God Doesn't Care About Tribes (Mark 9.38-50)

This week has been a big week for me, I’ve been through another ministry milestone, It’s an important one that I think every minister has probably dealt with, and I’m sure it won’t be the last, I received my first complaint letter. Or rather complaint email. It was about Beer and Hymns which happened last week, and it was really good fun.
It began with a call into our office which Diana took, and handled excellently. Then a subsequent email was sent to me, asking me whether I felt it was appropriate to drink beer and worship with ‘non-believers.’

Well yes I do, you’ve probably realised that.

Humans like to form clubs. It’s natural, we hang around with the people we like, people who are like us, and we don’t generally socialise with the people we find weird, or socially awkward. In this country another factor is social class too, many people hang around mostly with people from similar backgrounds, or with similar beliefs.

But Jesus says, those who eat Quinoa are as welcome and as important as those who eat Mc Donald’s. Jesus says, if you do something good in my name, you still belong. Jesus says I don’t care about tribes.

It is appropriate to drink beer and sing hymns with ‘un believers’, to worship with them, to give them a flavour of what life with God is like.
It’s fun, joyful and filled with a spiritual hope for life. Filled with grace and love, to the brim, like a good pint glass. Moreover some people asked us afterwards if they would be welcome in our church, of course we said yes! We were helping people to think about their relationship with God.

If they’re coming to something that we’ve organised in the name of Jesus, worshiping God perhaps in a slightly different way than what some are used to then what is the issue?

Whoever is not against us is for us.

Faith matters. It matters to God, and it should matter to us if we care enough about it. The people who don’t believe, or who aren’t our flavour of church, or wouldn’t explicitly say they are Christians, they matter too.
The church is not a club, and we shouldn’t be seeking to divide ourselves between believers and un-believers, because God doesn’t care about tribes.
This part of Mark’s Gospel is all about the disciples’ failure to understand what it means to follow Jesus. I think we all fall into that camp sometimes don’t we?
Sometimes the church does this too, for me the gospel isn’t about who’s in and who’s out, but about the fact we are liberated and redeemed, rescued, loved and transformed by God’s grace.  

When I was a teenager, I hated Catholics. I had been learning about the Catholic Church in school and it led me to a place of fundamental disagreement both with the Catholic church’s doctrine, and the perceived evil that they had inflicted over the centuries.

I don’t deny that I still disagree with the Catholic Church on many matters, I mean I wouldn’t be an Anglican if I didn’t, but that hatred is now gone. It’s gone because I came to realise that people are not defined by the labels we give them.
I came to realise that I was part of a Church that has committed acts of evil in the past, and that I too did not feel defined by that. I came to realise that churches are human institutions, and hospitals for the broken and sick, places of healing, not bowling clubs for the already well.

We are all baptised into one spirit, I might be Anglican, but that doesn’t make me more or less Christian than anyone else.
What does make me Christian is the way I respond to other denominations and people.

If we see something good happening, but it’s not Church of England, then it’s not our place to stand in the way, we should rejoice and be encouraged if people are being told that God loves them, and being brought into a loving relationship with each other and with God.

Faith is a gift, and not an achievement, it’s a gift that we should nurture, be thankful for if we have it, and pass it on to others. Here Jesus explicitly condemns factions and triumphalism in the body of Christ. Who is right or wrong, isn’t what matters, but our allegiance to Jesus, that’s what sets us apart.

“Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not loose their reward.”
The smallest act of kindness towards a Christian, or from one person to another is not forgotten by God. It is recognised and will be rewarded.

Moreover, praise can’t just be reserved for an in group of church goers, being a church goer does not necessarily make us good people, apart from all the good people here of course. The good that happens outside of the church, by non Christians, I believe God recognises and encourages. I believe that those faiths and non-faiths who don’t actively hate Christians or persecute us are in some ways more with us, than those within our religion, or indeed even our own church who hate us because of matters of doctrine, or tribal identity.
Christ is above all that.

Moreover, as we go on in the reading, Jesus talks about the reverse side of reward, which is punishment. If we stand in the way of other Christians, and present stumbling blocks for them, then the consequences of that are severe.  
If we block people’s path to God, tell them that they are not loved or outside of God’s grace, then there will be consequences. It fills me with a deep personal shame that as a Christian many members of the Gay community are told that they are not loved by God, and ostracised by the church. It’s not Godly, it’s not grace filled to abandon people who aren’t like us, to create walls that divide, and theologies that mentally maim people into hating themselves.

We have to refine ourselves. There is a misunderstanding here that when Jesus is talking about ‘Hell’ he’s talking about eternal fiery punishment, but that’s not what he’s saying. He’s talking about Gehenna, a rubbish pit just outside of Jerusalem where all the City’s rubbish would’ve gone and been burned.
Jesus isn’t saying that we will suffer eternal punishment if we cause ourselves to stumble and fall, but there are consequences both to ourselves and others. He uses extreme metaphors of chopping off hands and feet, to demonstrate and inward spiritual reality, of what our attitude should be.
By the way they are just metaphors, please don’t chop off your hand when you get home.

These verses are about the fact that it takes sacrifice to be a good disciple of Jesus, sometimes not always getting our own way, sometimes having to deal with change and chance and things that make us uncomfortable. Sometimes it means putting ourselves out physically or financially.

It is better for us not to stumble, to sometimes make sacrifices, than for the consequences to become so severe that a fire, something harsh has to refine us.
We must not stand in the way of others and their path towards God, but encourage them in the way we do things. It is not our place to judge, but to understand that the love of God is much broader than we can imagine, and that God redefines and refines us, not into tribes, but points us to where we need to be.
The question is, are we listening?

Preached at Evensong 30/09/2018 
St Peter Mancroft, Norwich


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