notre dame montreal

Ordinary 26 Year B

Mark 9:38-50 'He is not one of us' sermon by Rev Charles Royden

Mark 9:38-50 "Teacher," said John, "we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us." "Do not stop him," Jesus said. "No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward. "And if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck. 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, where "`their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.' Everyone will be salted with fire. "Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other."

How should we read the Bible?

If somebody tells you that God has told them something then it is rather difficult to challenge them. It would be like arguing with God and who would want to do that? However drill down into how they know what God has said and it is unlikely that God’s words will be inscribed in large burned letters on their patio or anything else so dramatic or compelling. Normally they mean that a little voice inside their head is telling them, or in less overtly religious language, they have had an idea and they believe that it is inspired by God. There is nothing at all wrong with that, provided it doesn’t involve hurting others. The difference is that this language makes it clear that your ideas might just be your ideas and not God’s and when you use normal language then others can challenge and test and we can determine collectively whether there is a consensus that God might be involved.

It is the same when we folks tell us that they believe what they do because it says so in the Bible. Do the same mental exercise and what they really mean is that this is how they interpret the Bible, and for every text there is a sect and thousands of different ways to interpret what some might consider to be the obvious meaning. It is more accurate to say, that we believe what we do because 'that is how I have interpreted the Bible'. Once again we can then test what we believe against what others believe and how they interpret scripture and guess what I muight be wrong !.

The words of Jesus are a fine example in our text this morning. Those who believe in the presence of a giant oven where Jesus punishes people for eternity often use this verse as evidence of a fire of damnation which never goes out. Jesus talks about a fire which is never quenched, their ‘worm’ never dying and Jesus advocates throwing people into the sea with millstones around their necks. A Jesus who uses this kind of judgement and punishment has appealed to many down the centuries. Using these sorts of verses is a sure fire way to create fear and thereby exercise power and control. Frankly it is not the kind of Jesus that I would want to follow, he sounds like a religious fanatic, a very dangerous nutcase, the sort who throughout history has created war and division or caused women to be drowned as witches because they had a birthmark.  

So we need to look at a different way of reading the Bible and we will need to read it faithfully and respectfully rather than literally, word for word. We should all be reasonably good with this, when somebody gives us driving directions to go ‘straight over the roundabout’ we don’t drive over the kerb and around road signs. We know what they mean, not what they said ! It is not too great a leap of intelligence therefore to know that when Jesus speaks of people being thrown into hell he is not speaking of the eternal damnation of those who are not like us. Indeed almost everybody really knows this, its just that we choose to take literally the bits we like and metaphorically the bits which suits us! How many hell fire and brimstone preachers do you know who have used this passage to preach eternal torture but ignored words in the same passage which literally encourage them to chop off their hands and feet and pluck out their eyes! Jesus is clearly using metaphors and hyperbole, he would not and does not advocate literally chopping off our limbs, neither does he envisage burning people in perpetual fires of hell.

Of course all of this requires interpretation, so let us not deceive ourselves into thinking that anybody has the special key to interpret the Bible and understand what each text means. When we read a passage such as we have today there is a need to try and overcome 2,000 years of human progress and development.  It is also difficult for us to project ourselves back into first century Palestine and to understand their pre-scientific beliefs. This was a world in which there were no antibiotics, they did not understand germs, viruses and bacteria, and so disease was often seen as a direct punishment for sin. Mental illness or even epilepsy was not considered in the ways which we recognise as being important today and they spoke instead of demon possession. All of this contributes to placing barriers between the text of the Gospel story and us today, and we need interpretation. This passage is not one of the easiest or most cheerful but we do need to try and get to the bottom of what is going on and make sense of it.

Jealousy There are some very real everyday issues which are raised by this reading. First of all the story begins with one of the disciples John, telling Jesus that they have seen a man driving out demons in Jesus name and they stopped him because he was ‘not one of us.’ It is worth remembering that just previously the disciples had tried to conduct this ministry and failed, so there would inevitably have been a sense of anger and jealousy that this chap is doing what they failed to do. (9:18). So that is the first word of warning to us as readers this morning. We must not be jealous at what others do. This is a really simple but very important message; Christians should learn not to be jealous of the success of others but rather to celebrate it, for success is only a sign of God’s grace, not our own abilities. If we come to church and share in learning the teachings of Jesus we must show in our lives some demonstrable benefit. This must be demonstrated in a better behaviour. We often say, don’t we, that the church is not for those who are ‘goody two shoes,’ and that is true, the church is a place where ‘one beggar tells another beggar where to find bread.’ However if we come to church, week in and week out and we exhibit the same naughtiness and display the same vices in equal measure, then we should stop going, because we bring ourselves and God into disrepute. However there is in most churches a problem of jealousy and we have to be alert to it and we have to remind ourselves that it is not nice. The disciples were clearly jealous and resented the activity of this man who had not had the same training as they had enjoyed. Jesus talks about making sure that we do not cause others to stumble ? If we are jealous of people and perhaps criticise them as the disciples do here, then words of Jesus this morning are a warning to us.

