This sermon was delivered on Sept. 30, 2012, at Wallace UMC.
*Note: This sermon could not have been written without the brilliant insight and wisdom of DeSay Judd, who helped make this sermon possible!
John 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.” 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. Salt 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.”
I wasn’t sure what to expect. When I got the invite to go to my friend’s church for their vacation bible school, I was excited, but I was also nervous. I had never been to another church before, at least one where my dad wasn’t the pastor. Also I was really young, about 5 years old, and very shy in general. But, I also want to be with my friend, and he was really excited about it, and he wanted me to share in it, so I figured it would be fun at least to hang out with my friend all day.
So I went. And you know what? At first it was weird. Things just seemed a bit… different. It sure wasn’t a Methodist church, but it was definitely a church. Still, I didn’t really know anything about what was going to happen. Questions spun around in my head for that first 10 minutes of being in the church. What happens in other churches? Are they going to make fun of me for not being a part of their church? Are they going to be in on something that I don’t know? Are they going to make me join? I felt really out of place. The only person I knew was my friend who invited me. I felt really isolated, and really alone.
Once the program started, my worries began to go away. The teachers were all very nice, and kind, and very happy that I was there. The games were a lot of fun, the songs were a lot of fun, and the best part of it all was that there was food! And soon I realized, no, these people aren’t going to be mean. They aren’t making me feel like an outsider. They want me to be here. These people are good, and even though they are strangers, they were treating me with love.
That first experience with people from a different church really impacted me. With my dad being a pastor, I tended to stick with whatever church my dad was at, even though he was open to me visiting other churches with friends. In the end, I still had my church home, my community, and my people who I could identify. It’s at this point that I really do take pride in my United Methodist identity. I’m not going to say every Methodist church is the same; far from it. Every church has their own identity, their own character, Methodist churches included—and for this I am grateful! But at the same time, I feel like when I go to a Methodist church, I still feel like it’s familiar territory. I kind of know what I’m getting into. I have a comfort zone.
Since that visit to a different church, however, I had a seed planted in me, one I think has grown since then and has shaped me immensely. This is a seed that has made me open to different ideas, to different kinds of people. This seed made me open to the possibility that maybe other churches, other communities, aren’t really that different. That they are filled with people that are just as good, just as loving, and just as passionate about their beliefs as I am. This seed gave me the faith strong enough that maybe, just maybe, those who aren’t with me aren’t necessarily against me.
It’s an idea that doesn’t get a lot of play these days. We live in a society that does not necessarily value the beliefs or practices of others. It’s a fear of the other that plagues us. Conformity comforts us; difference, even minor difference, is a scary thing, at least for some of us. But it doesn’t necessarily need to do so, especially if we are going to be faithful to our Christian witness. Christianity is a religion that that from its very beginning has built-in methods of openness and inclusivity. Be it from the example of Jesus, going to those not valued by society, healing the sick and the giving good news to the poor, or be it from Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, who made inclusivity a part of our very basic theology, Christianity gets its strength from its diversity, as well as our faithfulness to God and to our beliefs.
John Wesley very much valued and capitalized upon this aspect of Christianity. He was notorious for trying to build bridges between diverse communities, diverse ways of being Christian. In our core doctrine, one of the things that make Methodists, well, Methodist, is what Wesley called our “Catholic spirit,” the spirit of openness and universality. It recognizes that the Holy Spirit will move in ways which defy our understanding, and indeed, will move in communities other than our own. As such, Wesley among many others put it basically this way: In essentials, unity, in non-essentials, liberty; in everything, charity, or love.
Christianity has gotten a bad reputation over the years, for being judgmental and close-minded when it comes to different ways of life. If we take the scriptures seriously, and if we take our identity as Christians seriously, we should not be so. Nonetheless, we do it anyways. It comes out of our sinful brokenness, our woundedness, our sin-sickness. Paul, in one of the most confusing but all too true passages in his letter to the Romans, said this:
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature.[c] For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
Sin lives in us, and causes us to do the things that hinder us from living into the Christian identity that we have been called to live, and oh boy, is this not so true? In a way, are we not the puppets of sin? Especially in the church? We see people who do sin all the time in church, and it’s painful. It is. It’s painful, but not just for us. Because when we sin, it impacts other people. And not only that, it becomes a stumbling block for others, especially for those who are interested in doing good, and who may even be interested in following Christ.
Disciples are especially prone to this, to setting up stumbling blocks in attempting to do the right thing. Take for example this passage in Mark. It takes place right after Jesus said that we should be servants of all, and be open and welcoming to even the least of these, the people we don’t think about or the people who we may not usually care about. John comes up to Jesus and asks him a fairly important question, one that was important for Jesus’s ministry, and one that’s important to the ministry of the church even today.
The central problem that they had was, essentially, my problem when I went to a different church, and witnessed a different community being faithful, perhaps not in a way that I was used to or in a way that seemed alien to me. John’s question revolves around the idea that, in the time of Jesus’s ministry, there were people who were casting out demons in Jesus’s name that were not actually in their group. They were doing good things, but they weren’t following Christ. The question was: should we stop them? Should we stop these people that are doing good things in the world, but who aren’t with us? Who aren’t like us? And perhaps, maybe, don’t believe the same way we do?
