St Bride's: Sermons

All one in Christ

Mark 9:38-50

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38 And John answered him, saying, Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name, and he followeth not us: and we forbad him, because he followeth not us.

39 But Jesus said, Forbid him not: for there is no man which shall do a miracle in my name, that can lightly speak evil of me.

40 For he that is not against us is on our part.

41 For whosoever shall give you a cup of water to drink in my name, because ye belong to Christ, verily I say unto you, he shall not lose his reward.

42 And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea.

43 And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched:

44 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

45 And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched:

46 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

47 And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire:

48 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

49 For every one shall be salted with fire, and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt.

50 Salt is good: but if the salt have lost his saltness, wherewith will ye season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace one with another.

May I speak in the name of God, Father, Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

In today's Gospel we heard what happened when the disciples came across someone casting out demons in Jesus' name but who hadn't been following him all over Galilee as they had.  They complain to Jesus but he tells them "forbid him not: for there is no man which shall do a miracle in my name, that can lightly speak evil of me".

If we remind ourselves of the events that have led up to this exchange it's easy to understand where the disciples are coming from.  Jesus, Peter, James and John had come down from the Mountain of the transfiguration and found a scene of unrest.  Jesus asked what the commotion is about and someone from the crowd replied " Master, I have brought unto thee my son, which hath a dumb spirit; And wheresoever he taketh him, he teareth him: and he foameth, and gnasheth with his teeth, and pineth away: and I spake to thy disciples that they should cast him out; and they could not".  Later when they are alone with Jesus the disciples asked why they couldn't exorcise the and he replies "this kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting".

So having been unable to cast out a demon themselves the disciples come across someone who apparently can just be using Jesus' name.  Perhaps they take it given Jesus' teaching, that this person has a more successful prayer life than they do.  What's more they can't even get the man to stop!

It was a similar story in the Old Testament reading we heard this morning.  The Elders appointed by Moses complained about someone else prophesying.  Moses said "Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord's people were prophets".

Both of these stories point to our tendency to try to claim an exclusive identity and access to God's favour.  As Moses' followers and Jesus' disciples were challenged, so are we.  Many of us will identify ourselves as particular sorts of Christians or we might wish to distance ourselves from 'other' sorts of Christians.  In my secular workplace for example, the more conservative social views that some in the Church espouse are from time to time noted in conversation and met with incomprehension, sometimes disdain, sometimes ridicule.  In such circumstances I often find it far easier to focus on what makes me different from those Christians rather than focusing instead on what I have in common with them. 

Similarly some of us distinguish ourselves from other Christians based on our style of worship, what we wear, what we sing or don't sing, how we sing it, when we sit, when we stand, whether we cross ourselves, use incense...  I could go on!
Like Jesus' disciples we are prone to loosing sight of what's important.  Just as Jesus had advised the disciples of the importance of prayer when discouraged by their inability to cast out demons the reading we heard from James' letter emphasises the importance of prayer.  

Is any among you afflicted, let him pray.
If any is merry, let him sing psalms.
If any is sick among you, pray.
If any have committed sins, pray.

We might add: if any wants to understand and be reconciled to their brothers and sisters in Christ, pray.  Prayer is the foundation of our spiritual life individually and collectively.  As a church we are strengthened by mutual confession and encouragement and we are weakened individually and collectively by our tendency towards factionalism.  I can see this in reflecting on my own journey which involved a rejection of the faith of my youth and a distancing of myself from the social attitudes of some Christians. 

My return came about not through a change of my social attitudes but through the experience of God's grace in prayer, initially in silence.  Nearly 12 years ago now I spent a month at an Ashram in Bangalore.  I'd been working for the Singapore Health Promotion Board and had become very interested in yoga whilst there, particularly as a tool for stress management and health promotion in the workplace.  At the Ashram I quickly began to appreciate that the roots of yoga are very much in Hindu spiritual practices, the asanas or stretches that we most commonly associate with yoga actually being a preparation for breathing exercises and the breathing exercises a preparation for meditation.  In the Christian tradition too there is a long history of recognising the importance of silent contemplation.  One day after a few weeks in the ashram whilst in silent meditation I suddenly experienced a remembrance of my baptism and a realisation that had been claimed for Christ.  I was three years of age when I was baptised and I can remember a feeling of anti-climax as I had every expectation of a very dramatic revelation.  Actually it came some thirty years later and didn't involve the sky being rent in two as my three year old mind had imagined but in the knowledge of my belonging to Christ. 

This is the foundation of my identity.  Not my attitudes to social issues or how I am inclined to worship or anything else. You will have noticed perhaps that there is now an hours silence in the church every weekday evening between 5 and 6 and I commend it to you.  If you can't make it try it at home.  

After instructing the disciples about not hindering the man casting out demons in his name, Jesus goes on to teach them about the importance of addressing those things in their lives that lead them to sin.  Very graphically Jesus says if thy hand offend cut it off, if thy foot offend cut it off, it thy eye offend pluck it out!  The warning here is against those things that separate us from God and one another.  As soon as the basis of our identity as Christians shifts from our faith in Jesus Christ we should be concerned.  

St John of the Cross, a Spanish Mystic, wrote of the need to be willingness to sacrifice our religion.  That's striking isn't it, perhaps in a similar way to the instruction to remove those limbs of organs that cause us to sin.  What St John of the Cross points to is the potential for us to be distracted away from the core of our faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and saviour by peripheral social concerns or aesthetics, by the trappings of our religion if you like, this is what we should be willing to sacrifice.

Now of course just because someone claims that their attitudes are informed by their faith in Jesus Christ or that their actions are performed in his name that doesn't mean that we must simply accept that.  Jesus said "Forbid him not: for there is no man which shall do a miracle in my name, that can lightly speak evil of me".  I think this points to the need for discernment and attention to what in the scriptures is referred to as fruits of the spirit.  In Mathew's Gospel Jesus warns the disciples to beware of false prophets and he says "You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles". In the letter to the Galatians the fruits of the spirit are spelt out for us - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.  These are the things that discernment requires us to attend to and someone's views and actions are informed by their faith in Jesus Christ, including our own, we can expect to see these fruits.

But of course we're all works in progress aren't we?  We're at least occasionally blessed by some of these fruits of spirit I hope but we also so often absorb ourselves in their antithesis.  There are no easy lines for us to draw, rather an ongoing task of prayerful discernment to understand God's purposes for our lives and how he might be at work in the lives of others.  What often makes that more challenging for us though, is our tendency to grasp on to those things that distinguish us from others but which separate us not only from them but from God failing to recognise that Christ is radically inclusive.  He loves us all, without exception.

To him be the glory, now and to the ages of ages.
Amen.

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