Sermon - Ordinary Sunday 26 Year B - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |
Inclusive and exclusive loyalty
[This sermon builds further on some
basic points made in part of the sermon Those
who are ashamed of me for Lent 2 in Year B. A detailed theological
discussion of the same points in regard to the making of church policy on the
work of family and other welfare agencies of the church may be seen in the paper
for a Theology of Community Service elsewhere on this site.]
So Jesus corrected the disciples when they wanted to stop someone who was not one of them from using the name of Christ. Our immediate response is to think that he is telling us all, wherever we are, that we should be careful not to exclude people who want to join themselves to Christ and use his power for good. We know that Jesus was a friend of outcasts and sinners, that he put much emphasis on including all sorts of people within his fellowship, especially those like the Samaritans and people who worked for the Romans, or who broke the Jewish law, and who were considered beyond respectable society. There is a great deal of that sort of teaching and example in the gospels and it has important meanings for us today in an ever shrinking world with all sorts of different people relating more and more to each other. Accepting people who are different has been a mark of modern Australia and other immigrant societies, just as it has been important in the ecumenical movement for unity among Christians. So we are quick to see the "inclusive" meaning of those words of Jesus: Whoever is not against us is for us. Unless they are clearly enemies it appears we should treat them as if they were one with us. But there was another saying of Jesus: Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters (Matthew 12:30). There you have a more "exclusive" emphasis on loyalty to Christ. To understand the message in that little incident when it appears that Jesus thought his disciples were being too exclusive we need to do some hard headed thinking that will allow both these texts to stand as part of the gospel. Whoever is not with me is against me and Whoever is not against us is for us. - they clearly express different attitudes to who we are, to how Christians see themselves. Nor is that dilemma unique to Christians. It was a kind of proverbial wisdom in the ancient world, so Cicero in Latin wrote: We have heard you say that, while we considered all who were not with us as our enemies, you considered all who were not against you as your friends. Which way would you have it?
We all have some experience of the difference between an inclusive attitude and an exclusive loyalty to a group. Marriage is a good example of an exclusive kind of loyalty. Three is too many. If anyone else intrudes into a marriage it is a betrayal and a disaster. On the other hand when it comes to welcoming children into a family, we readily accept a new addition. We are inclusive of children and might extend that attitude of inclusion to step-children and perhaps adopted children, and later to grandchildren; and the family circle at times widens out to include uncles and aunts and cousins and who knows who else. There are times, too, when we recognize that there are some things which should be kept within the family. We learn about when it is appropriate to be inclusive and when exclusive, in loyalty to the family. It is part of learning who we are. It is part of our identity.
Being a follower of Jesus can give people a strong sense of their own identity. Indeed you could even say that to belong to Christ, to be "in Christ", to be a member of his body, is the only identity we need. People from all sorts of different backgrounds, different colours and nationalities, etc., can make up a great diversity, a rich tapestry of humanity drawn together in unity as members of the one body of Christ, having the one basic sense of who they are because they belong to him. So we are brothers and sisters of one another through our relationship to the one Lord Jesus Christ. That is a theme commonly proclaimed and believed, almost as if it were the gospel itself. But the gospel is not the same thing as saying that all sorts of different people can be included in a Christian fellowship.
There is a text from Paul that has been greatly overworked in recent years
It is a text that has been used by certain special interest groups as a lever to gain acceptance, endorsement and advancement to positions of influence in the church. Whenever anyone argues such a thing on their own behalf, that should be sufficient warning itself that something is wrong; and it is. It is not about people with different identities, whether they be racial or sexual, or with whatever sort of human distinguishing marks there may be, being included as equals, or being included at all in the fellowship of Christ. It is not really about diversity in the body of Christ. It is about such distinctions or identities being left behind. People in Christ are no longer to be distinguished in such ways. They are no longer Jew or Greek or whatever. In the old translation there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female. It is not about people with different identities being included in the one body. These distinctions of race, nationality and gender are not seen by Paul to be maintained in the fellowship of those who are "in Christ". Quite the contrary: it is not about diversity in unity with people of different identities; it is about old identities being given up for the sake of a new identity "in Christ". People are no longer to be seen as Jews or Greeks etc., simply as those who are identified with Christ. That is who we are, people who belong to him; and in him, as Wesley's great hymn "Christ from whom all blessings flow" concludes "names and sects and parties fall, thou, O Christ, art all in all." All distinctions are rendered void! So they used to sing; and Christians still celebrate that overcoming in Christ of limited and divisive human identities. It is Christ who gives his people a name that is above all names.
