Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
In the Gospels we discover Jesus constantly widening the narrow scope of his disciples' views. Last week he strove to enlarge their understanding of his Messiahship by declaring that suffering and death awaited him in Jerusalem, as well as their own truncated understanding of greatness and power—that it was in being last, in serving others first, that true greatness is to be found. In the first episode of today's passage, it is John's narrow view that Jesus corrects. (It's good to see that "old Peter" was not the only disciple Jesus rebuked.) Like the child who has plucked mother's favorite flower and presented it to her, John comes to his Master and proudly declares, "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us."
John has inherited his old nationalistic pride that because the Jews were God's chosen people God would work only through them. John has a sense of ownership on the power Jesus grants to his discipleship, and completely misses the irony of the situation (which I think Mark intends by placing the incident here). Just a little earlier, when Jesus had been transfigured and then had come down from the mountain, the disciples had not been able to cure the boy struck mute, supposedly by a demon. And now, when John sees someone else casting out demons in Christ's name (and this is last is important), he smugly tries to prevent them. His reason? "Because he was not following us." Note that he says "us," not "you." That is, the unknown exorcist, who somehow had come to believe in Jesus, doesn't belong to the club, our club. John is laboring under the false assumption that God's power depended on just them, that somehow God could not operate outside of their little circle. John does not get the radical point that we are "all God's chosen."
Should we not listen more closely to the openness of Jesus in these verses.
The church has often followed in John's narrow way: "Outside the church there is no salvation" may contain a partial truth, in that the church is indeed "the ark of salvation," but to deny that God might also be at work elsewhere is to attempt to whittle God down to our size, to fall prey to a very limited image of God. We have seen these many times in the past. Various denominations at war with one another over doctrine and practice. (You can hear them, Presbyterians claiming that their way is the best; Methodists countering, "No ours is better!"; Baptists castigating both because they did not immerse the baptized, and all decrying the idolatries of" the papists.") We want to choose and are afraid to let God chose because God just might choose too many
Fortunately, a more ecumenical spirit has blown through the churches during the past hundred years, one more in keeping with the spirit of the Jesus who said to John "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."
In the second episode Jesus points out the seriousness of following in his way. "This ain't no Sunday School Picnic!"— often used years ago to describe a difficult situation, describes what Jesus is saying, only his words are far more forceful. Some misguided folk have on occasion taken his hyperbolic words literally and hacked off a limb which they believed had "offended the Lord," thus showing their ignorance of Jesus' use of hyperbole. Today, when we too often are so eager to acquire new members that we downplay the difficulties of discipleship and offer an easy membership, do we ever think of Jesus' harsh words?
Christ still challenges us to enlarge our vision of the church and to realize that membership in it is no casual affair. After all isn't being open to all a very hard thing to do? But is this not a goal we need to reach.
Do we need to enlarge our understanding of Jesus? Have we made our definition of ways to communicate with God too small? Should we be more open as Jesus was? Have we made discipleship too easy? These are all significant questions that need to be asked. Which of these questions need to be asked depends upon the listeners you expect at worship.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
Christianity was a radical shift away from the tribal paradigm of ancient Israel.
What we call Judaism today began as a family religion that grew into a national religion with its own laws and moral code. To join the nation of Israel was to convert to their religion; to convert to their religion was to join the nation of Israel.
Christianity began as a Jewish sect that explicitly rejected the expectation of a political Messiah. Jesus literally hid from the opportunity to lead a revolution. He taught the following about the "kingdom of heaven".
• The kingdom of heaven is not an earthly institution that directly competes with any political entity.
• The kingdom of heaven is not something you can look at.
• The kingdom of heaven is found where God's power overcomes evil.
• The kingdom of heaven is something that starts out small and continues to grow until it is all-encompassing.
No proclamation of the kingdom of heaven can be understood in the same terms as nationalism, which is "exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests."
Likewise, no outburst of love for one's people by Jesus Christ or the Apostle Paul can be reasonably compared to modern American patriotism. Both Jesus and Paul were descendants of Israel (the person); they were family.
