Monday, October 1, 2012

The Case of the Renegade Exorcist

When people think that getting rid of religion would eliminate most human conflicts, I have to ask myself what universe are they living in? Besides the objective fact that the Encyclopedia of War has found that only 7% of all wars were caused by religion, there is the obvious fact that people will fight over anything: race, politics, sexual orientation, personal or national honor, and on a less lethal level, sports teams, favorite foods, even which actor to play James Bond is the best. (It was Sean Connery.) My point is that people see things differently and will argue over matters both important and trivial. 

It's not hopeless. We can and do work together with and even marry people of different political affiliations, races and religions. Oddly enough, it is often within political parties, within religious denominations, within fandoms that we see the most vicious fighting. Groups that have the most in common seem to react the most strongly to internal differences.

Sometimes the controversy  is over essentials. This was true of the Gnostics, who saw all matter as evil and so said the creator of the world is evil and that Jesus represents a different, totally spiritual God. They taught that Christ did not really become a man but only appeared to. Our Lord did not actually live as one of us or nor did he die for us. That lead to radically different notions of what is good and what is evil, as well as what our attitude toward creation, our own bodies, and everyday life should be. Some Gnostics taught that, the body being evil, one should live a very ascetic life and be celibate. Other Gnostics taught that, since the body is matter and therefore irredeemable, it didn't matter what one did with the body. For them, promiscuity was permissible as long as one's mind stayed on things above. The church as a whole decided to hold to the Biblical teachings that we find in the Apostolic and Nicene creeds: that, as paradoxical as it seems, Jesus is fully God and fully human, the coming together of the creator and the creation, which God pronounced good and is working to restore.

But often the disagreements are about less crucial matters like emphasis, or specific ways of doing things. It gets serious when we use these differences to decide who is "us" and who is "them." As someone said recently in an NPR piece about a political party at odds with itself, "We've got to decide if we are a church that welcomes converts or one that expels heretics."

So it's not surprising that this problem arose even in the earliest days of Christianity. John the disciple tells Christ that when they saw someone casting out demons in Jesus' name, they tried to stop him "because he was not following us." That's pretty remarkable. It means news of Jesus' healings have become widespread. It means people realize that the there is something special about Jesus' power. There were other Jewish exorcists in those days. The only way to make a spirit leave a person was to command it in the name of someone more powerful. Usually a Jewish exorcist used the name of God. By using Jesus' name, this renegade exorcist was recognizing that Jesus was more powerful than the evil spirits.

It also means this man really believed in Jesus. In Acts 19, we hear of how the sons of a Jewish high priest tried to drive out a demon by using the name of "Jesus whom Paul preaches." The evil spirit says, "I know about Jesus and I'm acquainted with Paul but who are you?" The mentally ill man leaps upon and beats the exorcists into submission and they escape him naked and wounded. Jesus' name is not a magic word. Calling upon him only works if we trust him, if we have a relationship with him. Otherwise it would be like going up to a stranger, calling him Dad and asking for lots of money. You need a real relationship with the person to ask for things in his name.    

So this fellow knew of Jesus and trusted in him. But he wasn't one of the people who was traveling with Jesus. There is no indication that the disciples recognize him as one of the Seventy to whom Jesus granted power and sent out to heal. But he is healing people in Jesus' name. So the Twelve tell him to stop.

Jesus' reaction must have shocked them. "Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able to speak evil of me for a while. Whoever is not against us is for us." To Christ the important thing is that the man did good in his name. Even allowing for the fact that he may turn against Jesus at some point, it's not going to happen anytime soon. Right now, this guy is an ally. And we need all the allies we can get. There's a war on.

What war? The war on the less fortunate and powerless. 16% of Americans are living in poverty. 1 in 5 children has no assurance that he will eat today. Though decreasing slightly, more than 600,000 people are homeless. The number of homeless families increased by 20% or more in 11 states. 49.9 million Americans have no health insurance, including 7.3 million children. That's appalling in world's most prosperous nation.  

When people come to me seeking help from the church, I do what I can from my discretionary fund. I give them Winn Dixie gift cards for food. I might help them with bus money to get to Key West to take care of their Social Security or other governmental matters. But I explain that we are a small church and that I cannot, say, pay their entire rent. Nor can I help them more than once. I do refer them to the Food pantry at the Big Pine United Methodist Church or Catholic Charities at St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church. I don't disparage the other churches over any doctrinal differences our denominations have. As a Methodist down here on an Emergency Relief Mission after Hurricane Georges told me, "Doctrines may divide but service unites."

But wait! Didn't Jesus get into debates with the Pharisees, which were a separate school of Jewish thought? Yes, but it was over what they did ethically. He even told people that as the scribes and Pharisees were custodians of God's law, one should do as they said but not as they did. Why? They were much too focused on ceremony and ritual and things like not healing on the Sabbath, and they were not paying attention to what was important, like justice, mercy and faith. They liked people's adoration rather than God's approval. They piled burdensome lists of rules on people's backs but wouldn't lift a finger to help. They blocked the way into God's kingdom for others and killed the prophets God sent. They were hypocrites who scolded Jesus for eating and drinking with disreputable people, not recognizing that he was bringing these people back to God.

