Somebody out there is probably following Jesus without following us. We want to stop him and tell him how to do it right. Jesus says, “do not stop him….for whoever is not against us is for us.”
18th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B) – September 27, 2015 – Mark 9:38-50
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
Following Jesus Without Following Us – Pastor Evan Davis
Somebody was out there, casting out demons in Jesus’ name….in Jesus’ name! But because he wasn’t following us, we’re against him, the disciples think. They try to stop him. They place a big old stumbling block right at the feet of this poor follower of Jesus trying to do gospel ministry in his name, and not only him, but they put a boulder between God and the little ones this person was serving. As it turns out, Jesus is really not into stumbling blocks. Really not. He’s got a major, major problem with them.
Jesus is deadly serious here, but not literal. He’s making a point. It would be better for you to enter the kingdom of God hopping on one foot, keeping your balance with your one hand, finding your way with just one eye, than go to hell with all those bodily members intact. This is all an elaboration on his original point, that you’d be better taking a swim with a great millstone around your neck than if you place a great stumbling stone before somebody who’s trying to follow Jesus, to actually love people in Jesus’ name.
Say somebody new starts coming to worship, once, twice, three times, and then, maybe shows up for a class or an activity. The church vampires get excited….new blood! We’re thinking, great! We’ve got someone new to teach Sunday School, set up the altar, clean the church, serve on council. And you know what, that newcomer may really want to do those things (maybe has some new ideas too, but…), might feel called to do them, might be excited about Jesus and doing something to serve his gospel ministry through the church. So he goes about setting up, say, a church meal for the first time…but then we show up to tell that excited, earnest follower of Jesus he’s not doing the right way. As Bishop Eaton is fond of saying, nobody comes to church to be replacement parts.
Yet here we are still….playing the same game…. “if you’re not for us, you’re against us.” Somebody wise said to me last week, “the church majors in stumbling blocks!” Ha! We can always come up with a reason why you’re not doing the church thing or the faith thing the right way.
So for generations in America different denominations have planted one of their churches right next to another, because Lord knows they’re not Christian until they’re our kind of Christians. Still happens. For some, you’re not Christian unless your church has bishops descended from St. Peter, and for others, you’re not Christian if you do! For some, you’re Christian only if you’re baptized after you believe and for others only if you’re baptized in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and for others only if you’re baptized in the name of Jesus, and for others not until you receive the Holy Spirit baptism and speak in tongues! I could keep going with this list….
But Jesus looks at his disciples and all of us in the face and says, “do not stop him … whoever is not against us is for us.” He flips our thinking upside down. Whoever is not against us is for us.
This is Jesus instructing his disciples then, and instructing us, his disciples now, in how we are to go about our gospel ministry in the world. Jesus can and does use a whole lot of people to do his work – to cast out demons, to feed the hungry, to setup the altar, to teach the children, to share the good news. And not all of them look like us, or talk like us, or worship like us, or organize their churches the same way. When God sends new people to us, or brings us alongside different kinds of Christians, sure there are certain things we need to teach, but we also need to be open to what they will teach us, and think for a second before we drop a stumbling stone at their feet. No matter the differences, these are all people for whom Christ died, people Christ marked with his cross in Baptism, or people he stands ready to welcome in the water.
Millions of Americans, Catholic or not, were captivated by Pope Francis this week. By his simple honesty and integrity, his simple morality that cuts across party lines, his simple love for simple people that embodies the love of Jesus. I’m not sure this past week would have been possible in this country even a couple decades ago. For many American Christians, Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox, Jesus is convincing us that whoever is not against us is for us. Our own ELCA is a leader in forging unity wherever possible. We have “full communion” agreements with six other churches – the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, the Reformed Church in America, the Moravian Church, the Episcopal Church, and the United Methodist Church – which means you can take communion in their churches and that any of their ministers could serve this church, and I could serve one of theirs. Isn’t that amazing? Praise God. Already in my seminary I learned alongside Episcopal and Methodist and UCC students. Maybe we could take it further…when we start new churches, why don’t we do it together? Like Trinity Ecumenical Parish at Smith Mountain Lake, which is Episcopal, Methodist, and Lutheran at the same time. And maybe we’d be so bold as to dream of the day when God needs us to be unified more than God needs us to remain separated.
But Jesus says something else fascinating, “whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.” Who are those people who don’t believe like you, or maybe don’t believe in any way we can recognize, but who admire you and admire Christ because they see Christ in you? Do they ever bring you a cup of water?
There was a man whom Brett and I both used to visit with in our ministry in Lancaster, PA. William would come into our office, or we’d meet him on the street, and he’d tell us about his long journey to get clean from alcohol and drugs. But William did things his own way….[William’s story.] William also would tell me this story, a story about going to church….a story about how in plenty of churches in the city, when he walked in, everybody would start shifting in their seats, maybe cast a glance in the direction of some leaders or the pastor, a look that meant, get him out of here. William couldn’t stay still. So pacing in the back, in more than one place, he got asked to leave. William would say something to me that will always stick – he said, “I never got thrown out of churches until I got clean.”
William brought me the refreshing cup of water that was his faith, his determination to get clean, the inspiration from his effort to respond to God’s grace in his life, to pray and come hear about Jesus and receive Jesus in church. What a refreshing gulp it was when it told me about the pastor who, when she noticed he was being escorted out, stopped her sermon and said, in effect, “if you show him out, you’ve got to show me out.”
There are a lot of people out there, some with backgrounds as challenging to many of us as William’s, and some simply like our dear family and friends who don’t worship with us here on Sunday, who don’t go to church like we do, some for very good reasons. Many of them follow Jesus without following us. Jesus helps us keep those stumbling stones out of their path. And he reminds you that you are only part of a web of faith which is bigger than our church, maybe bigger than the church, not against the church, but not entirely under its control. Sometimes you can teach. But sometimes you need to learn. Sometimes you are the one parched, who needs that cool cup of water from someone you thought didn’t believe, and you will be amazed at the faith she gives you. Amen.