The Gospel reading for today is another episode of Jesus teaching his disciples and it is a teaching that is still so relevant today, potentially even more so than when Jesus was around.
I’m sure we are all guilty of identifying ourselves as being part of certain groups. The unfortunate implication that follows on from that is that there are others who do not belong to our groups, we naturally divide ourselves into those that are ‘insiders’ and those that are not.
When John comes to tell Jesus that they had witnessed someone casting out demons in the name of Jesus, it feels a little bit like a youngster telling tales, one convinced that the other would get into trouble because they are doing something they shouldn’t be. John’s response to seeing someone outside the circle of disciples doing such work resonates with the ‘insider’ narrative that I have just described. The reason he comes to tell tales is because he finds it hard to believe that anyone who isn’t a known disciple could possibly take part in an act of casting out demons in Jesus’ name. It just isn’t something he finds easy to comprehend.
By saying “Whoever is not against us is for us”, Jesus immediately shuts down John’s tale telling and challenges the misconception that only those who are named and known can possibly do good in the name of Jesus. Jesus’s overriding concern is that good is being done, and good being credited to his name and power ultimately demonstrating that the power of God is moving and working in that place. Jesus saw that at that time, his work was heading towards a final showdown, and so anyone who was using his name and his power for good was less likely to stand against them in the future. It should also serve to remind us that the work of the Lord is not a private and privileged affair, it is for all.
The sayings that follow are challenging to hear and really quite unpleasant to picture, but they are not to be taken literally, rather they act as images to point to our human-ness and are more likely to be referring to parts of our character or personality that might cause us to err and stumble in our ambition to be faithful followers. The immediate warning to John and the rest of the disciples was to be cautious in their ambition for honour when Jesus is crowned as king. Pursuing such a goal prevents them from being true disciples and so anything that might get in the way of their discipleship must go.
Discipleship is costly, it demands sacrifices. A deep look at our personality and character might reveal that there are parts of us that are preventing us from being true disciples, parts of us that declare our way is the only way to do something and therefore any other way must be stopped. These are the feet that are causing us to stumble, the parts of us that we need to try to get rid of, the things that lead us in the wrong direction and away from the right path.
Once we make the costly sacrifices and remove the parts that are causing us to stumble, we become more open to the work of the Spirit. Being open to the Spirit allows us to recognise and rejoice in the work of the Lord being done, even if it is being done in a different way to ours. Dedicating ourselves to the work of God will require sacrifices, yes, but it will also open up a whole host of rejoicing once we get alongside others who are doing the same, even if they aren’t in our group. Let us remember that “Whoever is not against us is for us”.
Rev’d Hannah Lane