Jesus was concerned with the fruit that people produced, whether what they did was good or bad. A Samaritan, whom most Jews would view as a heretic, was nevertheless for Jesus a good example of following the commandment to love one's neighbor. A Roman soldier telling Jesus that he could simply heal his slave by distant command was a better example of faith than Jesus had found among his own people. Tax collectors and prostitutes were repenting and entering God's kingdom ahead of the religious leaders.

This is not to say people are saved by their works but that if one puts one's trust in Jesus, that faith will find expression in good works. If you are sick, you will display symptoms, like a fever or shortness of breath. If you are healthy, you will display signs of good health, like a normal temperature or a good lung capacity. Sins are symptoms of poor spiritual health; good works are a sign of good spiritual health. Like temperature or the ability to breath deeply, it's not the only sign but it is a major one.   

The man's ability to heal folks in Jesus' name showed Christ that he was spiritually healthy. He trusted in the God revealed in Jesus Christ. The disciples had not realized that. But as the Celebrate bulletin insert says about today's Gospel, "the circle we form around Jesus' word must be able to value good being done in ways we wouldn't do it, by people we can't keep tabs on."

The church has not always be kind to renegade Christians. They expelled Martin Luther, John Wesley, General William Booth, and others. In more shameful actions, reformers such as Jan Huss and William Tyndale were burned at the stake.

We don't do that any more. But churches still split over matters both essential and not. This dilutes our impact in the world. We dilute it partly by our acting towards fellow Christians in ways that are very unloving. Younger people are not hung up on denominational distinctives and they don't understand why Christians speak or act negatively toward other Christians. Small wonder a large percentage of young people leave the church and many young people are reluctant to join churches.

Another way schisms dilute our impact on the world is by creating more churches that then compete with one another in ministry. And it's not like we can afford to do that. The average church in the U.S. has 100 members or less. That's true for all denominations, even the larger ones. The mega churches may have more people but they are less numerous. In small towns, churches are closing every day. At a recent Episcopal clergy conference, we were being told the way we do ministry must change. We were told that a church needs a budget of at least $250,000 to afford one full-time clergy, a minimal staff and the ability to do ministry. If a church has a budget of $150,000 or less it is at risk of ceasing to be able to continue. That's disturbing because our church budget is not even close to that.

At the recent synod ministry conference, Bishop Beneway spoke of how the way we do ministry is changing. With such a large number of small churches, clergy need to expect to have either a secular job in addition to their ministry or to have more than one church. And Pastor Paul Lutze singled out what we are doing on Big Pine as a great example of ecumenical cooperation. I spent practically every meal answering questions from colleagues about how our two churches functioned together.

In view of these trends, it will no longer be feasible for Christians to disdain other Christians. It will no longer be reasonable for us not to work together. It will no longer make sense to treat each other as enemies or rivals. We must become allies. Or, more accurately, we must recognize each other as fellow citizens of God's Kingdom, as in fact, brothers and sisters in Christ. Like all siblings we are different and yet all bear a family resemblance. We are unique and yet we are one in Christ. Unity is what Jesus prayed for on the night he was betrayed. Our love for one another is how the world is supposed to identify us as his disciples, he said. Not, mind you, our complete agreement on all doctrinal matters, not our uniformity in ritual, nor our political leanings. It is our love for one another that marks us out as Christians.

This is not to say families don't have squabbles and disagreements. But the members of healthy families continue to love each other and work with each other and help each other out. The older brother might act as if he's a parent rather than a sibling but he is loved. The youngest might seem a bit wild and immature but she is loved. The middle child might feel overlooked but he is loved. They know how to push each other's buttons and sometimes make each other madder than they've ever gotten at anyone outside the family. But in strong families, they apologize and forgive. They never forget they are joined by blood.

We Christians are joined by Jesus' blood, on the cross and at the Lord's table. There we partake of Christ's body and become his body on earth. In our bodies, we recognize that their different parts still belong to one body. We need to do that with the various parts of Christ's body. We need to recognize that they don't all look the same or function the same. Some are better suited for some tasks and some work better at other ones. But they are all necessary for the good health of the body. And so it shouldn't surprise us that when one part of the body of Christ is in pain, the rest of us feel it. And we should respond as quickly as possible to help the injured and support the ailing part.

Jesus didn't let his body be broken so that God's creation should continue to fragment. He died to draw all people to himself. He died to heal this broken world and commissioned us to continue his ministry of reconciliation. That means no criticizing fellow Christians doing good in Jesus' name. Instead we should ask, "Need some help?" and pitch in. When in doubt do the most loving thing. And the world will know we are Christians by our love.

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