[This was shared during the 10:15 worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]
The chorus of a song from the ‘60s goes, “I’m in with the ‘in’ crowd/I go where the ‘in’ crowd goes/I’m in with the ‘in’ crowd/And I know what the ‘in’ crowd knows.” We all like feeling that we’re part of an ‘in’ crowd. Everyone wants to feel accepted and valued. But, we human beings are also sinners. And so, our desire to feel accepted and valued by others can (and often is) expressed in sinful ways.
The first followers of Jesus felt valued and accepted as they never had in their lives. The One they confessed to be God’s promised Messiah or Christ, the Anointed King, had called them, taught them, and then, entrusted important work to them. They felt like they were part of the ‘in’ crowd.
And it went to their heads.
Please turn to our gospel lesson, Mark 9:38-50. (Page 580 in the pew Bibles.) It begins with the apostle John opening mouth and inserting his foot. But to understand how badly he does so, we have to consider the events that come right before our lesson.
In Mark 9:1-13, Jesus takes the inner-most group of apostles, Peter, John, and John’s brother, James, to a mountaintop. There, the appearance of Jesus is transformed (or transfigured) and the light of heaven shines from Him. Moses and Elijah from Old Testament times, appear, and a voice from heaven says, “This is My beloved Son. Hear Him!” The lesson is clear. Moses and Elijah were great servants of God. But Jesus is God, with power over sin and death, the power to give forgiveness and new life. John saw and heard all this.
Beginning in Mark 9:14, we see that the first thing Jesus must deal with after coming from the top of the mountain with Peter, James, and John, is a boy with a demon. The boy’s father had asked for the other disciples’ help when Jesus and the trio of apostles had been on the mountain. But they had been impotent in dealing with the evil, reminiscent of God’s people’s inability to remain faithful to God back when Moses had been on Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments about 1500 years earlier. Jesus casts the demon from the boy and explains that the disciples couldn’t do the same thing because they hadn’t prayed and hadn’t fasted, emptying themselves of any dependence but on God. John saw and heard this too.
According to Mark 9:30-32, Jesus predicted His death and resurrection for the second time. But the disciples, including John, didn’t ask Jesus anything about this. Instead, they fell into an argument among themselves about which one of them would be the greatest person in Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus cuts in and tells them: “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.” John saw and heard this too.
But, still intent on drawing bright lines in the sand between Jesus‘ ‘in‘ crowd and the rest of the human riff-raff, John says to Jesus in verse 38: “Teacher, we saw someone who does not follow us casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow us.”
Jesus might have turned to John and said, “Not following us, John? Don’t you mean not following Me?”
And Jesus would have been right to pose that question. After all, John and the other disciples hadn’t been born of a virgin according to Old Testament prophecy. The disciples hadn’t been affirmed by the Holy Spirit at the Jordan River. And no voice from heaven had affirmed that the disciples were God.
A follower of Jesus, like you and me, might tell our unbelieving friends, “I’m not perfect, but like the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:1, I invite you to ‘imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.’” But no follower of Jesus should ever see themselves as an ‘in’ crowd made of them and their buddy, Jesus. Jesus is our Lord, God, Savior, King, Master, and Friend. But Jesus isn’t our buddy. We aren’t and never will be Jesus’ equal.
Sometimes, I think, we twenty-first century Christians turn Jesus into just another buddy or teacher. That’s a mistake. Jesus has not rescinded the words He spoke to Philip, “[The person] who has seen Me has seen the Father.”
What’s ironic about John’s words to Jesus, is that just a few verses earlier, the disciples had been unable to cast a demon from a boy because they didn’t pray and open themselves to the God they knew in Jesus. They had experienced their own powerlessness and need of Jesus. Yet, when they run across a guy who understands Jesus’ power and is casting out demons in Jesus’ name, they don’t tell him, “Good job!” or, “We wish we had faith like that!” They order him to stop because he’s not part of their group!
In verses 39-41, Jesus tells the disciples to back off from forbidding the stranger to do good in Jesus’ name. No one, Jesus says, who sees Jesus’ power over life and death first-hand in this way will be able for long to resist witnessing to the goodness and lordship of Jesus.
