Sunday, September 27, 2015

Obstacles to Following Jesus

The scriptures referred to are Mark 9:38-50.

Christopher Booker wrote a book in 2004 called The Seven Basic Plots in which he says all stories fall into one of these archetypes: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, the Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy and Rebirth. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch also thought there were 7 basic plots but since conflict makes for drama, he saw them as fundamental conflicts: Human vs. Human, Human Vs. Nature, Human vs. God, Human vs. Society, Human vs. Himself, Human Caught in the Middle, and Man and Woman. There are other such lists of plots but they usually boil down to someone wanting something and having to deal with the obstacles to achieving it. The obstacles can be external or internal, people or physical objects or circumstances. If the protagonist overcomes the obstacles, the story usually has a happy ending. If the protagonist fails to overcome all the obstacles, the story usually has an unhappy ending.

And we tend to identify with the protagonist because a lot of our lives is spent dealing with obstacles to what we wish to achieve. When you are a small child, the obstacles are learning to walk, learning to manipulate the environment around you and learning to understand the rules for navigating that environment. As you grow up the obstacles are learning the rules of society, learning how to master school subjects, learning how to get a job, how to keep a job, how to advance in your career, how to find a mate, how to keep a mate, how to care for a child, how to care for aging parents, how to deal with your aging self. When we see a protagonist facing with obstacles we can relate to, we get emotionally invested in the story. We vicariously enjoy seeing the hero succeed.

Jesus had a lot of obstacles to overcome in his mission on earth. I have talked about the fact that he was trying to reeducate his disciples on what the Messiah was really like, rather than the holy warrior they anticipated. In today's gospel Jesus is not talking about himself but the quality of discipleship. One problem has to do with the broadness of his following and the other with the obstacles to the integrity required to follow him.

We start with a report that someone outside the group of disciples is casting out demons, that is, healing people, in Jesus' name. This has gotten back to the Twelve and John says they tried to stop the guy. And the only reason they give for trying to shut down what this person was doing is that “he was not following us.” Not that he was unsuccessful and making them look bad. Not that he was mixing in pagan elements or compromising Jesus' teachings. Apparently he was healing people and he was orthodox in his use of Jesus' name. Their objection was just that he wasn't part of their group. He wasn't one of them. The disciples saw themselves as a clique. Jesus was their exclusive property.

Jesus doesn't see it that way at all. First off, he offers a pragmatic reason not to stop this impromptu exorcist. The fellow can't very well use Jesus' name to heal people and then turn around and denigrate Jesus. He has to be one of Jesus' biggest boosters. He is an ally. Since this comes after the feeding of the 5000 and, according to John's Gospel, the mass defection of followers due to the “Eat my body and drink my blood” speech, it's not like Jesus has a ton of allies anymore. This guy still believed in Jesus and he was apparently eliciting faith in Jesus from those he healed. He is providing independent testimonials to Jesus' power over illness and evil. There is no good reason to stop him.

But more importantly Jesus wants to nip in the bud any factionalism in his movement. You can't read the gospels without noticing that there were splits in the Judaism of Jesus' day. The Sadducees were the priestly party, who believed only what was in the Torah, the first 5 books of the Hebrew scriptures. The Pharisees are zealous about observing the Law, which to them means not just the 613 commandments found in the Torah, but also various refinements and extensions and applications of those commandments to current conditions, as enumerated by rabbis since the time of the Babylonian exile. The Zealots believed that only God was the king of the Jewish people and wanted to rise up against Rome in a holy war. The Essenes were a monastic group that lived off the grid so to speak, out by the Dead Sea, waiting for the last days when God would wipe out not just Gentiles but unrighteous Jews not following their separatist ways. These were all religious Jews but they each thought the others were, if not totally wrong, at least not close enough to believing and acting as proper Jews should. Jesus didn't want those following him to break up into factions, each dismissing the other as not “Christian” enough.

