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."
The passage from the lectionary in the Gospel of Mark today would not find itself into a book of favourite bible verse. It has Jesus speaking of people being thrown into the sea with millstones around their necks and then he advocates chopping off parts of our bodies that cause us to sin and then speaking of being thrown into hell !
It is also difficult for us to project ourselves back into first century Palestine and to understand their pre-scientific beliefs. This was a society which do not have an understanding of germs, viruses and bacteria, and so disease was often seen as a direct punishment for sin. Likewise 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. Likewise Jesus is clearly using metaphors and hyperbole, he doesn’t advocate literally chopping off our limbs, neither does he envisage people burning in perpetual fires of hell. Nevertheless it is not some of his more cheerful stuff. Let us try and get to the bottom of what is going on and make sense of it. 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 inevitable 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. There is really important message here, 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. Christians should learn not to be jealous of the success of others but rather to celebrate it, for truly it is only a sign of God’s grace, not our own abilities. 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.
As well as jealousy the disciples are 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 fine in political circles where you have competing groups, but not in God’s family the church.
Human pride has us enjoy being members of exclusive clubs, living in exclusive neighbourhoods, dining at exclusive restaurants, vacationing at exclusive resorts, belonging to exclusive churches. Being an insider carries with it a sense of pride and security. However those who are excluded see that ‘exclusive’ is an ugly word. When we are among the marginalized, the rejected, the pushed-aside or the left-out, it hurts!
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 towards those who they can define as outsiders. Ethnic cleansing, heretic hunting and other methods of exclusion are deadly reactions to fear and insecurity. 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 people who criticise 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. Any of you who have been to a game of football will be familiar with the tendency of spectators to criticise the actions of those who are running their legs off and getting injured. How could you miss that? I could do better with my eyes closed. Of course the point is that there is a reason some people are getting on with the job, it is because they have the motivation and skill to do it. I suppose that armchair football supporters will always shout, and I will probably be as loud as anybody else, but we have to be careful when it comes to ministry.
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." What we have to recognise is that Jesus draws the circle of inclusion wider than we do. There are some who the church has wanted to exclude from ministry over the years and we have to be careful in so doing. 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. In many ways this passage is an encouragement to ecumenism, to see that we are all on the same side. 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. The desires to exclude and separate generally overwhelm the desire to draw in. Rest with Gamaliel, the wise Pharisee who trained Saul. In Acts 5:38 he 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. Tolerance 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 to tolerate, respect and expect that. Intolerance is a sign of both arrogance and ignorance, for it is a sign that he believes there is no truth beyond the truth he sees 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 do 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.