September 27, 2015
First Lutheran Church
THE MEASURE OF CHRIST’S DISCIPLES
Who are you? As you ponder that question, ask yourself how you came to that answer. Do you define yourself by your accomplishments, History, particular critical experiences, relationships, or some combination of them all? Another way to get at this question might be to ask, who gets to tell you who you are?
Who has the most influence in shaping your self-image? Is it your parents, your partner or spouse, your friends and colleagues? Perhaps it is the world of advertising, which constantly tries to overwhelm us with ads picturing perfect people leading perfect lives all designed to tell us who we are or who we should be. Christmas ads are already on TV and stores are already decorating. Should we be baking cookies and decorating already?
I ask these questions because I think this passage is very much about identity, although perhaps that is not apparent at first glance. On the surface, the passage appears to be about Jesus admonishing his disciples to stop worrying about others who follow him. He wants them to focus on what matters, which means avoiding things that cause one to stumble and stray from the narrow road.
Scholars tell us that this particular section reflects some conflicts between early Christian communities. Mark is framing this part of his narrative to address some of the problems his folks are having with other Christians. The early Christian church was not all united in their beliefs. Like the church today, they clashed with each other, and occasionally berated one another over differences in practice and theology. Mark was trying to help his congregation answer the question of who they are. Will they define themselves over and against other Christians or will they discover their identity in their attempt to follow Jesus, to care for the vulnerable, and to avoid the things that are destructive to self, neighbor and community?
Which brings me back to the question of identity and how seductive it is to try to determine who we are on the backs of our neighbors. Note the tone and tenor struck by the disciples’ statement, Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us. They were not just observing, they were complaining and accusing another Christian who was doing things in Jesus’ name without submitting to their authority. The disciples want Jesus to affirm their judgment and action against him because of it.
The Twelve had decided who they were and defined themselves over and against this other person. They are the leaders of the fledgling Jesus movement, more important than others because they walked with and learned from Jesus himself. In their eyes all other followers were less than them and obligated to submit to their authority. This is particularly amazing because this happens almost immediately after Jesus chided them for arguing about which of them was the greatest.
These kinds of things happen because it is so hard to honestly answer the question of our identity. We do not come into this world knowing who we are, where we come from or where we are going. In this storm of uncertainty, we are often tempted to take charge and address the question of identity on our own. There is plenty of encouragement from the culture to do just that. It is relentlessly in defining self worth through our accomplishments or possessions.
But the moment we venture down that road, we buy into the culture of scarcity where there is never enough of whatever we have chosen to measure our lives. Is it accomplishments, honor, possessions, money, youth, social position, career choices, so something else? This sets us up to compete with everyone else. And before long we either start telling other people what to do, judging them for not conforming to our expectations. Or it can have the opposite effect, feeling less than them for not conforming to their expectations. I will give you a small example. When I lived in Kansas I was in the heart of Mennonite quilting country. I knew I would never take up hand quilting, but I am fairly good at sewing, and signed up to take a class on machine quilting. I had to bring my own sewing machine to the class. I have a good sewing machine. My parents gave it to me when I graduated from college and it still works great. However, everyone else in the class had brought much newer and fancier machines. You can now by a computerized dedicated quilting machine that cost several thousand dollars. I felt humiliated at first, wondering why I had not bought such a machine myself. I measured my sewing ability against their expensive machines and felt humbled and foolish. But as the class progressed I saw that, at least for beginners, my machine did exactly what theirs did. I went home knowing that I had neither the money nor the interest in buying such a sewing machine.
When Jesus sees this happening with his disciples, he invites them to entertain the peculiar logic of God’s kingdom where the weak and vulnerable are honored and where glory comes through service. This is the way of the cross, and he counsels them again that mercy and love are the way through which we discover and express our identity. Pope Francis grasps this. He opted to eat with the homeless at a soup kitchen instead of with Congress in their elite dining room. One of the great things about service, love and mercy is that they never run. There is no scarcity of opportunity to care for others, no lack of occasions to love our neighbor.
From the beginning, Christians, even those who walked with Jesus in the flesh, have struggled with questions of identity, and we continue the struggle. What does it mean that Jesus is the Christ and that our identity is tied to him and not to the world? If we learn anything from the gospel, we know that our true identity is not something we can attain. We can only receive it as a gift. Jesus came to tell us that we are beloved, holy, precious and honored in God’s sight. He wants us to hear ourselves called to lives of love, mercy, compassion and service. Jesus did not go to the cross so that God would love us. God sent Jesus to us to show us that we are loved from before the world was made.
Last week, I baptized Cash Flores, a beautiful child of the covenant. Baptism is a visible parable to remind us that we are also baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Baptism and Holy Communion help us to discover once again that we know who we are as we remember whose we are. We are God’s own beloved people, sent to be God’s hands and feet in a world that establishes a hierarchy of worth and usefulness. Worth and usefulness, when found in working for the kingdom of God in love and service, is the only authentic way live. We are called to love others as Christ loves us. To God be the glory. Amen.