Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost Proper 21 September 27, 2015 Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
Well that was harsh. What’s got Jesus so upset that he goes on an extended tirade about self-maiming and hell? Let’s get one thing out of the way. The important thing is not hell, but the way Jesus wants his followers to live. Despite what an endless stream of fire-and-brimstone preachers claims, God does not send people to hell. It may or may not be possible for people to choose to separate themselves permanently from God, but God’s most essential nature is love, and God wants so badly for us to enjoy eternal life in heaven that God sent Jesus to make that possible for all of us. While there is a hell, Christians can hope that no one is there.
So why bring up eternal suffering? To draw our attention to earthly suffering. John, of all people, John, the gentle, compassionate, beloved disciple who would rest his head on Jesus’s chest at the Last Supper, John seems a little out of character here. “Teacher,” he said, “we saw someone casting out demons in your name…” OK, good start. Is John excited that word is spreading about Jesus, that Jesus’s compassion and power are inspiring people outside the inner circle, inspiring them to imitate Jesus? No. Is he moved with compassion for the suffering people this healer is trying to help? Not really. Is he sad or afraid because of the suffering in the world. Uh-uh. Did he or any of the disciples try to help those suffering people? Nope. “We tried to stop him…” Imagine the look on Jesus’s face. But it gets worse. “We tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
OK, maybe if the healer wasn’t following Jesus, you could make an argument. But the same disciples who had just previously been arguing about which of themselves would be the greatest now reveal that they feel entitled to their own followers. Ironically, as apostles and evangelists, they would become bona fide leaders of faith communities, but right now they have a lot of growing up to do. They put themselves, their own dysfunctional, self-defeating circle, in the place of Jesus. They define right and wrong in relationship to themselves, instead of to Jesus. His own followers got so completely turned around that Jesus had to shock them out of their self-absorption. He still loved them, of course, loved them so much that he had to set them straight.
We don’t always appreciate Jesus as a savvy tactician, but here he astutely points out that unauthorized healers still end up supporting him. Even if they are using Jesus’s name to garner attention for themselves, they can’t very well go back and start speaking ill of Jesus. They are stuck supporting Jesus, giving him glory despite themselves. The healings themselves, the defeat of evil and mending of brokenness, are the work of God regardless of who does them, or how they are labeled. And finally, ultimately what matters is our relationship to Jesus. He speaks highly of “Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ.” Rather than try to amass glory and power for themselves, followers of Jesus should be growing in humility, accepting hospitality graciously and recognizing their identity and purpose in Christ.
In the Forum we have been talking about the difference it makes to be a follower of Jesus. The book that guides our study talks about a survey of clergy. When they were asked what difference being a Christian makes in their lives, most of them were stunned by the very question and ashamed of their silence. So we see that the same problems that Jesus had with his disciples remain with us, or at least with the clergy. But the same Holy Spirit that elevated the disciples to apostolic ministry also blesses and inspires us with the gifts of personal growth and a rich common life, grounded in our relationship with Jesus. And so we know that following Jesus makes our lives more satisfying. We discover more readily that the greatest joys in life come from loving and serving others, not from accumulating money and power. We are less susceptible to tempting distractions. We enjoy the collected wisdom of millennia and the peace of a common mission and a profound identity as the people of God. We enjoy the amazing fellowship of others who share these choices and their wonderful consequences. And we discover that we are the good salt that Jesus promised would bring out the best in ourselves, our community, and the world.