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Mark 9_38-50

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On Loving Those Whom with We Disagree             Mark 9:38-50

The church has a thousand faces.  It worships in grand cathedrals and storefronts -- in lovely little chapels and big, barn-like buildings -- in cathedrals shaped like a cross and 1960s buildings shaped oddly like a fish -- in classic white churches and classic brick churches with steeples reaching to the sky -- and in churches of ivy-covered stone.

The church has a thousand names -- African Methodist Episcopal -- African Methodist Episcopal Zion -- American Baptist -- Amish -- Anabaptist -- Anglican -- Antiochian (pronounced an-tee-och-ee-an) Orthodox -- Armenian Evangelical -- Armenian Orthodox -- Assemblies of God -- Associated Gospel Churches -- Association of Vineyard Churches -- and those are just the A's. 

To get those names, I Googled the word "Denominations" and came up with a Yahoo list.  Some denominations had a number after the denominational name.  After the word "Baptist" the number was 151.  I figured that meant that there were 151 Baptist denominations, which surprised me.  I always thought there were more.  There must be cities in this country with more than 151 Baptist churches.

The story is told of two strangers who met and started comparing notes.  One of them asked, "Are you Protestant or Catholic?" and the other replied, "Protestant."  "Me, too!" said the first one. 

"What denomination?"  "Baptist."  "Me too!"

"Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?"  "Northern Baptist."  "Me, too!"

The two kept comparing notes and agreeing.  Finally, they came to this exchange.  The first person asked:

"Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879 -- or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Likes Region Council of 1912?"

The other person replied, "Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912."

The first person got a scowl on his face and said, "Die, heretic!"

Unfortunately, our conflicts with Christians are often less amusing.  In the mid-60's, Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis hosted several prelates of the Russian Orthodox Church who were visiting the United States. 

That visit stirred lots of hostility among the people of that region.  On the one side were people who were delighted to welcome fellow-Christians from the other side of the world.  On the other side were Christians who thought the Russian prelates to be stooges of the Communist government.  There were all kinds of people carrying signs and marching in front of the seminary -- pro and con -- but mostly con.

I must admit I am confused.  I grew up in a small town, churches didn't cause uproars.

-- On one hand, people knew that those Russian prelates couldn't hold church office in the Soviet Union without permission from the Soviet government -- and some knew that the Soviet government was atheistic and had tried to destroy the church.  It seemed all too likely that these prelates had sold out -- that they were, in fact, stooges of the government -- that they were wolves in sheep's clothing.  If that were so, some wanted nothing to do with them.

-- On the other hand, some knew that there were Christians in the Soviet Union who were trying to live faithfully in the face of persecution.  Those prelates claimed to be their leaders -- claimed to be keeping the fire of faith lit in a dark, cold part of the world.  If that were so, some wanted to lend them support, prayers, and Christian love.

And it wasn't long before the civil rights movement heated up. Christians began to heat up too.  Christian clergy often took prominent places in civil rights marches -- marches that provoked violence.  In the newspaper, I would see pictures of clergy in their clerical garb marching at the forefront of the crowd. 

But many Christians opposed the civil rights movement -- and those marches -- and those out-of-state clergy.  Many Christians thought that the marchers were Communist-inspired.  It was an ugly time, and the church was divided.

And then Vietnam heated up, and the church was divided over that too.  They say that the Civil War divided brother against brother, but the Vietnam War did the same.  It not only divided families, but it divided the church -- positioned Christian against Christian.  In places where Christians routinely referred to each other as "brother" and "sister," there was lots of tension between Christian brothers and sisters-- lots of tension in the church -- an ugly time.

And then we had the controversy over the ordination of women.

And now we have the controversy over the ordination of homosexuals.

So where does that leave us.  Frankly, it leaves me wishing that I could go to sleep like Rip van Winkle and sleep through the controversy -- awaken after the troubles had gone away.  But the smoke didn't clear for Rip van Winkle -- the world to which he awakened was hardly trouble-free -- and it seems unlikely that the church will be trouble free in a decade -- or two decades.  Jesus challenged us to take up our cross -- not to live in a rose garden.  Life has often been difficult for Christians -- difficult for the church.

These are hard times for the mainline churches -- Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists (etc.).  To say that each of those denominations has divided into warring camps might exaggerate the problem -- but not by much.

We would like to think that it is worse than it has ever been, but it isn't.  We might find ourselves prone to despair, but we need not be.  There have been terrible controversies since the beginning, but God has kept the church alive and well through all of it. 