Jesus says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” People who are not undermining us, who are not working against us, who are doing great things in Jesus' name, are not our enemies. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Too often we look not at what people put their trust in nor the fruits of that belief but at the differences, sometimes large but sometimes small, in the way they express our common faith in Jesus Christ, our incarnate, crucified and risen Lord and Savior. The Amish, for instance, eschew most modern conveniences and modern clothes. Pentecostals speak in tongues and roll on the floor, “slain in the Spirit,” experiencing an ecstasy most of us would not even seek. The Roman Catholics seem very foreign to fundamentalist Christians, as does this denomination I'm sure. The Eastern Orthodox make even us liturgical churches look like dabblers in our ancient worship traditions. But never doubt that devout followers of Jesus exist in every denomination. They are our siblings in Christ, however weirdly we think they dress or speak or act. Their method of walking the way of the Cross may not be your way. But the same is true for them. Your way of following Jesus is not theirs. But we can and do learn from each other, from our different emphases and varied approaches.

In fact, maybe the purpose of God allowing different denominations to emerge is that diverse approaches are needed to reach distinct people. Some people like plain worship. Some like lots of smells and bells. Some like quiet and solemn rites. Some like joyful and noisy celebrations. Some respond better to intellectual messages, some to practical ones, some to emotional appeals, and some to mystical observations. God made us different from one another; why would we assume that there is only one way to deliver his good news?

In fact, I've often wondered, as I'm sure some of you have, if worshiping God in heaven would ever get boring. But not if every group has a turn. It would be a never-ending spectacle as worshipers, choirs, musicians, dancers, and composers at the height of their creativity from every tongue, tradition, territory and time period succeed one another, offering praise in their own way, blending and counterpointing and coming together in infinite combinations. It would make Pandora sound like a bargain bin collection from K-tel and the half-time show from the Superbowl look like a grade school band recital.

Jesus said he had sheep in other folds. He also said he will bring them together when they hear the sound of his voice. (John 10:16) Notice that Jesus does not say, “Go get that guy and force him to join us.” Jesus coerces no one. But his sheep know when they hear his loving call and know that the crucial thing is to keep your eyes on the shepherd, not the strangeness of the other sheep, and to follow him wherever he goes. He knows the path better than us.

Then Jesus moves past minor differences and onto other obstacles to being his disciple. The word translated “cause to stumble” is the word from which we get the English word “scandalize.” But rather than meaning merely to “offend,” as the King James version renders it, it means to “trip up,” “trap” or “entice” to sin. I like the Holman Christian Standard Bible's translation of “cause the downfall.” Because Jesus isn't talking about a mere misstep. He is talking about causing someone to miss out on the kingdom of God. That's why he uses such hyperbolic language.

Even biblical literalists rarely take these verses to mean that Jesus was recommending amputation or eye gouging. After all, Jesus says it is what is in our hearts that defile us, not anything external. Your hands and feet and eyes don't operate independently. You direct them by what you think, from the inside outward. So what could Jesus possibly mean by using the metaphor of lopping them off or plucking them out?

People often talk about things they love by saying that they are a part of them. And if it is something which arises from the gifts they are given, like art or music, or of a charity or social concern they support, this is a good thing. But sometimes we consider things that are destructive to us or to others as an integral part of ourselves. Writers and other artists sometimes worry that if they give up alcohol or drugs, their creativity will dry up.

People can even be fond of their faults, like they are unruly pets. They can joke affectionately about their arrogance, laziness, lust, greed, rage, envy, and gluttony. Tolerating things like a penchant for deceit, a life supported by taking what is another's, or a callous unconcern for other people can move one farther and farther from God and his kingdom.

There are also things that people hold so dear that they regard them as an extension of themselves, and while they may not be morally objectionable in themselves, if they let these things take the top priority in their lives, they become a form of idolatry. These can be sports, work, political parties or positions, hobbies, sex, food, achievement, even one's country. These can get between a person and the kingdom of God if they are indulged in to excess or they are allowed to assume the central place in one's life.

