Healing for all?: sermon for 27 September 2012

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 7 October 2012
based on 27 September 2009- Proper 21

SERMON
Texts: James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-41

Healing for all?
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

A few weeks ago, when there was some controversy about the Kirking of the Council, many of those who wrote to our local papers about it- and many who spoke to me- said that one of the great things about the Kirking, as it has now developed, was an important event in the life of our community. For we need events which strengthen the ties among us, which foster a sense of community. For human beings are social animals- we need to feel we belong somewhere. We need to belong to groups, communities, tribes, teams.

This week, following the disappearance of little April Jones, the local people in the part of Wales where she lived certainly showed some remarkable community spirit, as hundreds of local volunteers joined police and other professionals in searching for the missing five year old. And as they come to terms with this terrible crime which has happened in their midst, I hope and pray that the sense of community comes into its own, as people find comfort from sharing their sense of grief. Families, colleagues, neighbours, friends- these are all vital to us when we face difficult times. The Letter of James speaks of elders in the church visiting the sick, of people praying together, of a common concern for those who seem to wander from the faith. In a healthy Church, a healthy family, a healthy community- we share our joys and sorrows together- and this is good for us all!

But as with all human life, we can use the community, the tribe, the team, for both good and evil. We might enjoy harmless joking about how our town is better than the one down the road. But a lot of wars are caused by one country thinking they are better than other nations. The teenage girls bully those not in the clique, gangs fight against other gangs. This summer, sport is supposed to have brought us together. But for many years in Glasgow, cases of domestic violence went up every weekend when there was an Old Firm game. When people being to imagine that their race, their lifestyle, their religion, their sports team, is better than other people’s then that positive sense of community turns into some nasty- bigotry, discrimination, violence.

Today, many people believe that the trouble with religion is that it creates an unhealthy sense of exclusiveness, that it fosters an extreme sense among people that they better than others. Yet I think that if you read the Gospels it would be hard to accuse Jesus of that. In fact, he often spoke about the dangers of people thinking that they were better than others, that somehow God’s grace was limited to a small number of people.

And yet… did Jesus not choose his own exclusive ‘gang’- his disciples? They were a group of men whom he seems to have chose to be his particular confidants- his disciples. Sometimes he would withdraw from public life, and go off with them. At one point, Mark writes, ‘Jesus and his disciples left that place and went on through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where he was, because he was teaching his disciples’ (Mark 9.31); and there are other examples of times when he goes off on his own with his disciples.
I wonder how that inner twelve felt when he took them apart? I’m sure they felt a bit proud of themselves, like a special elite- ‘We’re going to hear the secret stuff. We’re going to get the inside track on the Kingdom’. But being so close to Jesus meant that he got to know them very well, and that could be uncomfortable. That is what happened on the road to Capernaum. Jesus asks a rhetorical question: ‘ ‘”What were you arguing about on the road?” But they would not answer him, because on the road they had been arguing among themselves about who was the greatest’ (Mark 9.33-34). And that is the occasion when he tells them that whoever would be first in the kingdom must be the last and the servant of all. And he brings a child to stand before them and tells them to be welcoming of even a child. At times it must have felt exhilarating being one of ‘the twelve’. But at other times it seems to have been quite an uncomfortable experience to know Jesus so well- because he got to know you so well!

And it is after this that Mark tells us that the disciple John raises a point. It’s not quite a question, more of a statement, about something John has seen going on and that he wants to know what Jesus thinks about it. It’s also about who’s in the in crowd, and who’s out. And it produces a classic, but puzzling, answer. John’s question/ statement/ observation- whatever we should call it, was: ‘Teacher, we saw a man who was driving out demons in your name, and we told him to stop, because he doesn’t belong to our group’. (Mark 9.38).

This was an age when all kinds of illness were attributed to ‘demons’. Jesus, indeed, was know for curing people by apparently driving the demons out of them. So the existence of demons was widely accepted, and it’s not the driving them out which is worrying John. But when you wanted to drive out a demon you quite often would use the name of some other, more powerful spirit or god, to do so. John’s problem was that he had seen someone driving out demons in the name of Jesus. And so John and the others had tried to put a stop to it.

I once saw a news story about a fish and chip shop in a small town which had Fish McNuggets or something on its menu. After a few weeks they got a threatening letters from solicitors acting on behalf of MacDonald’s the fast food chain. They accused the bewildered chip shop owner of us of infringing their trademark! MacDonald’s you see, wanted to protect their name. And it is as if John the disciple thought that he had to act to protect the name of Jesus. Here is somebody who is ‘not of our group’, he says, and he was using your name, Jesus, so we tried told him to stop. What the lawyers call a ‘cease and desist order’!

