Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 9:38-50

Another Exorcist
John said to [Jesus], “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”
Temptations to Sin
“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.”

“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)

Have you ever heard any of the following statements?

  • If you’re not with us, then you’re against us 
  • Who’s with me?
  • If you’re not for us, then you’re for them?

These are all things I have heard people say in my 40 some years of life, especially in the last 20, but that’s completely opposite of what Jesus says to his disciples (and us) today. Jesus says: Whoever is not against us is for us. Jesus has a message that’s inclusive, while the world seems to want to be divided.

One of the frustrations of our present moment is the constant attempt to draw lines in the sand, to make almost every hill one on which to die. One group or person will agree with another on most things, but the remaining disagreements—no matter how minor—become a bridge too far to span. We see it both inside and outside the church. Every difference becomes a potential point of division. We have been overtaken with a “my way or the highway” mentality. 

The results are all too familiar. Constant anger at someone else and their tribe. Frustration at the ongoing tension, which is often exacerbated by the trivial nature of the disagreement. Isolation as we slowly cut ourselves off from others. And exhaustion as the mental and emotional weight of such tension takes its toll.

Sometimes the history of the church can occasionally offer some solace. Perhaps we can find some context to our present perception of the world. Perhaps we realize that it is not as bad as it was in the past. Of course, it is also possible that we discover things have been like this for a long time, which can actually add more frustration.

It seems that the deflecting from discomfort that we saw last week is continuing this week. Though it may not seem like it at a first read through, Mark has placed this set of sayings here for a reason.

Instead of the usual suspect, Peter, it’s John who speaks up this time. It could be that John is trying to get the disciples out of trouble by getting someone else in trouble… But I think that, given what we’ve been reading over these last few weeks, there’s a deeper weed that Jesus is still working on pulling out from among them: this tendency towards exclusion.

Even though Jesus has just used the word “welcome” four times in one sentence, telling the disciples that when they welcome someone without status into their midst they are welcoming him and God, John double checks: “there are still some who are out, though, right?”

We can appreciate this thinking. John’s talking about people who are going around and casting out demons and using the name of the Christ to do it. Our guard goes up with John. They weren’t part of the crew that Jesus commissioned earlier in the gospel, so they don’t have the right credentials, do they?

But yet again, like when they were arguing about who was the greatest in order to distract themselves from the fear of what Jesus was telling them about his impending suffering, their fear is showing again. And this time, we see that they weren’t just distracting themselves with talks of greatness. The cat’s out of the bag as soon as John says, “We tried to stop him because he was not following us.”

John didn’t say, “because he was not following you, Jesus.” Nope, John says “because he wasn’t following “us.” We can give John the benefit of the doubt that Jesus was at least included in the us… but even still, in their own minds, the disciples have lumped themselves with Jesus in terms of authority and leadership. Idolatry alert!

The disciples wanted to still have exclusions (a human disposition, it seems). Excluding others requires reasons, and behind those reasons is usually some sort of feeling of superiority. We see that we haven’t left the object lesson about the little child from the previous week after all.

Jesus addresses their concern about the person who is not “with them” but is using Jesus’ name to deliver and heal people. He basically says, “IOk, I hear you. But if they are doing good for people, don’t stand in their way.” Mark his words, to call upon the Lord (use his name), then be used by the Lord (as part of a miracle) will affect a person. We know from the rest of the New Testament that the filling of the Holy Spirit happens for short-term moments as well as permanently, and that an encounter with God and God’s glory is not able to be ignored. So, if someone doesn’t realize what they’re doing, they will soon enough be helped by God in figuring it out…

This looming question of “who’s in and who’s out” feels quite alive today. There are a lot of people who are using the banner of Christianity to their advantage, and in ways that seem so very contrary to the message of the gospel and the kingdom of God. And as we decide how to respond, associate, or denounce, Jesus’ words point us to the fruit of their work: are they helping people, or are they jockeying for power? If we take Jesus’ words here seriously, he’s not talking about people who “help” others know their sin, but people who give someone a glass of water: meeting real needs, right now.

“Helping” people know their sins and why they shouldn’t belong is the work of exclusion based on one’s perceived power. 

In this conversation into how Jesus’ name is used—either in welcoming or in excluding, in service of others or as a way of shoring up exclusionary power—we see that the disciples are just like so many of the other religious leaders we’ve encountered in the gospel: in need of repentance. 

Jesus starts them on that road of change by spending more time to responding to the heart of an issue than the presenting concern. Like he did with the Pharisees and the crowd regarding the source of true purity in Mark 7, Jesus lays out for his disciples that the sin they need to concern themselves with is their own. He does so by framing it as causing others and themselves stumble.

This section of Jesus’ teachings is a great example of how all of the law and the prophets hang on just two commands: Love God and love your neighbour as yourself.

Jesus starts with the thread of who we welcome, our neighbors. When we set up exclusions that keep people from God, we bring judgement upon ourselves. Millstones were actual methods of judgement at the time, a death sentence. Of course, we know that God is all-powerful and will gather God’s children to God’s self—we can’t actually stop God from communing with God’s people. But the sin is found in what we are communicating about God and our place in a pecking order that we’ve made up. By saying that others cannot belong in the way we think we belong, we are saying that we decide a person’s value, not God. Another Idolatry alert! Jesus says, so very starkly, It is better if you would die a suffering and scary death than to tell someone who believes in me that they cannot be part of the fellowship of believers.

How easy to forget that we are all people equal in the sight of God. When we don’t respect one another, impeding one another’s communion with God, we’ve placed a stumbling block in front of others and ourselves. We step in as mediator between them and God, a role that belongs only to Christ. That stumbling block is our own pride and attempts at playing God. To paraphrase John’s words, The people who don’t follow us in the way we follow Jesus, they don’t belong!

As Jesus has referred to over and over in parables, he describes two kinds of fires: one that consumes and one that purifies or cleanses. It’s like when firefighters set a controlled burn in order to stop or limit the destruction of a wildfire. Literally, using fire to fight fire, is the idea is to reduce the material that serves as fuel for the wildfire. 

This is essentially Jesus’ advice for avoiding causing ourselves to stumble with sin: give our temptations less to work with, otherwise, our temptations will come to rule and consume all of us. This advice also harkens back to Jesus’ comments about discipleship and following him; to save our lives, we have to “ruin” or lose them. Just like with controlled burns, we have to give up some parts to death in order to preserve much greater life. We have to suffer losing some things that give us momentary excitement, bliss, distraction from pain, superiority, or whatever else drives us to sin, in order to begin to experience the riches of God’s grace—and a much deeper, sustaining satisfaction.