It is these things—our dearest sins, the otherwise innocent things of this life that we elevate above all else—that Jesus is saying we have to cut loose. And it can feel as if we are amputating a limb or tearing out a piece of our heart. But whatever we place above God is an idol. The test is this: think of something you love and then ask if God told you to give it up, could you? If the answer is “no,” that is the chief obstacle to living a Christlike life and getting closer to God.

Perhaps the most wrenching thing to do this to is people we love. Sometimes family and friends can come between us and God. This is not true if our love of them is healthy but if it is unhealthy, if we enable bad behavior on their part or let them draw us into destructive habits or lifestyles, then they can divert us from following Jesus. It may be that they have a substance abuse problem, it may be that they have toxic habits or are involved in toxic relationships, which can suck you in. I have seen people who cannot get their own lives straightened out because it would mean a breach in a relationship with a lover or relative who is on a downward spiral. When my brother took lifesaving in Scouts, they taught him that approaching a drowning person can be tricky. If you let them grab you, rather than you getting a safe hold on them, they can drag you under. It does no one any good if two drown rather than one. You have to stay safe and look for an opportunity to help. If the person is flailing too much and grasping at everyone nearby, you may not be able to save them. And sometimes a person in your life will use your love for them, which should be a lifeline to them, as a snare to pull you into their drama, into their dysfunction, into a poisonous relationship which can mean the undoing of you both. As they say in the safety instructions every time you fly, if you are traveling with a child or a sick person or an elderly person and the plane gets in trouble, and the oxygen masks drop down, put on your mask first, before you put one on the weaker person. If not, you may pass out and ultimately be unable to help them.

Our priority must always be following Jesus. Which entails denying ourselves those things which we love more than him. And by things I mean just that: stuff other than human beings. You've probably heard the saying that we should use things and love people; our problem is that we often love things and use people. And in the case of people who draw us from God, the solution is not to love them less but to love God more. I love my granddaughter but if she is crying and I am driving, my priority is to keep my eyes on the road, not to look back or reach back to her car seat to comfort her. Or else I'll drive off the road into the mangroves or into the other lane and an oncoming car and kill us both. When I can, I'll pull over and see what is troubling her. But when I'm driving, that comes first.

Following Jesus comes first. That's why it can be excruciating. You think that Jesus wouldn't have wanted to avoid having his mother see him, bloody, naked and dying on the cross? You think a soldier would not want to spare his young wife from losing a husband and his children a father? The greater good can demand sacrifices. Many of the problems we see in the world are due, at least in part, to people not wanting to make sacrifices. They don't want to give up even the smallest part of their power or wealth or position or freedom or pleasures or reputation or their image of themselves. And because no one will give up anything, we have bigger and more intractable conflicts.

And by the common good, I mean what is good for all, not just us. One of the things that may be an obstacle to following Jesus could even be our identity as a member of our group within the worldwide church if it is keeping us from seeing and acknowledging and supporting other Christians who are not working against us but are following Jesus as well. And our identity may be so precious to us that we feel that it is a part of us. But that doesn't help if it means displacing Jesus from the center of our lives. A study found out that people whose primary focus of their faith is their religious group will be very loving towards co-religionists but not towards outsiders. Those whose faith was primarily focused on God were more benevolent towards all people, regardless of whether they shared their religion or not. The subtlest temptation is to substitute our love of those we see as God's people for the love of God himself.

Which is Jesus' point in today's gospel. We are not to be partisan in following him. Other Christians are not our rivals or competitors. They are our siblings. What we do to them or don't do to them—helping them, welcoming them, meeting their needs—we do or don't do to Jesus, according to his parable in Matthew 25. How are we going to expand our loving actions towards the world, the one God loved so much that he sent his son, if we cannot extend that love to other Christians? Indeed, how can we hope to convincingly show the people of the world God's love for them if we do not show love for others following Jesus? He who is not against us is for us. Other Christians are not obstacles but allies. And we need all the allies we can get if we are to effectively proclaim the healing and uniting love of God in Christ to those who need his grace.

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