9.28.2009

For us, or against us?

Mark 9:33-48

Luke 9:46-50

Sunday's and Monday's readings repeat the story of the unknown follower casting out demons in Jesus' name, and the disciples attempt to stop him.

Both renderings are very much the same.  The disciples come across someone they don't know using the Master's name to heal.  What would you do in this situation?  For the disciples the answer is clear: This fellow isn't following Jesus with them (and to be fair, they seem to be pretty much alone in this journey, against a lot of powerful opposition), so they try to stop him.  They might be thinking this man could be a spy attempting to draw them out and make them know to authorities who could stop them, or they may be afraid that he is using Jesus' name incorrectly, or maybe their identities as the closest followers of Christ are threatened.  But the bottom line is that they make "being one of us" more important than "doing the work of Jesus."

Which makes is an historical and contemporary story.  Sections of Christ's body have walled themselves off from others for reasons of orthodoxy, or power, or piety, or national/ethnic identity.  Denominations require decades of conversation to recognize valid ministry in each other, and churches still threaten to split over different interpretations of scripture and theology (witness the discord in the Episcopal Church and the ELCA over homosexuality).  "Are you one of us?" is still an important question for some Christians.

Jesus' answer challenges that impulse.  As Mark tells it, Jesus says: "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." (Mark 9:39-40)

This sounds very odd to a culture that uses "If you ain't for us, you're against us" as its rallying cry.  But its a necessary corrective.

The reality of God, Jesus says, is much larger than "our group" (even if it is a group, like the disciples, that is physically, personally following Jesus).  The mission of healing, blessing, restoring wholeness to creation transcends questions of whether a person is "one of us."  If Jesus can look upon a stranger casting out demons as "for us," shouldn't Christians today take a similar view?  This is a vital question today, as people of all faiths and no faith join in work to heal and unite and serve God's people (sometimes even across boundaries of religion).  Yet too often the church is seen as pulling apart with folks like us rather than embracing all who are participating in God's mission.

But some will ask, isn't this a watering down of the requirements of faith?  I think the key is in the part of the passage that Luke omits: for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me.  Jesus is open to the power of action to shape belief.  Many in the church today are noticing that the old formula of believing before belonging and then serving is being turned on its head.  For many, especially younger generations, action and service are the routes into faith, not just the fruit of it.  Churches are starting to grasp "servant evangelism" as a way of igniting the imagination and sparks of faith through service projects and mission trips that include people who are not already "one of us."  In modern terms, it is moving from our old assumption that if we get people's belief right they'll do the right thing, to accepting that people can, with God's help, act their way into a new way of thinking and believing.

Jesus is realistic about this.  He notes that this suspension of skepticism only exists "soon afterwards" this engagement in God's mission.  Occasional random acts of kindness and service do not make a life of faith -- for a Christian or a non-Christian.  These openings, though, leave room for the Holy Spirit to work in a person's life, and that sounds very Lutheran to me.  Brother Martin noted that I cannot choose to have faith, nor can you compel me to have faith.  Only the Spirit can cause me to have faith.  Yet that work of the Spirit is rarely an isolated, mystical, me-and-God experience.  For most people, the Spirit's work is facilitated by faith mentors and communities that model both the tenets of belief and the actions that it produces.

Its good that the church is re-engaging this sense of participating in God's mission with renewed vigor.  This space is now occupied by many governmental and secular organizations that picked up where the church left off as some Christians abandoned the social gospel and retreated into their minds and hearts, and others out-sourced justice to professional agencies and moved it farther from the center of the individual Christian life.  In this environment will our witness be to say "you're not one of us" and try to compete to take back the work of the kingdom?  Or will our witness be to recognize the inbreaking of the kingdom in many unlikely places and build bridges across which Jesus can continue to form faith and meaning through the performing of deeds of power?

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