But almost before he is finished speaking, Jesus says to John and the other disciples “Do not try to stop him… because no one who performs a miracle in my name will be able soon afterward to say evil things about me. For whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9.39-40). This saying of Jesus, ‘For whoever is not against us is for us’, is a wonderfully inclusive, ecumenical, generous statement. For Jesus sees the human element here: the poor person possessed by the demon. Perhaps he or she had some kind of what we would now call a mental illness. They would be unable to function properly, very probably an outcast in their community. But someone has found a way of curing this person. Someone has got rid of the demon, and now there is a person walking the streets of Galilee who is once again in their right mind, who has taken up their rightful place in society. They have been healed. It is the sort of thing which shows that the kingdom is coming! And it has been done by someone who said something like, ‘Demon, I demand that you leave this person in the name of Jesus’. This is a good, positive, lovely, human story. But John seems blind to that. He didn’t say to Jesus, ‘Teacher, we saw a man who was driving out demons in your name, and it was good to see people cured’. Instead, he made a complaint! All he is thinking is that ‘in the name of Jesus’ is copyright Jesus and the twelve disciples.

Jesus scolds John for not seeing the human story here. ‘This person is not against us,’ says Jesus. He was doing God’s work, so what does it matter if he was not formally part of our group?’ For God works in mysterious and unlikely ways. We find that people we don’t think of Christians are actually also doing the work of the Kingdom. There are many of the members of this congregation give time to charities of various kinds. You do not stop to ask, ‘Is this a “Christian” charity?’ if you see that they are doing good work. And neither you should. If a hospice or a children’s project or community organisation are doing good, of course we should collaborate with them. For whoever is not against Christ is for him.

But there is a strange thing about that saying. You may well think you’ve heard it before- but perhaps it sounded different? Well, you’re right, there is another saying which sounds like it. George W Bush used the phrase in 2001, after 9/11, when he said, “You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror.” (Nov 6 2001). Now, President Bush did not misquote Christ or twist his words. The fact is that elsewhere in the Bible we find Jesus saying that as well!

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, ‘”Anyone who is not for me is really against me” (Matthew 12.30). Now that sounds like something complete different from ‘whoever is not against us is for us’ Indeed, they seem contradictory. So what is going on here? Is Jesus confused? Did one Gospel writer misquote him?

In questions of difficult Biblical interpretation, the context often helps provide the answer. In our Gospel reading for today, from Mark, we saw how Jesus was speaking to his disciples in private. To them, sitting alone, worrying about their exclusive copyright on Jesus, Jesus says: the man who was casting out demons and using my name was not acting against us. So he is for us. Other people, perhaps even unknowingly, can do my work. So just welcome the fact that he is making a difference in people’s lives. Whoever is not against us is for us.

But in the Matthew’s Gospel saying is in the context of a very public context. Jesus is in a crowd, not simply alone with his disciples. And he is involved in a controversy- he is having an argument with some Pharisees, who have accused Jesus of using the power of the devil in his miracles. To them he says: if you are not with me, you are against me. And in that context, he had do say that. He had to say that it does not do to try to be neutral with Christ. For the Gospel forces us to take sides- for Christ or not for Christ. You cannot be lukewarm. If you decide not to do anything about Christ’s invitation, that’s just the same as rejecting him. And so in this very public context, Jesus says the Pharisees: ‘Anyone who is not for me is really against me’.

Two sayings, which sound vaguely similar, but which say quite different- even contradictory- things. In a public controversy, Christ is making it clear that we have a choice to make in our lives- to accept him or not. But in private, to his disciples, Christ makes it clear that even those whom we do not think have chose Christ may still be agents of God’s love and mercy: whoever is not against Christ is for him. Because for Jesus, what happens is what happens to people, especially people in need.
Perhaps we should think this way about these two sayings. ‘He that is not with me is against me’ is a saying that we should apply to ourselves. For it is a very personal challenge- the challenge to take Christ seriously, and to follow him with all our heart. ‘Who is on the Lord’s side’, as the old hymn says- am I? Or am I too much of a coward? It is a question for each of us to answer individually.

And the other saying, the one Jesus told his disciples when they asked about the person doing miracles who was not part of their group- ‘he that is not against us is for us’- that saying we should apply to other people. When I see someone worshipping God differently, with a different theology or liturgy or a different denomination, perhaps with a different religion or even no religion- are they, nevertheless, doing good for others? Are they, even if they do not know him, doing Christ’s work? Then I ought to be charitable, as Christ told John when the disciple asked him the question about the exorcist who didn’t belong to the group. For what do I know of the many ways God’s love and care is brought into our world? Surely I am not going to condemn someone who eases the suffering of one of God’s children?

As Christians, we believe that we have something unique- a relationship with the Christ, the greatest of the prophets of God. Yet we also know that if Christ died for us, he died not just for us, but for the whole world. The cross of Christ is something which affects the whole world, whether people know it or not. For the Gospel of Christ is inclusive- it reaches out to all people everywhere, because God’s love is boundless. so our faith is not just for the chosen few. Sometimes the Church has sought to make it so, as if we could control the grace of God. But that was wrong, for Christ is for the whole world. There is no-one who is outside of the love of God, and one day all people will know it.

Ascription of Praise
Now to God
who is able through the power
which is at work among us
to do immeasurably more
than all we can ask or conceive,
to God be the glory
in the church and in Christ Jesus
from generation to generation for evermore, Amen.

Ephesians 3:20-21 (REB)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible

© 2012 Peter W Nimmo