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The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 30, 2012
The Gospel: Mark 9:38-50
Sermon: "So ... Which is it?"

The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles

Watch the complete video of this service on our YouTube Channel

The Gospel:

John said to Jesus, "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and 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. 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.

"If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell., And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

"For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another."

Mark 9:38-50

So ... Which is it?

Which is more important; believing the right things, or doing the right things? Who is more likely to get into heaven; the person who believes all the right doctrines, or the person who spends life serving people? Hollywood often sets up two straw figures for us to choose from on this question; the self-righteous biddy with an uncharitable heart, and the call-girl with a heart of gold. Which is closer the Kingdom of God, we are asked? Is it better to spend your days memorizing Scripture, or serving in a soup kitchen? To ask it another way, when the Day of Judgment comes, will the critical point be what you believe, or what you have done?

Well, don’t answer yet! The answer to those questions is not as simple as it may seem. Both sides can find support in Scripture. The person who believes that what you believe is paramount can demonstrate from Scripture that on the Day of Judgment only one question will be important: Do you believe in Jesus Christ? Others will turn to Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats and point out that the Master, at the Last Judgment, will pose still another standard: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink…”

So, is it faith or works, theology or compassion, evangelism or social action? What is it that really matters in the life of a Christian? 

In our Gospel lesson this morning from the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus gives us a surprising answer to that question. John, traditionally referred to as the beloved disciple, comes to Jesus with this problem. “Teacher,” he says, “We saw a man casting out demons in your name and we tried to stop him because he was not following us.” Here’s the situation; a man is casting out demons, fighting evil, in the name of Jesus. But he is not our denomination, he is not our group, he hasn’t subscribed to all our theological position statements, so we stopped him. 

So the question is posed for Jesus; is orthodoxy the important issue, or is casting out evil? Which would you have answered? I am certain that some of Jesus’ disciples were dissatisfied with his answer. As much squabbling in the church as there has been over these past two thousand years between movements, then branches, and then denominations; between high church and low church, state and free, conservatives and liberals, evangelicals and social activists, Pentecostals and dispensationalists, it is clear that a lot of folks have trouble with Jesus here too. 

I remember an usher reporting to me one Sunday morning after a service in one of the congregations I had served. He reported that a slightly confused visitor had said to him, “I’m not ready to join a church yet. I don’t know which abomination to join.”

Jesus’ answer to John’s question is totally consistent with his entire life and teachings: “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. 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.”

Let’s see if you and I can reach a sensible consensus on this matter; a consensus based on these words of our Lord. Let’s begin by stating this first important truth: what we believe is of critical importance. Jesus does say “In my name.” and, “Name of Christ.” Christ being an acknowledgment of Jesus as messiah. 

It is as in the story of Karl Barth I told a couple of weeks ago. When the internationally acclaimed theologian was at Princeton Seminary, he was asked what the most important thing was that he had ever discovered. His reply was, “Jesus loves me. This I know for the Bible tells me so.”

That belief, “Jesus loves me,” tells us who we are. We are those whom Jesus loves. It tells us who God is. God is love; the one whose very nature is love. Without that knowledge, that belief, we cannot truly know God as God is. Without that knowledge we cannot truly know ourselves as God would have us see ourselves. Of course, that also tells us why the Bible is so important too. “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” 

I want to be careful here, this is not to say that we worship the Bible. We recognize that there will always be controversies over the interpretation and structure of Scripture. At one particular vestry meeting, a few years ago, the new senior warden was presiding at that meeting. Accustomed as he was to the procedures of formal business meetings, he took most everything in stride. When the minutes were read he moved their adoption. When the treasurer’s report was given he moved its reception. So it went. Then the Scripture lesson for the devotional time was read. Without hesitation he spoke up and said, “If there are no corrections, the Scripture will stand as read.”

There are many groups nowadays who accuse each other of trying to correct the Scriptures. But this is not new. It has always been this way, even in the earliest days of the church, even among Jesus’ disciples. Still, I believe with all my heart that this book contains the Word of Life for your life and mine. God is love, it tells us, and we are God’s beloved. It is important what we believe. 

But here’s the other important truth: our works are also of critical importance. As Jesus and the Apostles teach us in this book, faith, real faith, believing trusting faith causes us to want to do something for God. St. Paul clearly points out in the first chapters of Romans, that faith always manifests itself in obedience. As James has been so forcefully and plainly putting it for us these past few weeks, “As the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.” 

When Hollywood asks us to choose between the self-righteous biddy and the golden-hearted call-girl, we have to answer that each is as close to, or as far from, the Kingdom as the other. Neither has it completely right or wrong. 

There is an old fable about four angels who came to God when God was creating the world. Each of the angels asked God a question. The first one asked, “How are you creating the world?” The second asked, “Why are you creating this world?” The third one asked, “Can I have this world when you’re finished?” The fourth asked, “May I help?” 

The first question, “How are you creating the world?” is the question of the searching scientist. The second, “Why,” is the question of the thoughtful philosopher. “Can I have it?” is the question of sinful selfishness. “May I help?” is the first question of the faithful Christian. The proclamation “Jesus loves me” tells us who we are. The question “May I help?” tells us what we are about. 

“God was in Christ,” writes St. Paul, “reconciling the world to himself…and giving us the ministry of reconciliation.” There is no either/or, faith or works, theology or service, belief or practice. We simply cannot have one without the other. Without works, faith is false. Without faith, works are empty. Faith directs our works. Works fulfill our faith. 

So, what we believe and what we do are a unity. They are equally important. There is one thing, though, that Jesus’ words this morning tell us, that you and I are not to do. We are not to pass judgment on others; particularly those who serve Christ apart from us. 

I like the story about the person who was quite disturbed to learn that Jesus was Jewish. Hummph!” she said. “Jesus may have been Jewish, but I know God’s a Baptist!” Actually, as we all know of course, God’s an Anglican. We all feel that way at times about our particular group, but that’s not the spirit of Jesus. 

Know that God loves you, then carry on the work of that love. John Wesley, the great Anglican priest that we also share with our Methodist friends across the street, once said, “If your heart is as my heart, then give me your hand.” That’s a good word for all who are called by Jesus’ name. Proclaim your faith and practice it. Believe it and do it! 

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