On the contrary, as Christian theology developed, Paul explicitly argued that faith in Christ supersedes ritual conversion to ancient Israel's religion and membership in their extended family. Though Paul was a Roman citizen, he maintained that the Christian's true citizenship is in heaven. The ancient Israelite's ceremonial worship revolved around a physical location, but the Christian's a heavenly one. Christians are to place no stock in family line, social status, or sex. Nationalism simply has no place in Christian faith and practice. (https://www.quora.com/Is-Christianity-antithetical-to-nationalism)
There is in the Old Testament a lot of concern about a promised land and how to get to that land. The Jewish community continues to declare that all of the land in Israel is their land. The early Christians were told that theirs were “a chosen nation.” In the New Testament, “nation” was given a larger meaning. A nation was being a part of the community of believers, and not a specific piece of land. The Kingdom of God was a kingdom of faith and not political identity. The devotion to one piece of land, one political party, or one race of people has very little support in the New Testament. All those who are of like mind and faith are part of the nation, the kingdom, the new people.
The continuous rise of the alt-right parties, the growing nationalism that is worried about one country and only one country, seems to me to be running in the exact opposite of the theological convictions of the New Testament. There does not appear to be any religious or theological basis for the borders of any country. Paul suggest that it is wise not to disobey the political powers, but other than saying political powers are necessary for an orderly society, he does not proclaim any country or nation as necessary. The creation of nations is a human construct. The boundaries of almost every nation has been changed, enlarged, shrunk, or divided throughout the course of history. There are no religious reasons for the devotion to one country over another.
There are some fundamental theological convictions which seem to be in opposition to nationalism. The earth is the Lord’s seems to mean that all creation is God’s and so he cares for it all. No nation has or deserves any special privileges or rewards. All land is sacred land. All people in all nations are God’s people and God’s creation.
Those who wanted to be known as Christians in the early church found themselves being persecuted by the Roman government because they would not swear allegiance to the Emperor and acknowledge the Emperor as a god. Over and over throughout history in all kinds of nations, those who claimed to be followers of Jesus found that they were persecuted by the government. The allegiance of Christians is to the Kingdom of God and any and all loyalties to a nation which has been made is idolatry. (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/nationalism-is-unchristian_us_58c705ece4b022817b29160d)
According to Roberts, there are 10 “negative consequences” when a church conflates nationalism and Christianity.
1. It contributes to false assumptions of God’s special blessing or privilege
2. It confuses the power of God with the power of the State
3. It confuses the gospel of grace with the “good news” of material wealth and security.
4. It undermines the separation of church and state
5. It undercuts the prophetic power that Christianity needs in order to be salt and light
6. It makes us forget that nation-states are a recent development
7. It undermines the cross
8. It replaces transcendence with immanence
9. It disrespects those who have been marginalized by the configuration of powers in the nation-state
10. It suggests that the basis of Christian hope is not the counter-cultural Messiah, but the “worldly” powers of the State.
If the 20th Century has come to be known as the bloodiest century in human history, it has also come to be known, by Christians at least, as the ecumenical century. It was partly the bloody wars and oppressive rule of totalitarian regimes that threw together so many Christians, forcing them to look beyond their petty differences as they stared evil in the face. Over sixty years ago the Japanese government forced the various denominational churches to unite so that they could control them better, but at the end of the Second World War, the churches decided to stay together. In Europe the Nazis rounded up and imprisoned enemies of the state without regard to their religious labels. What happened on Dietrich Bonhoeffer's last day on earth is a good example of what Jesus meant by "whoever is not against us is for us." In Letters and Papers From Prison editor Eberhard Bethge reports that when Bonhoeffer was asked to conduct a Sunday service, the pastor was reluctant to do so. Not only were most of the prisoners in the cell Roman Catholics, but Communists were present, too, and the pastor did not want to impose on anyone. However, everyone wanted the service, so Bonhoeffer read and spoke on the passage from Isaiah 53 "By his stripes are we healed," as well as 1 Peter 1:3. Prisoners in another section had hoped to smuggle the pastor in so that he could lead them in worship, but it was not to be. The guards came and led him away to be hanged for his participation in the plot against Hitler.
