From the earliest days of the church, people have worried and fussed over who is in and who is out and who gets to decide and how they get to decide these things. In the Gospel reading we just heard, from Mark’s gospel, the disciples are disturbed about just such a situation. They go to Jesus to report the problem, “Teacher, there is someone casting out demons in your name. “ Why does this bother them? I mean, what is the problem? That someone is casting out demons in the name of Jesus? Isn’t that a good thing? Why are they worried? Are they worried about competition? Are they worried because of denominational differences? Are they worried because his theology was too liberal or too conservative? If this other person is healing people and doing God’s work, why is there a problem?
The disciples soon disclose exactly what’s on their mind. “Teacher, this person isn’t following us.” Aha! “…not following us.” Notice they don’t say, “He’s not following you, Jesus. They say, “ He’s not following us.” It’s that old us versus them theology. That was the problem. It was a problem for the disciples as it continues to be a problem in the church universal today. Whenever we slip into “us” versus “them” theology, we are betraying the fact that we have momentarily forgotten our mission. When we practice “gate keeping” (carefully monitoring who can come in and who can’t), we forget why we’re here. When we draw the circle smaller, not wider, we ignore the mission of God. And what is God’s mission? To share and to demonstrate the love of God that we have experienced in Jesus Christ. Many of the mainline churches seem to be arguing constantly over who can serve and who can’t. We discuss and disagree and sometimes even fight about these things at regional gatherings and national conventions—despite the fact that issues relating to who is worthy and who is unworthy to engage in ministry were not an issue with Jesus. Jesus is not terribly concerned about the newcomer casting out demons in his name. He says, “Do even both trying to stop this person because no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able to speak ill of me.” To me the message is clear: We need to look beyond our theological differences. We need to look beyond our denominational differences. We need to look beyond the color of our skin and beyond the languages that we speak and learn to serve God together and to do ministry together; to work together side by side doing flood cleanup; serving in soup kitchens, collecting donations of food for the food pantry; bringing in shoes and belts for exoffenders, etc…
Christians come in different flavors. We are different and that’s good. We need to celebrate our differences and our diversity, and not worry so much about getting others to conform to our way of thinking and doing things- as if ours was (and is) the only way of doing things. Jesus himself gives us a guideline: “Whoever is not against us, is for us.” There are a great many people who are non-Christian who are just as dedicated as we are to feeding the hungry, to changing social institutions so that justice might become a reality for the marginalized, to being open and inclusive and respectful of everyone. All of this is about doing God’s work—even if the person doing the work is an atheist or someone who was so harmed by the Church that now she can only feel resentment toward all religion.
Jesus wanted his disciples to take the practice of ministry seriously: he wants us to take it seriously as well. Our lives are supposed to manifest the living presence of the One who sent us forth as healers and disciples and that’s pretty serious. And then Jesus says something so weird, something that has disturbed me since I was a young boy. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out.” What?! If we took that part of Scripture literally, the world would be filled with footless, handless blind people because just about every sin I can think of involves those things. But Jesus isn’t suggesting that we actually do these things; he’s using HYPERBOLE. He uses exaggerated language to make a point: you and I are supposed to assist, aid, nurture and otherwise help others in their journey of faith. We were never called to hinder someone’s journey or to interfere in her or his experience of God.
In the 2,000 plus years of the Christian movement there has been one consistently large obstacle to people following Jesus with their whole heart and mind. Can you guess what that is? It’s the fact that there are Christians in the world and how we treat each other. It’s shameful and embarrassing! Why would anyone want to become a Christian, when on any given day we can find Christians badmouthing each other, badmouthing their pastors, their neighbors and friends. This negative behavior has the potential of undermining everything else we do, even the noble, self-less things. When we do these kinds of things, when we insert ourselves into another person’s faith journey and actually get in the way of grace or what God is trying to accomplish with and through that person, we cause real harm to someone else.