This is not a small question, nor is it particular to Jesus’s time and place. There are many people in this world who are good. Not all of them follow Jesus. The world has changed in many ways, but honestly, this is one of the ways it has not changed. The world is a big place, and is filled with different people, different denominations, different religions, different cultures and different beliefs. In the past 10, 20, even 50 years, these cultures have had far more communication, far more interaction, than in any time in history. As such, the conversation has shifted, and we find ourselves in a world that no longer makes the same sense that it used to. There are people who are kind, who love, who work for justice and peace, but aren’t Christians—and quite possibly have no interest in becoming Christians. This puts us in a very interesting situation, such as it was for the disciples who were with Jesus.
For one thing, we as Christians believe in very distinct things. We believe in the Trinity, that there is one God who exists in three persons. We believe that one of these persons was made incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, the son of God, and in doing so, became the way God chose to become closest to us. We believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and that if we wish to come to God the Father, we must do this through the Son. These are exclusive claims. There is no getting around them. There is no ignoring them.
That said, there are many other things we believe that should keep in mind as well. Like I said, there are three persons in the God head, and the one that is least predictable but is just as powerful and important is the Holy Spirit. As I mentioned before, the Holy Spirit works in ways that do not tend to conform to the way that we think the Spirit should—and this means also that the Spirit is present in places we least expect it, even among people who do not share our beliefs, who are not Christians. All good things in the world come from God; the earth is God’s, and God made it. As such, God has dominion over all things, and in all things God’s will is for good, and because God is love, where there is love, there is God.
It is this idea, that good happens outside of our community by the power of the Holy Spirit, that Jesus is very keen to. He should; he’s God! And God knows best how God works. Jesus teaches his disciple John that no, he should not stop this man who is doing good but does not follow Jesus. This man is doing good things, in casting out demons, that should be valued and honored. Don’t stop him! He says. Anyone who does a deed of power, a good deed, in my name will not long be able to speak evil of me. And because we believe that all good comes from God, who’s to say that a good deed is not from God, even though the person doing it may not know it? Who’s to say that God is not using this person, even though he isn’t following us, even though he doesn’t know all of my teachings, or believe the same way we do? Who’s to say God is not moving in this person?
So Jesus says no, don’t stop him. To do so would be to throw up a stumbling block for someone doing good, for someone to have the potential of knowing God and doing the work of God. To stop him would cause him to fall, and causing him to fall causes you to fall.
From here, Jesus goes into a very… shall we say, hyperbolic, or over the top, description of how important it is to not sin, and to not cause others to sin. Seriously, Jesus is kind of being ridiculous here, but sometimes you need go over the top to make your point. Like, if you put a stumbling block in front of someone like that, it’s better to tie a huge rock around your neck and drown yourself in a lake. IT’S THAT IMPORTANT! If your hand causes you to stumble, or someone else, cut it off. IT’S THAT IMPORTANT! Same goes for your foot. And your eye. IT’S THAT IMPORTANT NOT TO SIN! It’s that important not to cause others to stumble through your own sin!
Okay, so we know what we’re not to do; don’t stop people from doing good, even if they aren’t with us. We know that those who aren’t against us are for us. We know this now. But what do we do with it? What are we supposed to do? What does our vocation, our calling, our identity as Christians call us to do in this situation? Here’s where Jesus challenges us, and where I’m going to challenge you.
The translation in most versions uses a fairly difficult to understand metaphor about us being salt. It reads like this: “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt 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.” I don’t know about you, but that’s kind of hard to understand. How is one salted by fire? And what does it mean to have salt in myself, and be at peace? Really, I think this is a matter of cultural difference, and that doesn’t come across in the translation. This is a play on the use of salt, and what do we use salt for? We use it to season, yes, but we also use it as a preservative! We use it in preserving meat, like beef jerky and the like. I don’t often use it, but I really like the Message’s paraphrase and interpretation of this passage: “Everyone’s going through a refining fire sooner or later, but you’ll be well-preserved, protected from the eternal flames. Be preservatives yourselves. Preserve the peace.”
I love this idea, because it answers the question of what we are supposed to do in this world when it comes to interacting with other communities, other faiths, and other beliefs. We are preserved, our souls are preserved; this is not in question. However, as we are preserved, we are called to be preservatives of the peace. We are to preserve the peace! To be a peaceful force in this world! If we’re going to be faithful in our witness as Methodists, as Christians, we must do everything to preserve the peace, and to make sure we are not stumbling blocks for people on their way to finding Christ. Arguing and fighting about who’s right does not bring people to Christ, and it’s not bringing Christ to people. However, having a conversation about faith peaceably takes being firm in your faith, your beliefs, and being a witness in this way will bring Christ to people much better. A lot fewer stumbling blocks get thrown down doing that.
So I will challenge you now. Be preservatives of the peace. When you encounter people who are not like us, do not forget that you are a representative of Christ, the prince of peace. Remember that the Spirit moves in ways that we do not often see, and will do good in places we may not recognize. In all things, in all places, preserve the peace. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.