The ecumenical movement…can heal divisions which have become historically obsolete, to replace confessional fanaticism by interconfessional cooperation, to conquer denominational provincialism, and to produce a new vision of the unity of all churches in their foundation. Paul Tillich, quote from The World's Treasury of Religious Quotations, p. 261 (New York: Garland Books, 1966.)
Virtually all studies of the different generations since World War 2 point out that the younger generations could care less about denominations. Were they to spot someone in a church healing a person (or casting out "a demon") they would not think of asking if the healer belonged to the right denomination, nor try to stop the person were he or she of another brand of Christianity? In this respect they are much closer to Jesus than to John.
The church's one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord, She is his new creation by water and the word… From Samuel John Stone's hymn.
The Church exhorts all her sons that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men. Second Vatican Council, Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, 1965.
Christian unity ruthlessly asks all of us to drop our pretensions to squatters' rights on holy land. Walter D. Wagoner, quote from The World's Treasury of Religious Quotations, p. 1021 (New York: Garland Books, 1966.)
In the film based on Norman Maclean's book A River Runs Through, one of the chief characters is a Presbyterian minister who is the father of two very different sons. The minister is depicted as an admirable father and a preacher of thought-provoking sermons, but even he shares a touch of the apostle John's narrowness when he jokingly refers to Methodists as "Baptists who know how to read." He, of course, is not really so narrow, but he comes out of a time when Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists said far more hurtful things about each other.
The extreme form of John's trying to stop non-members of his circle is to be found in Ireland where Catholics and Protestants still continue the wars of over three hundred years ago. In Jim Sheridan's film The Boxer Danny Flynn shows that he sides with Jesus, and not John. He has spent 14 years in prison out of loyalty to his IRA comrades. But evidently in prison he has decided to begin over, refusing to have any contact with other IRA members, and upon his release, refusing to be pulled back into the anti-British operations of the organization. Instead he opens up again his "The Holy Family Boxing Club." both as a means of restarting his own once promising boxing career and to help the neighborhood boys. A reporter comes to interview him and asks what is the meaning of the sign prominently displayed in the gym: "Non-sectarian." Danny's trainer Ike replies, "Holy Family has always been non-sectarian. Protestants and Catholics together."
A favorite hymn of Christian unity sung by people of virtually all denominations was written by a Chicago priest, "We Are One in the Spirit." Since its inception in the 1960's the hymn has been taken all around the world—I recall participating in the leadership of an ecumenical worship service at which an African bishop preached. He had not heard the hymn before but, thrilled by its beauty, he promised that he would teach it to his people, both to recall his experience in our country and to affirm the unity that he felt wherever he went among the churches in this land. The hymn is often known by the words of its refrain, "They'll Know We Are Christians By our Love." This, of course, should be the mark of the Christian, one so missing
in John's attempt to stop someone outside his fold from healing.
Before "We Are One in the Spirit," John Oxenham's "In Christ There Is No East or West" was undoubtedly the favorite hymn sung at ecumenical gatherings, as well as those of an interracial nature. Oxenham declares that neither geography, nor creed, nor race separates "the fellowship of love." It is Christ and "his service" of "the golden cord" that "close bunds" the human race. The author was not a minister, but started out as a businessman. However, during his long business trips he began to write to relieve the boredom of travel. He found that he enjoyed writing more than business, so he turned to writing novels (forty-two!) and poetry (twenty-five volumes!). The words for this hymn were taken from his first poem, "Bees in Amber," a poem which no publisher wanted, so he printed it himself—and sold 285,000 copies!
