Sermon Preached on September 27, 2015 at Saint Thomas the Apostle, Hollywood
When I was a child I loved making secret and exclusive clubs. I don’t think any of the clubs me and my friends made had any particular purpose, but there were certain things our clubs always had: a list of rules, a secret password, and a very limited membership.
As children, somewhere along the way, I think that we become very aware that there is value in exclusivity, that a group is only worth something if we can point at something else and say “that is NOT part of us!” This notion of exclusivity follows us through our adolescence, straight into adulthood. We join fraternities or societies, we pledge allegiance to countries and constitutions, and these often come with clear guidelines that keep out the riffraff. On one hand, these groups allow us to create close bonds with likeminded people, and allow groups to focus their energies on a common goal. And as the president and founding member of the Super Secret She-Ra Club, I can tell you that it feels pretty powerful to be part of an exclusive secret society.
But what happens when we apply that same attitude to being Christians? The church community can be a very tight knit group, brought together, not just to share common interests, but to be Christ’s body in the world. This is a huge responsibility, and this idea alone can cause tension between who is seen as in, and who is seen as out. And this is further complicated by different beliefs surrounding liturgy, music, politics, language - ideas that seem so important sometimes that for centuries Christians have divided themselves over their importance.
In this morning’s Gospel it is clear that the disciples hold a very particular view about what it means to be part of the ‘Jesus club’, and not just anyone is a member.
What we hear today is a continuation of a much larger conversation between Jesus and his disciples about what it means to truly follow Christ. You may remember that last week Jesus told them that he was going to be killed, but would be raised again in three days. But the disciples didn’t understand and instead they started to discuss their own greatness. Jesus began gently trying to change their perspectives by putting a child in their midst and telling them to focus not on the greatest, but on the least among them.
For some reason, the disciples took this opportunity to tell Jesus how they tried to stop someone who was not a member of their group from casting out Demons in his (Jesus’) name. It seems perfectly reasonable that they would be concerned about outsiders doing things in the name of Jesus. Jesus had power, and through him the disciples had been given power too. They were not comfortable with the idea of other people who were not with them using the power of Jesus’ name. They had a responsibility to protect the Jesus brand. But when they tell Jesus about the outsider, he doesn’t seem to be quite as concerned about the situation, in fact he tells the disciples to let others use his name for good, and that “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Jesus does not seem to care about maintaining the boundaries around his group. Once again showing the disciples that human notions about power and belonging are not important to Christ. Being a disciple is to see past these human endeavors, these human priorities and focus instead on the ideals of heaven.
Jesus goes on with a list of sayings that seem to be a bit disconnected from his point, but are essential to the overarching theme of what it means to be a disciple. Quickly the rhetoric of Jesus becomes much more intense when he says, “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.” Jesus turns the concerns of the disciples around on them making it clear that they should each be more concerned about the results of their own actions, and that if their concerns for glory or status cause someone else to fall, then they better wish they had never been born. This is a pretty extreme declaration for Jesus to make. But we know, and many here perhaps have experienced, how the actions and values of some who identify as Christian can drive people away from knowing the love of God.
Thomas Merton expressed this well when he wrote:
Do not be too quick to condemn the man who no longer believes in God: for it is perhaps your own coldness and avarice and mediocrity and materialism and selfishness that have chilled his faith.
Being a disciple to Christ is a great responsibility, not just to ourselves and to God, but to each other. We must learn to see each as God sees us, not divided up into groups based on nationality or political party, but as people just struggling to find our way, people who do not need more burdens or roadblocks. This is what we take on when we choose to follow Christ. Ours is the responsibility of inviting others in, rather than keeping them out. Ours is the responsibility of removing obstacles and sharing burdens.
When Jesus talks about cutting off our hands and feet rather than being thrown going into hell, as you might have gathered, he was being metaphorical. But the truth is that we have difficult decisions to make about our lives and how we choose to live them, and it can feel as if we are cutting off limbs when we deny our anger, our jealousy or our want. Sometimes when we have to choose between Jesus and country, or Jesus and politics, or Jesus and any earthly allegiances, choosing Jesus can seem like the most difficult decision in the world.
Jesus does not ask this of his disciples, of us, because he wants to make life hard, he does it because he wants to make our lives more meaningful than we ever thought was possible. He wants us to allow the barriers between ourselves and the love of God to be removed. Because in that love, in God’s love, is true and lasting peace.