Tuesday, September 29, 2009

"Whoever Is Not Against Us Is For Us: A Promise"

The Gospel reading from the lectionary this Sunday was Mark 9:38-48. It's a fascinating one: inspiring and chilling, and most of all paradoxical. How could it begin in such a spirit of light, welcome and ecumenism, and end with such a dark and terrifying vision of hell? Let's look at it closely.

"And John answered him, saying, Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name, and he followeth not us: and we forbad him, because he followeth not us."

One of the most interesting things about Jesus was the change that He worked in His apostles, turning them into something quite opposed to what they had been before. Thomas the semi-Dualist, who had a dim view of the body (read the apocryphal Gospel and Acts of Thomas for more on this) became inadvertently the most important witness to the physical resurrection of Christ's body. Peter, weak-willed and so timid he denied Christ three times, became the administrator of what was to be the largest and greatest of all the Christian churches (whether or not you accept its claim to be also the _truest_ expression of Christianity). Paul, the persecutor of the apostles, became the apostle to the Gentiles. And John, who here shows himself to be intolerant, became the preacher of Love.

"But Jesus said, Forbid him not: for there is no man which shall do a miracle in my name, that can lightly speak evil of me."

The Latin phrasing here differs from the English, lit. "Nemo enim est qui virtutem faciat in nomine meo...": i.e. "there is no man which shall do a virtuous act in my name..." Jesus isn't talking about only those who drive out demons, or prophecy, or do other miraculous signs in the name of Christ. He is talking about anyone who does a virtuous act in the name of Christ. Those who, in Christ's name, heal the sick, and feed the hungry , and help the poor overcome the economic poverty that oppresses them, and who work towards a more just society, and plant trees and care for the natural world, in His name: all these are Christians, and the specific details of their theology, while important in themselves, should not make us despise each other over them. "In my house there are many mansions..." (John 14:2) Here Christ was saying, I think, that there isn't just one single branch of the Christian church, that there would be many expressions of the Christian faith, and that men could love and serve Christ- and come to know the truth- outside the structure that the Apostles set up. This verse is a proof that even during the lifetime of Christ himself there were multiple different Christianities, including Christians who were outside the apostolic fellowship. And Jesus seems to have been fine with that. Which should give us pause. Christ works predominantly, I think, through the apostolic church that He set up, and which later divided into Catholic, Armenian, Syrian, Orthodox and other branches (including later the Anglicans). But that doesn't prevent Him from working outside the church too. Sometimes He does- He did even during his own life, after all- and sometimes the orthodox can learn from the 'heretic', and the church as a whole from the light of individual reason and personal revelation.

"For whosoever shall give you a cup of water to drink in my name, because ye belong to Christ, verily I say unto you, he shall not lose his reward."

In the desert Middle East, where this story unfolds, water meant the difference between life and death. I've lived in such an environment, in the drylands of western Madagascar. A drink of water is something precious and special, the more so because water was so hard to get. There are fewer things nicer and more pleasant on a hot, dry day then a cup of water. Christ makes a point of using this example because water was so important: the very source of life. Literally, as well: today we know that water is the indispensable compound on which all organic chemistry and all life depends. Certain kinds of life can survive without oxygen, without organic food, even without light, but nothing can survive without water. Christ invokes our need and thirst for water, and then repeats the phraseology from His Sermon on the Mount, "They have their reward."

"And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea..."

Interesting, Christ suddenly shifts from the promise of something good to the warnings of something terrible. I could talk more about this metaphor, and sometime I'm sure I will, but let's skip to the end....

To be continued.....

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