A man was arrested earlier this year in Sardinia for being an imposter priest. Claudio Goglio had managed to fool people for about six months before he was finally detected. What gave him away? His uncontrolled sin. In particular, parishioners became suspicious about his authenticity when they heard him repeatedly cursing. But before he was found to be a bogus priest, he had regularly celebrated Sunday Mass, funerals, baptisms, and weddings. He even duped the Archbishop of Alghero into celebrating Mass with him. When a local priest started to question Goglio's standing in the priesthood, he did some checking and found that the Vatican had no record of him. When he was arrested, Goglio was sentenced to one year in jail and fined about $700.
Despite how firmly sin might hold a grip on us, we all have the potential to change for the better. According to an article in the May issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, personality traits are not set in stone. So if someone has ever told you, "You'll never change!", there is the distinct possibility that some day you will be able to prove that person wrong. Traditionally it was assumed that little personality change was possible after the age of 30. This new study challenges that assumption. The study was conducted by a Stanford University scholar while he was at the University of California in Berkeley. For some time, the general consensus in psychology focused on the "plaster theory," which maintained that five key personality traits are essentially genetically programmed and can be altered only to a small degree after early adulthood. Those five traits are conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness, and extraversion. In a survey of 132,515 men and women aged 21 to 60, the researcher found that as time goes by, there are changes in just about all of those categories for everyone.
With regard to conscientiousness, which is related to being organized and disciplined, that trait generally increases with age, especially during the 20s. Agreeableness also increased with age, particularly during the 30s. Neuroticism, defined in terms of worrying and emotional instability, declined over time for women but not for men. Openness to new experiences tended to decline slightly for both sexes with age. And extraversion tended to decline for women over time, but not for men.
Jesus is sounding a warning alarm about sin. But do people today pay attention? Earlier this year police in Los Angeles decided that they would no longer respond to car alarms unless someone could verify that a real emergency was taking place. The decision to do that was made because 92% of the car alarms that go off are false alarms, wasting the police department's time and money to respond, when the police could be devoting their efforts to more serious matters. Security companies vowed to challenge the move, pointing out that when car thieves learn that the alarms will be ignored by police, they'll take advantage of the extra time at their disposal to break into vehicles and drive off with them.
We generally have a difficult time taking warnings seriously, because many of the warnings we are surrounded with today are quite silly. Tesco's Tiramisu dessert comes with a warning, "Do not turn upside down." The problem is that warning is printed on the bottom of the box, and so you will probably only see that warning after it's too late. On a container of Marks & Spencer Bread Pudding, a warning indicates "Product will be hot after heating." A packet of peanuts declares: "Warning - contains peanuts." And several brands of Christmas lights warn: "For indoor or outdoor use only." In England, they have developed an annual Ridiculous Packaging Instructions Award to poke fun at the funniest package warning labels.
Every year the Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch organizes a Wacky Warning Label Contest. The point is to show how far companies go to try to avoid being sued. The first prize winner this past year went to the Interactive Health massage chair, which warned users not to use the device without clothing. The second place prize went to a snowblower warning label that said, "Do not use snowblower on roof." Third place went to dishwasher label that declared: "Do not allow children to play in the dishwasher."
When people today hear Jesus' warning about hell, how many people seriously think they might end up there? According to a recent Harris poll, not too many. The survey found that while more than two-thirds of all Americans believe in hell, only 1% think they personally will go there. More than one-fourth think they will be reincarnated.
According to the Puritan understanding of salvation, around the time of Jonathan Edwards, a deep awareness of one's sin was considered to be the first step toward heaven. That step, often called "conviction," occurred when people came to a realization of how deeply their sin separated themselves from God. The usual pattern, then, was that after a relatively short period of enthusiasm and devotion, people would backslide into sin, eventually coming to see how God would be entirely justified in condemning them to hell for their deeds. That stage was usually known as "terror." The final step was where people received God's regenerating "light." In that stage, the Holy Spirit would enter the people and finally give them the ability to truly repent so that sin would no longer be their ruler.
