Trinity XVII

Numbers 11.4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Psalm 19.7-14
James 5.13-20
Mark 9.38-50
“John said to him, ‘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 afterwards 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.  ‘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 my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
The appointment of a new Archbishop of Canterbury is a nervous time for the Church of England, and for the Anglican Communion at large I would imagine too.  The liberals are worried a conservative will be appointed; the conservatives are worried a liberal will be appointed; those in favour of the consecration of women bishops are worried that the new archbishop will oppose women’s ordination and consecration; those opposed to the consecration of women bishops are worried that the new archbishop will support women in the house of bishops.  It is sad to say that we probably think about what we want to avoid in the next ABC more than thinking about what positive features we would like to see: prayerfulness, humility, a promoter of justice, and of course a deep love of Our Lord.  We fixate on what we are against, rather than what we are for.
Christians of different denominations, and Christians of different “flavours” within denominations have not traditionally been very good at getting along with one another.  I remember seeing very sad scenes from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem last year when physical fights broke out between Greek and Armenian Orthodox clerics during their preparations for Christmas.  This is sadly a regular occurrence.  You don’t have to think too far back in history to find Roman Catholic Croats at war with Orthodox Serbs in the former Yugoslavia.  The Thirty Years War between Western European Catholics and Protestants in the 17th Century killed, in percentage terms, almost as many people as either the First or Second World Wars.  The history of Western Europe is stained with the blood of Christians shed at the hands of other Christians.
And you do not have to look as far as the battlefield to find antagonism between different groups of Christians.  Aggressive assertions by certain groups of Christians that they are the only “real” Christians are rife.  The position seems to be that if you don’t subscribe to certain groups’ particular doctrines then you are not one of them, not a real Christian, and you don’t really know God or Jesus.  I find this a cruel and dehumanising attitude to take.  Why Christians cannot see past their differences to the core of others’ beliefs – Jesus Christ – I don’t know.
The disciples in today’s passage from Mark’s gospel seem to have taken a similarly dismissive attitude to someone they didn’t know who was performing miracles in Jesus’s name.  It’s interesting what John says to Jesus.  He DOESN’T say  ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following YOU.’  What he says is ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following US.’  Their rejection of this other follower of Christ is not based on some defect in this person’s relationship with Jesus, it is based on a perceived defect in their relationship with the disciples.  This other healer is not with the disciples, he is not part of them.  Therefore in the eyes of the disciples he (or she) is a rival, a threat.  He is not with them, so he is against them.
No, Jesus says, do not stop him.  This person who is doing deeds of power in Jesus’s name is not someone doing or speaking evil against him.  They should let him alone.  This person is not against Jesus, so he is for him.  This is despite not following the disciples!  Despite not believing the same things as the disciples.  Perhaps despite not believing the same things as Jesus?!  We don’t know.
So why do we insist on applying a stricter standard to others than Jesus does here?  Why do we insist on excluding others who don’t believe exactly what we do, who don’t belong to our little group?
Well, for whatever reasons we do it, we do.  And for us, this week’s Gospel passage contains a warning.  If anyone puts a stumbling-block before any vulnerable person who believes in Christ, the consequences will be so grave that you’ll wish you’d been thrown into the sea with a great millstone around your neck.  A pretty barbaric punishment!  It sounds rather like an ancient version of the gangster punishment of embedding someone’s feet in concrete blocks and throwing them into a river or the sea.
Don’t try to trip up other followers of Christ says Christ himself!  Why question what they’re doing and how they’re doing it if they’re doing it for God, for Christ?  Why put them to the test?  Why try to make them conform to our own way of being a Christian?  Why ask why they’re not following us, if they’re trying to follow Christ?  That is all that matters.
We are all guilty.  Not one of us is innocent of this, whether conservative or liberal, progressive, traditional, evangelical, catholic, orthodox, reformed, whoever…
There may be behaviour we find challenging in other Christians, and there are some things which should be challenged.  But perhaps we can move to a different way of doing that?  A way that doesn’t say “you are against me”.  A way that doesn’t say “you are not a Christian”.  A way that isn’t cruel and doesn’t dehumanise.  But a way that operates by love, instead of just paying lip service to it.  A way that recognises that everyone, even those with whom we don’t agree, is a beloved child of God.  A way that sees our mutual love of Jesus as central, as THE most central thing, rather than putting Jesus second after our own beliefs and preferences.
As the new ABC is being chosen, we can only hope and pray that he shares Jesus’s view that whoever is not against us is for us.  Amen.

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