Taking the name of Christ and doing things in his name has always been essential to the being of Christian believers. So we find stories from the early church illustrating their understanding of how the name of Christ may be taken. There are several different stories illustrating different aspects of the question. One of these from Acts 19:13-17 recounts something similar to the occasion from which our text for today comes when Jesus told the disciples not to stop the man casting out demons in his name, but in another story in different circumstances there was an opposite outcome:
I wonder what the difference was. One clue is in the difference between magic and prayer: merely using the name of Jesus as a magical charm, and most likely for profit, is not the way of his disciples who would use the name of Jesus in prayer to God. But there is also a question about the circumstances of when it is appropriate to be "inclusive" and when it is necessary to be "exclusive" if our identity with Christ is to be true to him.
Much depends upon whether people are trying to advance the cause of Christ or to stand in his way. As we saw in other gospel lessons recently from this part of Mark, to do something "in the name of" Jesus is to do something in his cause, on his behalf, or as he would. Sometimes is a necessary to confess his name in the face of hostility, and that could well mark a Christian out as "exclusive".
There are clear circumstances in which it is impossible to keep quiet and still be faithful to Christ: that is when he is under attack. When the holy one of God is called evil, when we are tested in our loyalty by such accusations, anyone who is not for him is against him.
That was said when his opponents had accused Jesus of using the powers of a devil to cast out demons, that is, they said he was using evil to overcome evil. At other times a much more liberal attitude can be taken, when it is possible to co-operate with other people of good will in human service whether or not they are believers, as seen when the disciples complained that someone who was not one of them was using the name of Jesus to cast out demons, in our lesson for today:
"Whoever is not against us is for us", or "Whoever is not with me is against me". It is surprising how easily people will recall one of these sayings and forget the other one, depending upon what they wish to prove at the time. Both are part of the teaching of Jesus and both have their proper place in Christian witness: it all depends on how Christ is being seen at the time. Is he being honoured or dishonoured? There is much of both in our society today. There is still a sufficient remnant of Christian belief and practice for the service of humanity to be publically acknowledged by many as a work of Christ. At the same time there is a pervasive culture of self seeking, with much concern for self esteem, self expression and self realization, etc., not to mention self satisfaction in possessions, popularity and power; and more seriously still, there are many circumstances in which major influences in our society are expressing open and confident hostility to Christians and Christian beliefs.
As the anti-Christian elements of Western society become more dominant it will be increasingly important that believers in Christ are able confess their belief in him publically. As pressure to conform to an unsympathetic culture increases, it is easy to compromise in ways that make believers feel ashamed. Not that our circumstances are in any way unique. Things have been difficult in the past. It was probably more difficult to make a Christian witness in the early years of convict settlement in Australia than it is today. And in recent years many Christians in non-Western societies have known hostility far greater than any most of us are likely to have experienced. Our situation is becoming more like theirs, but it is still a long way from the suffering of Christians in, say, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, or in some parts of Indonesia or Pakistan. The former President of the Uniting Church in Australia, James Haire, reporting on a trip to Indonesia, where he had previously lived and worked for many years, said he found that Christian communities who had lived on certain islands for hundreds of years were being wiped out by Muslim gangs. The international media report only "sectarian violence", as if it were a mere little tit for tat quarrel, without telling the whole story; nor is it well understood how much of the violence in East Timor was specifically directed against Christians, and Catholic leaders in particular. These are events on our doorstep as far as we in Australia are concerned. They are events of a character which the intellectual elite in Australia, as in much of the West, would prefer not to be recognized. Christian believers in the next generation may be living in a much more hostile environment both nationally and internationally. The testing times will come when it will be much easier to be ashamed of Christ than it is today -- and we all know that it is easy enough now if we will only admit the reality.
So the challenge of the Matthew alternative "Whoever is not with me is against me" will be a real one, and quite different from the more inclusive and apparently liberal saying in Mark "Whoever is not against us is for us". But the inclusive version is no less a challenge, for it is all too easy to adopt a defensive and negative attitude when the generosity of God in Christ should be the focus in meeting human needs.