Jonathan Edwards suggested that we need to consider certain aspects of our lives like fire. In a house, fire is needed to heat the home and to cook the meals. Fire is a good servant. But when we allow fire to become the master and take over, all quickly comes to destruction.
We especially expect our leaders to set a good example so that others will not stumble because of their behavior. At the United Nations, however, where they seek to promote world peace and order, there was considerable disorder this past May. One day the dining hall workers at the U.N. staged a one-day walkout, which resulted in the facility's restaurants being locked down. But a high-ranking U.N. official ordered that the restaurants be opened so that the staff members could eat and pay for what they took by using the honor system. During lunch that day, though, there was not too much honor, but there was quite a bit of sin. Apparently the U.N. workers went on a rampage through the restaurants, stealing not only food, but also silverware and liquor. A report in Time magazine even indicated that some well-known diplomats participated in the looting.
Just like the disciples felt a sense of rivalry toward that independent exorcist, so also there was a sense of religious rivalry during the American Civil War. In Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address, he commented on that fact by observing, "Both [the North and the South] read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other....The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully."
Writing his "Meditation on the Divine Will" in September of 1862, Abraham Lincoln stated: "In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. But one may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party...."
In ancient times it was often assumed that only the intellectual elite were capable of contemplating such matters as sin and how to live a moral life. Celsus, one of the early critics of the Christian faith mocked the followers of Jesus for assuming that even "the most stupid and uneducated yokels" could learn moral philosophy. Origen accepted that criticism willingly. In fact, in his opinion, offering to all classes the opportunity to live a moral life was one of the great features of Christianity.
Unfortunately many church members look upon their faith responsibilities as being a rather casual affair. If someone misses a certain number of Rotary meetings, they are kicked out of the group. If someone doesn't participate in enough service projects, their membership in the Kiwanis might be terminated. If an actor fails to show up for high school play rehearsals, he is cut from the cast and his part is given to someone else. But in Being the Body, Charles Colson observes, "When the church imposes discipline—denying the benefits of membership to those who flout its standards—it is charged with everything short of (and sometimes including) fascism."
Jesus' rebuke of how the disciples dealt with that unknown exorcist invites us to explore how we deal with those whom we consider our rivals in the faith. Noted Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, "In recent years the major Christian churches have taken steps towards reconciliation, but these measures are far too slow; the world is perishing a hundred times more quickly. No one expects the churches to merge…, but only to present a common front against atheism."
We often have a difficult time accepting the fact that there are others, whom we don't know and whom might be physically distant from us, who are working for the same cause that we are. As the United States began to spread westward in the very early parts of the nineteenth century, many citizens were concerned that the growing size of the country would make it impossible for all of the inhabitants to share a common national loyalty. Many in New England took up the battle cry, "The frontier should stop at the Appalachians!" Tensions were so severe that Connecticut senator Roger Griswold and other New England politicians gave serious consideration to seceding from the Union. They mulled the idea of dividing the country into three independent republics: northern, southern, and western.
A rival exorcist that Christian missionaries in Africa had to contend with in the early 1900s was a man named William Wade Harris. He lived in Liberia, where he claimed the angel Gabriel appeared to him and anointed him to be an apostle throughout West Africa. Carrying a bamboo cross, a Bible, and a gourd rattle, he traveled from village to village on an amazingly successful preaching mission. Supposedly he converted around 100,000 people during a two-year period. What made Harris's ministry distinct from the American and European missionaries was his emphasis on dealing with the ancient cult-figures and fetishes that the people focused on. The American and Europeans tended to discount the importance of those things, writing them off as mere superstition. Harris, however, believed those objects were the locus of genuine evil spiritual presence. Therefore he dealt with those items by destroying them with fire. A legend says that some pagan shrines literally burst into flames when he drew near, and the priests ran away in fear. Eventually many of Harris's followers joined traditional mission churches, although many Harrist churches continue in Africa to this day.
