In the Circle and Stumbling Blocks

By Rev. Canon David B. Tabo-oy

“ We will all be people who have lived out our discipleship through acts of kindness to others. As you encounter other people in daily life, your presence can be a stepping stone or a stumbling block on the way to salvation – to Christ. Which do you choose to be?”

v38John said to him, “Teacher, we saw a man who was driving out demons in your name, and we told him to stop, because he doesn’t belong to our group.”
v39″Do not try to stop him,” Jesus told them, “because no one who performs a miracle in my name will be able soon afterward to say evil things about me. v40For whoever is not against us is for us. v41I assure you that anyone who gives you a drink of water because you belong to me will certainly receive a reward.
Temptations to Sin
(Matthew 18.6-9; Luke 17.1, 2)
v42″If anyone should cause one of these little ones to lose faith in me, it would be better for that person to have a large millstone tied around the neck and be thrown into the sea. v43So if your hand makes you lose your faith, cut it off It is better for you to enter life without a hand than to keep both hands and go off to hell, to the fire that never goes out. v45And if your foot makes you lose your faith, cut it off It is better for you to enter life without a foot than to keep both feet and be thrown into hell. v47And if your eye makes you lose your faith, take it out! It is better for you to enter the Kingdom of God with only one eye than to keep both eyes and be thrown into hell. v48There ‘the worms that eat them never die, and the fire that burns them is never put out.’ (Mark 9:38-48)
Last Thursday I was queuing in a drugstore when two ladies in their formal dresses approached the guy before me. With their attire and carry-on bags, I already knew they are members of a Christian sect or group. True enough one of them handed the guy a tract and politely asked if they can have a minute of his time. I told myself, imbag laengen ta haan nga siak (good they did not come to me). My resentment is not about my being a priest and knowing enough about salvation but my (subconscious?) bias towards the group. Had the two ladies come from my church I could have commended them of their evangelism effort. They don’t belong to my church. This sense of exclusivity is a religious malady that infect churches and other faith confessions. Such is the obvious feeling of John and his comrades in our gospel reading this Sunday.
***
The apostles were not pleased when they witnessed an outsider casting out demons in the name of Jesus. They resented his incursion, were jealous and felt threatened, because he was doing their work and yet was not part of their group. He had no right to be using the name of the Saviour, so John made a complaint in the hope of having this unlicensed preacher silenced. John must have been surprised that Jesus refused to stop the man from doing good work in his name. Jesus made it clear that all good comes from God the Father and that doing charitable work was not the exclusive right to the followers. God moves where he wills and chooses whom he wills. His spirit is at work beyond the confines of established religion.
***
With all the best intentions in the world, we can all fall prey to the type of thinking and misguided notion that only the church can contain truth and only its members can perform spiritual works. It is also of high headedness to think that outside our denominations there is no salvation only damnation. It is a temptation we all have. When we think along these lines we are inclined to turn the church in on herself and deny that great action can be achieved outside her influence. We forget that an action can be good and godly without being performed by a Christian. Goodness in the world comes from God and not from men. Even within the church where there is the temptation to form our own select groupings; to promote the club mentality (e.g. church choir, church lay organizations) which is basically about being in and keeping other people out. We’ve all witnessed unhealthy rivalry between different church organizations, different parishes or congregations and yet the aim of all is about furthering the kingdom of God. Charitable organizations, with the same objective for alleviating poverty or helping senior citizens, can be at logger-heads with one another about who is to collect, where to collect and when to collect.
***
Jesus made it clear that he and his disciples were not a little clique, working in a corner of life, fenced off from others. His world view, his God’s-eye view, made him well aware that God’s actions are not limited to the forms with which his disciples were familiar.
What is the lesson in this for us? Don’t Jesus’ words ring true as a rebuke of our often blind and unbending exclusiveness, our arrogant assumptions that God’s action among us is limited to forms with which we are most comfortable and most familiar?
What Jesus taught his disciples is equally a lesson for us. Christians cannot fence themselves off from others who have different ways of following Jesus and of finding God. The one who is not against us is for us. The one who is not against Jesus is on the side of Christ.
In this, our Lord gives us a model for a broader view. There is an issue of tolerance. Doesn’t Jesus’ message to the disciples help us stop short when we fall into the all too common trap of thinking in terms of “us” and “them” – seeing life only from the perspective of our own groups?
Intolerance of the other is certainly an attitude that Jesus rejected in today’s gospel reading. Possibly, he realized that the disciples considered the man casting out demons as a threat to their inner-circle status. He was an outsider, so they tried to stop him. Jesus rejected this by making it clear that only in a narrower sense can one be an outsider. What was true for the disciples has been true throughout history. The world and the church have fought for centuries in such a fence-building frenzy. The stories of the past schisms and divisions are legion. And living out the tendencies of the same human nature, we still act this way in our time, don’t we?
***
The story of today’s gospel is about the disciples’ attempt to draw a circle around Jesus and themselves – shutting out the one who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Perhaps a concise, powerful poem by Edwin Markham can help us remember that Jesus ordered the disciples not to exclude that man and to recall that those who are not against us are for us.
In his poem “Outwitted,” Edwin Markham writes:
“He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.”
***
The succeeding verses in our gospel lesson tell us of equally important lesson and stern warning. It is about falling into sins and becoming a stumbling block to others. “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea.” (Mark 9:42) Sometimes we ourselves might be the stumbling block. The Holy Spirit blows where the Spirit chooses and it is vain to think we can divert that Spirit. We can try to keep our worship just the way it’s “always been” and grumble over the electric guitar and drums and the songs of the youth every second Sunday. We can argue against the approved project or the building committee’s program. In the end we will wear ourselves out and make ourselves unavailable to God’s work, but we will not stop the Spirit working in any way. We may force the Spirit to pass us by, but we will never force the Spirit to change direction.
Jesus is very clear that nothing must be allowed to stand in the way of those who are seeking the kingdom of God. That applies not only to our neighbors, but also to ourselves. To miss the kingdom is to end up in such misery that we might as well be thrown into hell. On the other hand, life lived with God is so rich and joyful that no sacrifice is too great in the pursuit of God’s kingdom. If your hand, your foot, your eye become stumbling blocks, better to cast them away than to miss the kingdom of God. In his usual vivid way, Jesus is telling his followers and listeners that the kingdom of God is better than anything else life can offer, and nothing must trip us on the way of that kingdom.
***
Now I remember this story. An old man named Calvin had lived a good life as a farmer for years. One day an evangelist came to the community and, in the course of his stay, visited Calvin and asked him what denomination he was. Calvin answered the question like this: “When my grain gets ready for selling, after I’ve harvested it and packaged it, I can take it to town by any one of three roads ” the river road, the dirt road, or the highway. But when I get my grain to town and go to the buyer to sell him what I have, he never looks at me and asks, ˜Calvin, which road did you take to get your grain to town?’ What he does do is ask me if my grain is any good.”
Friend, is your grain good – the grain of your discipleship? That’s all that really matters. When we get to Heaven we will probably find some who we least expect to be there. People not from our churches or even our faith confession. And they’ll be just as surprised to see us as we will to see them. But we will all belong to just one fellowship. Let’s call it the Fellowship of the Bearers of Cold Water. We will all be people who have lived out our discipleship through acts of kindness to others. As you encounter other people in daily life, your presence can be a stepping stone or a stumbling block on the way to salvation – to Christ. Which do you choose to be?
Let us pray.
O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Proper 21 Collect, ECP-BCP)**

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