that come all sorts of evil desires and thoughts. But who can live without his heart? So are we to die?
Yes. Die with Christ, only to rise with him. Only Christ can save our eyes and hands and feet and hearts. Only Christ can make every unclean, unrighteous member of this fallen human nature clean and holy and righteous.
For his eyes were closed into a death for us. His hands and feet were pierced and pinned to a cross for us. His heart and lips cried out, “Father forgive them”, even as his very life was fleeting. He was cut off by his disciples who ran and scattered like roaches in his hour of darkness. And he himself was cut off entirely – cut off and forsaken by the Father, “O God, why have you forsaken me?” And it was here, in Jesus' moment of deepest suffering that he himself experienced the worm that would not die and the fire that is never quenched. In a mind-bending eternal mystery he suffered hell's torments for all sinners of every place and time. And most importantly, for you.
So by being cut off, he saves us from being cut off. But God would still have the now-forgiven Christian flee from sin. He would still have us take sin seriously, and avoid in all its forms. And when we fail, when we ought to be cut off, to rather bring those sins in confession to the one who cuts them off from us, separates them from us – as far as the east is from the west. A continual cycle of contrition and faith, death and rebirth, repentance and renewal, so that we enter into our eternal rest with him whole and undefiled.
And this happens with salt and fire. Both preserving and purifying agents. Salt and fire here refer to that which God uses, those practical things, to preserve and purify us. It is by his the salt and fire of his Word and Spirit that he does these things. That he calls us and keeps us, that he forgives us and fortifies us.
Paul paints a picture, a grand metaphor of the church – as the body of Christ. Each member has its role to play. Each member needs the other. The eye can't say to the hand, “I don't need you”. The mouth can't do it all by itself. But Christ is the head this body. And by our baptism we are connected to him. If we were cut off from him there would be no life in us. But connected to him we have all the good things we need.
Sin is deathly serious. Its consequences are eternal. But thanks and praise to him who was cut off, so that we are not. For he makes us clean and whole, and connects us to himself and sets us at peace with one another. In Jesus Christ, Amen.