TEXT: Mark 9:38-50
“Whoever is not against us is for us … 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.” (Mark 9:40, 42)
Have you ever noticed how, in the gospels, Jesus often seems to be at odds with himself? The Revised Common Lectionary gospel reading for Proper 21, Year B (Mark 9:38-50) is a good example. One the one hand, Jesus sounds very open and tolerant (“whoever is not against us is for us”); and yet, on the other hand, he seems very severe and harsh (“if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out …”). But if we take a deeper look, we find that these attitudes do not really conflict with one another. In fact, taken together, they illustrate the deep concern Jesus has for the salvation of all.
“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him …” (v. 38). This is the only time the apostle John speaks on his own in Mark’s Gospel, and he uses his words to draw Jesus’ attention to a case of copyright infringement!
John and the other disciples had come across an unnamed exorcist, who was using Jesus’ name to remove evil spirits. But he wasn’t a member of their inner circle, so they told him to cease and desist. But what does the Lord say? “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” (v. 39).
The disciples, apparently, have forgotten something important. Jesus’ first concern is for as many people as possible to hear his message and to experience the good news. Far from censuring this anonymous exorcist, Jesus welcomes his help—and he tells the disciples not to interfere with him. “Whoever is not against us is for us.”
In the strongest possible terms, Jesus warns the disciples against getting in the way of the salvation of others. Then he utters what can only be described as a series of curses on those who would cause a single soul to be lost.
For me, the whole passage is summed up in verse 41: “… 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.”
Jesus shows compassion for everyone. He wants to rescue each and every human being; after all, that is why he came into the world. He gives his life for all, and he does not want anyone to be lost—especially not through the actions of one of his own disciples.
You know, much of the time, when I meet people who’ve given up on organized religion, I discover it’s because of something another church member said or did. I know of whole families who no longer attend church because of an unkind or unconsidered word said by a fellow parishioner. Some Christians—among them quite a few pastors, I’m afraid—seem to leave behind them a trail of spiritual wreckage: hurting, bitter, resentful people. Lost souls.
Oh, I know; you can say that some people are just too sensitive, too thin-skinned. And to a certain degree, that’s true. Each of us is responsible for ourselves—and certainly, as grown-ups, we ought to be able to deal with the rough-and-tumble of everyday life. Leaving the church because of someone else’s attitude hardly seems mature.
Now, having said that, I’ll also say this: Jesus takes these matters very seriously—and so should we. He does not want his disciples to be obstacles—stumbling-blocks—to anyone’s faith. The job of a disciple is to bring people into the Kingdom, not drive them away.
Let’s face it: human beings are delicate creatures. We need nurturing and encouraging. The task of the disciple is therefore to be open and welcoming. In the church and in the world, we ought to be mindful of how we speak and how we act. We should pay attention to the way we come across to others. We are Christ’s ambassadors, and we ought to act the way he would act in the same circumstances.
OK … so that’s how it ought to be. But we are only too aware of our own limitations, aren’t we? And if you’re like me, maybe sometimes you feel like a hopeless case—like all these expectations are too much for you and that you aren’t really cut out to be a disciple of Jesus.
Ever feel like that? When I feel like that, well … those are the times I am most grateful for the people God sends into my life to encourage me. And somehow, they always seem to show up just when I need them most.
I hope it’s like that in your life, too. Christians need one another. We need to minister to each other. From time to time, every one of us needs that cup of refreshing water. From time to time, every one of us needs to hear a kind word, to receive encouragement—a bit of tender, loving care. We can’t be always giving; we have to receive as well.
It’s not that long ago that the Christian churches were in serious rivalry with one another. I recall my grandmother telling me that there was a time when the clergy of different denominations would pass each other in the street without even the vaguest greeting. Like the disciples in today’s gospel reading, they were highly intolerant of others who preached the gospel. This, of course, grew out of each denomination’s conviction that it—and only it—possessed the true faith in all its fullness.
Fortunately, that is much less true today. I’m not sure the various churches have changed their doctrines all that much, but we surely have changed our attitudes. Certainly, faith groups still have their differences and distinctives—and their disagreements—but, by and large, we get along much better than we used to. Increasingly, we all recognize that the other Christian denominations do preach the gospel of love; that other Christians do live moral lives; that they do pray as earnestly. The church is the Body of Christ, and all the Christian denominations are an authentic part of the church.
This has nothing to do with organizational unity in the sense of creating “one big church” or making everybody think exactly the same way about everything.
No. This is about unity in the Spirit. This is about working together. It’s about cooperation. It’s about growing in our understanding of what it means to be a true disciple of Jesus.
So often we hear it said that the churches are dying, that religion has become irrelevant, and that the whole idea of God is on its way out. And I tell you: pay no attention to those discouraging words! It may very well be true that some of our churchly institutions will cease to exist, and that some of our religious forms will pass away. But the church—the real church, which is the Body of Christ, made up of people like you and me, from all kinds of traditions and places—the church is going to be just fine!
I believe the church of our Lord Jesus Christ is not only going to survive, but that it is going to thrive in the years to come. And do you know why? It’s because, finally, the church—and, I have to say, in spite of the churches—the church in the 21st century is finally beginning to find the true unity that Jesus hoped for when he prayed that we might all be one (John 17:21).
Our true unity is in the Spirit—which is where it’s always been. And our true unity is expressed in humble service, which is what the Spirit moves us toward. It is the Spirit’s gift. All we have to do is accept it, and embrace it, and live it. May it be so for us, today—and in all our tomorrows.