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Proper 21, Yr B, Tr 1 (Trinity 15), 28.9.03, St Mark’s
Esther 7.1-6, 9-10; 9.20-22: Esther saves her people (no mention of God apart from, help “from another place” - the Greek additions to the Hebrew text make up for this lack)
Psalm 124: “Our help is in the name of the Lord” - versus Esther
James 5.13-20: anointing sick, confession of sins, fervent prayer, saving one’s brother from sin
Mark 9.38-50: whoever is not against us is for us; cut off offending hand, foot, eye
Collect: abiding in you, may be found steadfast in faith and active in service
Post Communion: keep us from things hurtful, and lead us to things profitable (995-124=871)

Summary: How open are we to those who differ from us?

This morning’s reading from Mark is concerned with relationships, that is, it concerns how the members of the Christian community relate to outsiders and to those within it. Our reading comes from within the section of Mark that begins with the second time that Jesus speaks to the disciples of the necessity of going in the way of the cross. The first time was at Caesarea Philppi when Jesus responded to their incomprehension by saying, ‘Let anyone who would come after me take up his or her cross and follow me’, and ‘the one who seeks to save his or her life will lose it’. That is, the concern then was for the individual disciple in his or her well-being and relationship with Jesus.

This second time Mark says that Jesus was teaching his disciples that the Son of Man would be betrayed into human hands. This time the disciples miss the point because they are vying with each other over who is the greatest among them, that is, within the community of disciples. When Jesus asks them what they were arguing about they remain silent. I think it is quite likely that they are silent because they are highly embarrassed. In what follows Jesus teaches them about the relationships they are to have as a community of faith with others, especially with those within the fellowship, but also with those outside of it.

The first thing Jesus does is to sit down, which is the position for teaching. He calls the twelve, that is, the leaders, to come to him. He then says specifically to the twelve, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all, and servant of all” (9.35). Next he takes a small child and places that child in the midst of them. He takes the child in his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (9.37).

And now we reach the beginning of this morning’s reading. The three disciples among the twelve who stand out in Mark’s Gospel are Peter, James and John. Here it is John who is the spokesman for the disciples’ strong disapproval, forbiddingly directed at someone who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name without “following us”, that is not being one of our band. Jesus gives a three-part reply. The first is: “Do not stop him, for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me”. The second is: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” And third is: “For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.” Here we have expressed a radical openness to all people of good will, highlighted in the middle sentence: “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

St Luke repeats this, but this is not at all surprising, considering his great desire to reach out to all sorts and conditions of men and women.

But Matthew completely omits the story of the strange exorcist and the conversation that follows it. This is because Matthew is concerned to emphasise an exclusive following of Jesus, and thus he does not want to include anything that might call this into question. On the other hand, Matthew is happy to include, in the materials common to Matthew and Luke, the statement that, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matt 12.30).

But Mark’s Gospel, as we have seen, has much more open boundaries than Matthew’s.

In today’s gospel Jesus now goes on warn against putting a stumbling block before any of the little ones who believe in him and he speaks of the dire consequences of doing so. With strong Semitic hyperbole he speaks of cutting off the offending hand, foot or eye. That this is not just about the individual but rather also about how that individual affects others is shown by the verse with which Mark ends the section, the last verse of today’s gospel: “Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another”.

In effect, without using the word, Mark has been spelling out what we are called to in terms of that wisdom which is God’s love made known in Christ.

Perhaps today’s gospel may pose some things for us to ponder here at St Mark’s in terms of some of the live issues of our day.

How open are we to be to other Christians who are not like us in outlook or denomination, joining with them in worship, in dialogue and in common action?

How open are we to be in inter-faith worship, dialogue and action.

On what basis do we judge the good faith and actions of those who are of some other faith or of none at all? How open are we to be to those whose life-style differs from our own?

These are a few of the questions that have come to my mind when pondering today’s gospel and wondering how best to follow Christ.