September 30, 2018 – Pentecost 19 B
38John said to [Jesus,] “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39But 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. 40Whoever is not against us is for us. 41For 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.
42“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. 43If 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. 45And 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. 47And 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, 48where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
49“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.”
First off, I want to say, Jesus is speaking in hyperbole, which means that he’s exaggerating what you should do. Please, please, please don’t come to church next week having performed a home amputation or go online to look for a millstone. I promise you, that’s not what Jesus is saying here. Okay? I just wanted to clear that up.
I’ve noticed something rather odd about myself that I think I can share with you. I noticed it first while I was unpacking the things for my office, with nothing but a desk, some shelves, and a chair. The room was my canvas, I could decorate, arrange, and make it look exactly how I wanted it. Fresh carpet, fresh paint, and a brand-new place for me. I came in with my boxes of books and decorations, and do you know what I did? I put my coffee coaster in the exact same place and it was on my last desk. Then I took a picture, which I kept in my study carrell at the seminary and put to the left of my computer…just where it was before. I have come to realize something about myself, and I don’t believe I’m alone in this, that given the chance to completely remake my surrounding, with a blank slate, that I basically just tried to recreate what I was used to. I don’t know that I was afraid of change, but rather that I simply did things the way I had always done them, without wondering if there was a different way. In essence, I was in a bit of a rut and it’s hard to change or see things differently when we’re in a rut.
As people, I think this is quite normal. When we are confronted with changing and doing the hard work of getting out of our rut, we immediately begin to try to find loopholes. That is what we are watching the disciples do today. Last week, we heard Jesus take a child in his arms and tell his disciples, who were arguing about which of them was the best, that if they wanted to be first, they would have to be last and be a servant, even of someone like this child. That completely opened up the disciples’ worldview, as children were seen as second-class. Suddenly, their whole view of humanity had been blown wide open. If Jesus wanted them to serve even a child, who else would they have to serve? Women? Gentiles? People they didn’t like?
They decide to test the waters by trying to find a loophole. Can Jesus have his way and the disciples have theirs? They’re trying to see if Jesus is really serious about this servanthood stuff. John confronts Jesus and says, basically, “We saw someone doing something great, and they even did it in your name, but we tried to stop him because they didn’t follow us.” And there it was, the competition back again. “Okay, Jesus, okay. So we aren’t better than each other and we’re not better than a child. Fine. But aren’t we better than people who do things the wrong way?” Jesus tries to correct them, still holding the child in his arms. He says, “Whoever is not against us if for us.” And this phrase, this simple phrase, continues to perplex and frustrate us.
We don’t often like change and we do like uniformity. It’s easier to police people’s behaviors than to confront the discomfort of change. But, in spite of all our efforts to control others and tell them how to do or not do things, we can’t police and limit and prohibit the Holy Spirit and the work of God. We can’t control how God is living and moving and being in the world. It’s easier for us to discredit someone and their methods than to have a change of heart.
This has serious implications for our lives together in community. The disciples were worrying about others following them, and their example. Jesus is not concerned with that. Instead, he says that what is more important is that others follow him. Follow Jesus, not us. Follow Jesus, not the pastor. Only in Jesus can we find the unity and love for each other that goes deep enough to transcend the “how” of life and move to the “why” of life. Instead of fighting change and finding fault in others, let us instead look for ways to partner with each other. Instead of tearing people apart for not following the same way we do, let us instead lift them up and empower them to use their gifts to serve and praise. And the same goes of us, instead of trying to convince ourselves that we need to do things differently and follow the example of others, let us instead use our gifts and our skills and our Spirit-born passions to follow Christ.
It seems that the Spirit of God and the work of God, like the grace of God and love of God, do not follow the borders and boundaries we set up in our lives. The mercy of God is not stuck in a rut. The love of God is not reserved for the powerful or the elite, those who can afford it or have earned it, but is freely given to all, regardless of rank, status, wealth, or methods. The grace of God extends beyond the language and race and even life itself. We see in Christ, God who time and time again works and moves in ways that seem backward and wrong. In place of a throne, Jesus is raised on a cross. Instead of changing policies and behaviors, Jesus is changing hearts. Instead of sending people away until they get their act together, Jesus is inviting people to the table from all walks and experiences of life. In the face of death, Christ brings eternal life.
That life has been given to you. Eternal life, past, present, and future, is contained in the ever-present grace of God which calls you from the grave and brings you to life. In all its messiness and uncertainty, eternal life is yours. There is nothing you can do to earn it and there is nothing you can do that will make God take it away. Jesus love doesn’t have loopholes. Eternal life is yours. Resting in this, confident in this, we can begin to work, you and I, each with our own way, to show that love to others. We will meet people we disagree with, who we wish would do things differently, but the love that calls you has called them. Together, we, as image bearers of God, participate in God’s creative and redeeming work. Slowly, surely, in different ways and different means, we are working together.
God gives us a love without loopholes. And we celebrate when we see that love in action, whether the action is ours or not; whether the methods are like ours, or not. My true hope and prayer is that you would understand that there is no loophole for you – you are in. God loves you. And the same is true of others, even when we disagree. We do not need to fear change as it comes. Instead, let us come to the table as beloved creation of God to show the love of God, in our own ways, to all the world. Amen.