Exclusivity As well as jealousy the disciples are trying to exercise a form of exclusivism. The disciples have defined the people in the community around them into two groups, insiders and outsiders, they said that the man was ‘not one of us!’ There is a biography of Margaret Thatcher by Hugo Young called ‘one of us,’ those of you with long political memories will remember that this was a phrase she used, if somebody was 'one of us' they shared her views. Now that sort of thing is absolutely fine in political circles where you have competing groups, but not in God’s family the church. There is no room for rejection, cliques and closed groups in churches.

The disciples were feeling particularly insecure with Jesus telling them about taking up crosses and him being killed. It is often when people are insecure and afraid that they become aggressive and lash out towards those who they can define as outsiders. We can all be guilty of treating people like this. John's words remind us of the dangers of denominational quarrels or local church controversies. Current religious conversation often focuses on who is "in" and who is "out." There is a particularly distasteful expression used a lot these days to describe people outside the Christian club, they are called ‘the unchurched.’ We define them by a name which says they are not like us. The disciples should have been glad that demons were being cast out, people were being healed, but rather than being grateful that demons were cast out, they were upset that the healing was done through someone outside their group. It is perhaps also worth mentioning the complaint against the person who was doing the job.

One of the things which we also have to be particularly careful about is being critical of the work of others. The Twelve thought that simply hanging out with Jesus was enough to claim they were his disciples. Then they attacked someone who was outside of their clique but actually doing the work that they should have been doing. Our church leaders have a particularly difficult time, as they are criticised and misunderstood and misreported in everything which they do. So what is Jesus response? The disciples are jealous that this man is successful where they failed and they hope that Jesus will refuse to recognize him and even condemn him. It is as if their own self-esteem will be reinforced if the outsider is rejected. But Jesus is not threatened by goodness outside his own circle; he invites his fragile insecure disciples to a wider vision, to a recognition of God's goodness no matter where it is to be found. Jesus refused to acknowledge the barriers the disciples wanted to reinforce.

This should not surprise us, Jesus refused to live by the divisions and barriers of his time. He challenged the practice of confining God's redemptive and transforming action to one's own race, one's own religious institution, one's own political party. When the disciples wanted exclusive claim to God's reign, he challenged them to see God's presence and power manifested in those who were not members of their group. "Do not stop him . . . Whoever is not against us is for us." The lesson is still valuable for us today. The cause of Christ is not served by rejecting people who are not doing religion like us. The cause of Christianity is not helped by those who claim that no real good can happen beyond the boundaries of one's own denomination or persuasion. We can all take pride in the good done by our community without denigrating the good work of those who are "not one of us."

Jesus draws his circle of inclusion wider than we are prepared to do. We must in our prayers ask God to enlarge our heart and minds so that we can become open people and can rejoice in the good done by others and to others. Jesus uses the analogy of the kingdom as being like the start of a grand dinner party. If we take that analogy, Jesus wants his followers to be like gracious hosts welcoming the guests. Jesus does not want us to set up checkpoints or to stand like bouncers guarding the door to the grand feast he is initiating. He shows his disciples that the table which he has prepared is longer and wider than they could imagine.

Gamaliel, the wise Pharisee who trained Saul (Acts 5:38) said that God doesn’t need us to defend his name; he is quite capable of that himself. If someone’s work is of God, it will continue, if not, it will cease.
Human nature being what it is we cannot expect universal agreement among a large number of people about any set of beliefs. There will always be conflicting points of view and alternate understandings. We need tolerance, to exercise respect. Intolerance is a sign of both arrogance and ignorance, for it is a sign that we believe no truth beyond the truth we see. Today we are encouraged to evaluate our jealousy and prejudice, of who is in and who is out. Jesus makes clear that his team is made up of anybody who even shows the simple kindness of providing a cup of water. It is not the doctrines which we hold which make us Christians, rather living the Christian life. We do not have to have the same mind as each other but to be of one heart, this is demonstrated not by our adherence to identical doctrines but our devotion to acts of kindness.