In verse 41, Jesus says, that even people who give cups of cold water to followers of Jesus because of Jesus are demonstrating a saving faith in Jesus that will result in eternal rewards. There will be surprises in heaven: People who, without calling attention to themselves or holding positions of visible leadership in the Church, lived lives of daily repentance and renewal, trusting in Jesus Christ alone for life and hope, will be with Christ.
Our job as members of Christ’s Church then, is to repent for our ‘in’ crowd mentality and to invite others to themselves repent of sin and entrust their lives to Jesus Christ alone. “Join our fellowship of recovering hypocrites,” we should say, “and imitate us as we imitate our Lord Jesus.” You and I are called to not build walls to keep others out, but to build bridges by which they can come to know and follow Jesus.
In the balance of our lesson, Jesus has some tough words for those who think of the Church as an ‘in’ crowd or a community group or a fellowship for “our kind.” That’s why Jesus warns good church-going Christians in verse 42. “Whoever causes one of these little ones [He’s referring to all children of God, no matter what their age] to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea.”
Jesus was telling John and the disciples that if they persisted in their ‘in’ group ways, they would die, losing their connection to Jesus, losing their eternal lives. Folks, it’s a sin to withhold the good news of Jesus Christ from those who need Him as much as you and I do. It’s a form of murder to wall people off from Christ because we never share Him with others. As Rick Warren forcefully puts it: “The church that doesn’t want to grow [that doesn’t want to invite others into Jesus’ kingdom] is telling the world to go to hell.”
Maybe it’s because the very first step for a church to move away from being an ‘in’ crowd toward becoming a bridge to the grace, forgiveness, and new and everlasting life that belongs to all who repent and believe in Jesus Christ, that, starting at verse 43, Jesus gives a series of vivid parables about the need for Christians to get rid of anything in their lives that prevents them from following and trusting in Jesus with complete and joyful dependence.
In verse 43, Jesus says, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better to for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched...” Jesus says similar things in verses 45 and 47 about our hands and feet.
Jesus isn’t literally saying to cut off parts of our body. Our body parts can’t cause us to sin, of course. Jesus says elsewhere that it’s from our hearts that “evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witnesses, [and] blasphemies” come.
What Jesus is telling us is that if there are habits of thought, life, or associations that readily entice us to sin, we need to get those things out of our lives. Better, for example, to go without the affirmation and the friendship of life’s in crowds than to carry them like millstones around our necks right into the fires of hell, separated from God or well being for eternity!
So, what do we do in response to Jesus’ words to us today?
First, I think, we need to ask God to help us see the church and our relationship with Christ differently. The New Testament words for church is ekklesia, which means, called out ones. By the grace of God given to all who believe in Jesus Christ, we have been called out of a world dying in its sins to live with God, in the words of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, “in righteousness and purity forever.” And the Church is not to be a self-centered in crowd. We who have been called out of the dying world, are commanded by Jesus to be “fishers of people,” calling others to follow Jesus too. “Go, make disciples of all nations...” Jesus commands us.
Second, we need to regularly repent for how we have seen the church as an in crowd rather than as the body of Christ in this world, each member called to tell others about Jesus in their own ways. The Augsburg Confession reminds us, repentance consists of two parts: “one is contrition...terror smiting the conscience with a knowledge of sin...the other is faith, which is born of the Gospel...[that] believes that sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, comforts the conscience, and delivers it from terror. Then good works, which are fruits of repentance, are bound to follow.”
Third, we need to make a commitment to being witnesses for Christ to others. When we experience the forgiveness, comfort to conscience, and deliverance from the terrors of hell that come to all who repent and believe in Jesus, our task becomes clear. We will want to share Christ with others. We will want to invite others to follow Christ with us as we worship Him, serve in His Name, and study His Word.
There are people you and I know whose lives are unbearable living hells and who face an eternity of the same all because Christians of their acquaintance haven’t gotten over themselves enough to show them simple compassion or to invite them to know Jesus.
Our world is in a world of hurt. Jesus is the answer and the cure.
As we approach Friend Day on November 11, make it your job to let the hurting people you know that the God we know in Jesus Christ wants to be with them now and forever.
Don’t let a day go by without sharing Jesus with somebody in some way. Amen