[Luke has both the inclusive and the exclusive forms (Luke 9:49f; and Luke 11:23), suggesting separate sources, each with their differing circumstances of transmission in the early mission of the church, as the alternatives of separation and tolerance in the face of more or less hostile and accommodating cultures were differently addressed and different elements of the gospel tradition were recalled to meet different challenges. In this sense both can be regarded as authentic sayings of Jesus, and true words requiring appropriate responses of his followers depending upon the situation in which they are called upon to witness.]
The inclusive emphasis is an important theme in the field of social welfare, in the kind of human services which are delivered by numerous church agencies. When these services are offered by the church in a diverse, pluralistic society, Christians often have to work with non-believers. In general, if we take the example of the man Jesus did not wish to stop doing good in his name we should expect to be open to co-operation with other people of good will working with us and even perhaps making common cause with us, doing good in the name of Christ. But it can be complex and difficult. There are people, often good people, employed in church community service agencies or in church educational institutions, or on their governing bodies, who see themselves as the moral successors to the church in an increasingly secular society -- a society which is really not becoming more secular but more pagan, but that is another point -- in a so called secular society there is an attitude that someone else with "more progressive" ideas has a moral right, perhaps even a duty, to take over the assets of the church and use them for what they regard as more enlightened purposes. Important questions have arisen recently in Australia concerning human rights and the employment of people in church agencies which have contracted with government to deliver certain welfare services which were previously provided by public bodies. Should those agencies be able to refuse employment to anyone if they have received some public money? Should they be allowed to maintain a distinctively Christian character? Political leaders and advocates of certain groups have made comments on these matters. Questions have been raised about the legality of some claimed "discrimination" in employment where church agencies have tried to select staff who will believe in and support their basic commitments. There are great dangers in this for the churches. It would be easy to make serious errors of judgment either way, compromising the message on the one hand or on the other of being too exclusive and failing to give the cup of water in the name of Christ as he commanded.
As in many of these problems, our situation is not unique. Not only do we see it in the examples in the gospels and the stories from the early church, the same basic question arose early the life of the people of Israel when they were with Moses in the desert. There was an occasion when Moses took the elders out of the camp for a special ceremony in which the Spirit of God which was on him was shared with them; I suppose it would have been a little like an ordination or commissioning with the laying on of hands. Anyway, while they were out there prophesying, exhibiting the gift of the Spirit, two men who had not gone out but stayed behind in the camp began to prophecy as those who had the Spirit, and some of the others complained, presumably because they were not among those who had been chosen and recognised by Moses to be leaders.
It is very similar. Mark even has John playing the same part with Jesus that Joshua played there with Moses. The parallel can hardly be accidental. The gospel writers and those who handed on the tradition concerning Jesus and his teaching would have known about Joshua and Moses and the men who prophesied when they were not expected to have that blessing. So would Paul have been aware of it when he wrote to the Corinthians:
It was not a question of belonging to the right party, but of being inspired by God to recognize Jesus as Lord.
But we also remember that Jesus said it was not good enough simply to call him Lord:
His Lordship does not need only to be confessed, but often it must be acknowledged in what people do. The exorcist whom the disciples wished to silence was not in their group, but he did recognize Jesus sufficiently to do good in his name. His actions were expressing a kind of faith that Jesus understood. However limited his beliefs, he recognized Jesus as a force for good, and almost certainly as an agent of the work of God, something which he wished to join rather to exploit. The circumstances in which it is appropriate to take the more "inclusive" approach to our identity as people who belong to Christ are those in which the Spirit is at work in the world around us and Jesus is being honoured rather than being accused of evil. It is tremendously important that we can discern when those things are happening, for if we cannot see that God is at work among those who do not belong to us we will fall into the same trap as many of the opponents of Jesus, and even his disciples did at times. In times of doubt and difficulty it is all too easy to say Whoever is not with me is against me, when we should be saying Whoever is not against us is for us. May God give us Christians the grace to know when loyalty to Christ requires us to make our separate identity clear and those other times when nothing is lost and much is gained by working co-operatively with people of good will in those tasks of human welfare in which the name of Christ will be praised. We need to keep word and deed together, while remembering that Jesus often let the deed proclaim the word: and when the deed does proclaim the word about Jesus, then, Whoever is not against us is for us.
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