The first problem the church faced was whether or not to admit Gentiles.  It literally took an Act of God to persuade Peter to allow Gentiles into the church.  The story is recorded in the tenth chapter of Acts. Peter was determined to keep the church pure -- by which he meant Jewish.  Then one day he went up on the rooftop to pray -- flat rooftops being one of the few places where he could get a little peace and quiet.

While Peter was on that rooftop praying, God gave him a vision -- a vision of a large sheet, gathered at the four corners.  Inside the sheet were all kinds of animals -- four-footed creatures -- reptiles -- birds.  Peter heard a voice say, "Get up, Peter, kill and eat."  Peter, of course, had lived all his life under strict Jewish dietary restrictions.  He had never knowingly allowed a bit of non-kosher food to pass between his lips.  He protested, "By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean."  The voice came to him again saying, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane."

That same thing happened again -- and then a third time.  Peter, well known for his quick mouth and thick head, still didn't "get it." 

Then God sent three men to lead Peter to Cornelius, a Roman centurion.  The Book of Acts makes it clear that Cornelius was both one hundred percent God-fearing and one hundred percent Gentile.  If I understand the story correctly, it was while Peter was with Cornelius that he finally "got it" -- finally understood that God was directing him to accept into the church people like Cornelius who were not Jewish.  That must have been a wrenching step for Peter to take, but we have to give him credit.  Once he understood what God wanted, he did it. 

Then Peter went to Jerusalem to persuade the rest of the church that God did, indeed, want them to open the church to Gentiles.  It wasn't an easy sell, but Peter told them about his rooftop vision.  At the end of his story, they praised God and said, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life" (Acts 11:18).  Even Gentiles!  Amazing!

And the church has been struggling with divided opinions ever since.  I don't think that there has been a century in which the church has not been involved in some sort of commotion.  When we are in the middle of one, which we are today, it helps to keep that in mind.  In the early life of the church, they had to form official councils to sort out truth from heresy.  And then, of course, there were the Reformation and the religious wars in Europe.  Terrible times!  Things aren't easy today, but they were worse then.

These are the things that came to mind when I encountered the Gospel lesson for today.  John, the son of Zebedee, one of the Sons of Thunder, came to Jesus complaining about someone who had been casting out demons in Jesus' name.  John said, "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."

To be honest, if I were going through the Bible looking for a text for a sermon, I wouldn't pick this one.  It isn't an easy story to understand.  But it is in the Bible and these are Jesus' words, so we have an obligation to take them seriously.  John complained about an exorcist who wasn't part of their crowd.  Jesus responded:

"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."

I believe that Jesus gave this counsel, knowing the kinds of controversies that would plague the church.  It was his way of calling us to lighten up a bit -- to be charitable toward Christian brothers and sisters with whom we disagree -- to be less trigger-happy -- to be less inclined to say, "I am right and you are wrong" -- to be less inclined to purge the church of those who hold differing opinions.

That does NOT mean that we cannot hold strong opinions -- or that we cannot advocate them strongly.  Jesus was a man of strong opinions.  Jesus sought truth.  He would not have had much use for relativism -- the idea that everyone's opinion is as good as everyone else's opinions.  Martin Marty, the great Lutheran theologian, once said that relativism is like having one foot on a banana peel -- and the other foot on a banana peel. 

Jesus isn't calling us to put one foot on a banana peel and the other foot on a banana peel.  He is calling us to rest both feet on faith in him.  He is calling us to inform our opinions from the careful study of scripture. 

Jesus welcomes strong opinions -- although he favors opinions that come from the Holy Spirit rather than those that come from Hollywood.  Jesus enjoys people who are either hot or cold.  It is lukewarm people who make him want to spit (Revelation 3:16) -- people with weak opinions or no opinions.

But the Christ of strong opinions also calls us to have charity for our Christian brothers and sisters.  He calls us to love one another.  He leaves us free to oppose error, but calls us at the same time to love one another.  Let me put it this way:

"Those who say, 'I love God,' and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars;

for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen,

cannot love God whom they have not seen.

The commandment we have from (God) is this:

those who love God MUST LOVE THEIR BROTHERS AND SISTERS ALSO"

(1 John 4:20-21).

I didn't make that up.  It comes from the epistle that we know as First John -- one of those little books toward the back of the Bible.  While we aren't one-hundred percent sure of the authorship of that book, tradition has it that the author of First John is the same John who came to Jesus complaining about the exorcist -- John the son of Zebedee -- John, one of the Sons of Thunder.  If so, we can definitely say that John finally "got it" -- that, by the grace of God, he became a different man as he grew in faith.  By the grace of God, he was able to stop complaining and start loving.

Let us go and do likewise.

All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name  UMH #154-155

Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee  UMH #89

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