Instead of focusing on our own sins, we tend to find evil only in our enemies. There is a Russian Orthodox monastery near the lakeside town of Lodeinoye Polye. The entire back wall of that sanctuary is covered with an eighteenth-century fresco of Judgment Day. On the portion of the fresco depicting hell are all of Russia's traditional enemies: Germans with their tricorn hats, Tartars, Turks in their turbans, Jews with long beards, Greeks, Finns, and Arabs. The assumption of the fresco is obviously that any enemy of Russia must be an enemy of Christ.
"The mere impulse of appetite is slavery, while obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves is liberty." (Jean-Jacques Rousseau)
"Don't touch Christianity unless you mean business. I promise you a miserable existence if you do." (Henry Drummond)
"Kill sin before it kills you." (Richard Baxter)
"To make the wickedness of men the cause of contention and strife in us, is to make one sin the cause of another. We cannot please the devil better than by hating men's persons under pretense of duty." (Jonathan Edwards)
"It is the great moment of our lives when we decide that sin must die right out, not be curbed or suppressed or countenanced, but crucified." (Oswald Chambers)
"One leak will sink a ship, and one sin will destroy a sinner." (John Bunyan)
"Sin is the dare of God's justice, the rape of his mercy, the jeer of his patience, the slight of his power, and the contempt of his love." (John Bunyan)
"As long as we be meddling with any part of sin, we shall never see clearly the blissful countenance of the Lord." (Julian of Norwich)
Clergy sex scandals, especially those involving the abuse of children, are particularly disturbing in light of Jesus' command not to place a stumbling block in the way of believers, especially young ones. Those in positions of power and authority do grave damage when they abuse the trust others have placed in them; and we are all, in various roles, in positions of influence, where others will look at us, know we are Christians, and judge the Church by our actions, whether we like it or not.
When I was a Junior High School student, I was involved in a Christian youth organization. The local staff were the kind of people who wanted to be accepted as "pals." We all went out to a movie one night, and in the process, they abused property, and acted sophomoric, I'm sure to impress us with what cool guys they were. Their behavior had just the opposite effect on me: I thought they acted stupid, and their behavior was disillusioning. I needed mature role models, not people who were so insecure as to need my acceptance to feel important.
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
People: May the God of Israel hear and accept our praise.
Leader Draw near to the Lord in faith.
People: And God will receive and bless our lives with the richness of God's presence.
God, we have divided Your church at times by stubbornly insisting on our own beliefs and on our own way of doing things over over again. We have demeaned those in other churches and regarded them as "less Christian" than ourselves. Forgive us for any narrowness of mind and doctrine that fails to see truth and goodness in others. By Your Spirit enable us to see and affirm the good qualities in those with whom we differ, and to be able to admit our own shortcomings and faults before pointing to those of others. Make us as open and free as the one who founded the church, even Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. Amen,
You have blessed us with so much, O God, so today we bring this offering in gratitude. As You have enriched us, so may these gifts enrich our church, enabling it to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to others. In his name we pray, Amen.
O God, You have called us into the fellowship of the church, and we thank You for the gift of brothers and sisters in Christ. We thank You that we are leaving behind the days when we regarded other forms of the church as rivals at best, and enemies at worst. Thus we pray for our brothers and sisters in the Roman Catholic Church and the our sister Orthodox and Protestant churches—for Anglicans, Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, Pentecostals, and many more—all of whom seek to serve You in their own traditions. May we continue to agree to disagree in the minor things of the faith and realize that our oneness is in Jesus Christ, and not in our doctrines or practices.
We are thankful for each one in this sanctuary, and we remember those not present with us today. Be with those who are ill, at home or in hospitals; those in nursing homes; those who must travel or work this day; those who have become dispirited or given up on the church. May all of Your hurting children, O God, experience Your comforting love and healing presence. We thank You for the many things that enrich our lives—our homes and family, meaningful work in a free land, and so much more. Bless our nation and, when we wander from Your way, call us back in repentance so that others will respect and honor the principles of freedom and justice which we loudly proclaim but do not always follow. All this we ask in the name of Jesus Christ, Lord of the church and of nations, Amen.