This morning’s Gospel reading picks up where we left off last week. Last Sunday we heard Jesus warn his disciples that he was about to be crucified. The disciples responded by arguing which one of them was the greatest. It’s not a great moment for the disciples. At this point in the Gospel, they are not serving as very good models for living the Christian life.
The very last thing Jesus said to them, in our reading from last week, was about welcoming people because, when we welcome others we are welcoming not just that person. We are also welcoming Christ and God the Father. Welcoming others is a good thing to do.
Next verse, the beginning of our reading for this week, the disciples continue to miss the point. John tells Jesus he tried to stop someone from casting out demons in Jesus’ name since this person “was not following us.” Not very welcoming!
Jesus must have shaken his head in amazement at just how clueless his disciples could be. But Jesus stays patient. Jesus gently explains to John and the others that “whoever is not against us is for us.” The man casting out demons may not be following the disciples, but he can still be an ally, a fellow traveler, a member of the community in his own way.
The lesson John needs to learn here is that we are not God’s gatekeepers. It’s not our job to decide who is and who is not “on the team,” part of the body of Christ, someone with genuine spiritual gifts serving God’s mission and promoting the common good. God’s “Church” is bigger than us. That’s a helpful reminder whenever we are tempted to become arrogant and exclusive.
It can be humbling, but it is also good news that God’s “Church” is bigger than we sometimes realize.
Elijah, who gets a brief mention in the reading from James, was one the of the great Old Testament prophets. Elijah did mighty deeds in God’s name.
But Elijah eventually got discouraged and scared. Elijah fled Israel, took refuge on a lonely mountain, and cried out to God. “The Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left” (1 Kings 19:14).
God appeared to Elijah and said a lot. Among other things, God told Elijah that he was wrong, he was not the only one left. God told Elijah that God had lots more faithful people than Elijah realized.
Encouraged, Elijah was able to resume doing God’s work.
The good news of our Gospel reading, the good news Elijah learns from his encounter with God, is that we are not alone, God’s people are more numerous than we can know. God’s work is being done even when we can’t necessarily see it happening in our midst as clearly as we might like.
These days, Church attendance is declining across our nation. I sorry about that, of course. But I take comfort in the fact that God has many servants not only in here, however we define “here,” but also out there. We are on God’s team. And so is everyone who does God’s work even if “they are not following us.” And that’s a lot of people, even if we can’t always see them.
That is an important truth.
AND, this is another important truth: having Christian brothers and sisters, being part of a recognizable community of faith, is a great help.
We don’t know anything about the man John tried to stop from doing deeds of power in Christ’s name, including what eventually happened to him.
But we do know this. Jesus got crucified just a few weeks after this episode. The disciples were crushed. And before they received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, even before they met the resurrected Jesus, they came together for mutual comfort and support. I hate to think what might have happened if they hadn’t had each other in those terrible days between crucifixion and resurrection.
Then comes the resurrection. That’s really good news. But also pretty overwhelming. Each time someone met the risen Christ, they immediately rushed back to the group to tell the others, to process this incredible news together, to share the joy of Christ’s victory with each other.
Now, think about the man in our reading, the man who was doing God’s work on his own, not part of the group of disciples. Think about how he might have experienced those days and weeks after the crucifixion.
I wonder how he handled the news of Christ’s crucifixion. Think about going through that kind of trauma alone, without a community to support and sustain you when you feel lost and totally broken.
Think about him in the next few weeks, as word gets out that Christ has risen. My guess is, he joined the others. How could he help it? But if he didn’t, think about trying to figure out the resurrection on your own or feeling great joy that you can’t share.
It’s possible, but it isn’t easy to be Christian by yourself, to be Christian without other Christians. The Holy Spirit is at work all through creation. People everywhere are doing God’s work.
AND I am really glad that I can join with brothers and sisters in Christ in a mutually supportive community of faith, where we can support each other in hard times and rejoice together in good times.
Here’s another one of my odd images, this one about what being part of a community of faith means.
I recently returned to swimming laps. But I can’t swim in a straight line. Years ago I entered a triathalon. In the first leg, we were supposed to swim out and back in a lake. I was churning along as fast as I could go, when I felt someone poke me with a paddle. I had gotten so far out of line that they sent a canoe after me.
Thankfully the pool has lanes so I don’t run into other swimmers as I weave my way across the pool.
So last week, I was swimming laps. And a woman asked if she could share my lane.
I was unhappy. Sharing a lane is normal…for good swimmers. I worried, if we shared a lane, I was going to run into this woman over and over again. But I couldn’t say no.
To my astonishment, I had a better swim with her than I would have done without.
To accommodate her, I had to confine myself to half a lane, which meant I had to stay focused. I swam better, and time passed more quickly. Before I knew it, I was done.
I can swim by myself. But it turns out I swim better with others. Even when I don’t feel like it, even when I am irritated at their presence.
Being Christian, living the Christian life, is a little like that. We can do it alone, I suppose. But we do it better, and with more pleasure, when we do it together, unexpected though that additional pleasure might be.
I am glad to know that there are wonderful people doing God’s work who aren’t part of Saint David’s or any other Church. I give thanks to God for the Church in that broadest sense of the term—for all those people doing God’s work.
But for myself, I am really glad to be part of this community of faith, and I give thanks for the privilege of doing God’s work together, here at Saint David’s.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan