Sermon by Rev. Brian Combs, 9/30/18
According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, there are six blocks of Christianity: Independents, Protestants, Marginals, Orthodox, Catholics and Anglicans. Spanning 238 different countries in total, they compose over 33,000 different denominations.
Likely, the first denomination began in the 9th chapter of Mark’s gospel. The disciples are arguing about who’s the greatest charter member among them, revising bylaws and determining eligibility requirements, and defining the orthodoxy of discipleship.
Infuriated by their committee deliberations, Jesus interrupts the proceedings with his most severe rebuttal in the entire New Testament. Harsher than separating the sheep from the goats, more graphic than the description of weeping and gnashing of teeth, and more forceful than kicking over the money changers’ tables, Jesus warns of drowning at the bottom of the sea and burning in the unquenchable fire.
With such a dire response so unlike his endless patience and graceful ways elsewhere, in today’s text, what is Jesus judging?
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 afterward 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. 50Salt 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.”
Mistreating someone new to faith, a little one in belief.
The blandness of discipleship that can come after serving too long.
The disciples’ desire for the exorcist to follow them instead of Jesus.
Fred Craddock returned to the church of his childhood in Tennessee. He had not been there in years. Walking into the sanctuary one Wednesday afternoon, he noted that the church had purchased new stained glass windows since he had last been there. Admiring the windows, he noted that set at the bottom of each window was the name of its donor. But he thought it strange that he didn’t recognize even one of the names. He made his way back to the pastor’s office where he introduced himself to the cleric and said: “You must have had quite a few new folks join this church since I was a boy. I don’t recognize a single name on the sanctuary windows.” “Oh, those people aren’t members here. This town hasn’t grown a bit since you were a child … and neither has our little church. We bought those windows from a company in Italy. They were made for a church in St. Louis, but when they were delivered, none of them would fit. So the company said they were sorry, they would make new windows, and told the church in St. Louis to sell them wherever they could. We bought those windows from them.” “But don’t you want to remove the names?” asked Fred. “Well, we thought about it. But we’re such a small church. Not many of us here, never any new people. So we just decided it might be better to sit here on Sunday mornings surrounded by the names of other people rather than just ourselves.”
The disciples have made it clear that they only want to be surrounded by their own names commemorated in hallowed lights. Clinging to their inflated pride, they believe they’re the only ones set apart for God’s work. Threatened by a newcomer’s giftedness, they’re anxious that Jesus’ approval is merit based. Protecting the turf of their all boys’ club, they would rather the sick get sicker than be healed by an unauthorized exorcist. For the first followers, only twelve practitioners are allowed.
Furious about this priesthood of only selected believers, Jesus judges the disciples’ fixation on exclusive membership. The sin of assuming that only after reciting the appropriate creed, only after attending the preferred seminary, only after passing the board of ordained ministry can a Christian engage in Christian service. That ministry is a possession to be protected with guards at the door of discipleship rather than greeters wide open with welcome. There’s nothing more offensive to God than denying someone the chance to do a good work.
The missionary Brother Andrew said, “The purpose of the Church cannot be to survive, or even to thrive but to serve.”
In a world teeming with demons, there’s no time for denominations hellbent on denying some ministers the right to serve. Instead, the next time an exorcist shows up with the wrong credentials, let us be the first to bless her righteous labor, certain that the kingdom come needs the participation of us all now more than ever.