Taking Sides

Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Psalm 124

Mark 9:38-50

One of the frustrations of our present moment is the constant attempt to draw lines in the sand, to make almost every hill one on which to die. One group or person will agree with another on most things (and likely all essential matters), but the remaining disagreements – no matter how minor – become a bridge too far. We see it both inside and outside the church. Every difference becomes a potential point of division. 

The results are all too familiar. Constant anger at someone else and their tribe. Frustration at the ongoing tension, which is often exacerbated by the trivial nature of the disagreement. Isolation as we slowly cut ourselves off from others. And exhaustion as the mental and emotional weight of such tension takes its toll.

Sometimes the history of the church can occasionally offer some solace. Perhaps we can find some context to our present perception of the world. Perhaps we realize that it is not as bad as it was in the past. Of course, it is also possible that we discover things have been like this for a long time, which can actually add more frustration.

Recently, I was struck by the similarities between oft-used contemporary rhetoric and that of Charles Spurgeon within the so-called Downgrade Controversy of the late nineteenth century. Among other things, Spurgeon was concerned about the embrace of new methods of biblical interpretation that he saw as threats to the Bible’s authority. He also railed against violations of expected moral guidelines such as ministers going to the theatre.

While there were some serious theological concerns that needed to be addressed, Spurgeon did not seek to address them through conversation. Instead, he offered divisive rhetoric, declaring that a “new religion has been initiated, which is no more Christianity than chalk is cheese.” 

This view further contributed to division, as Spurgeon argued that “Christian love has its claims, and divisions are to be shunned as grievous evils; but how far are we justified in being in confederacy with those who are departing from the truth?” It is quite easy to hear echoes of these sentiments in some contemporary tribes of Christians. Even if his opponents approached him with openness to conversation, Spurgeon expressed his skepticism of their sincerity: “Let every believer judge for himself; but, for our part, we have put on a few fresh bolts to our door, and we have given orders to keep the chain up.”

The result of this controversy was a split between Spurgeon’s church and its denomination, and his censure by that denomination. While there is quite a bit to lament in this story, in recent years (and quite recently), Spurgeon’s actions have actually been hailed as heroic and as an example to emulate.

The appointed Psalm reading for this week echoes this perspective as well. In it the psalmist gives thanks for God’s actions on behalf of Israel. The repeated phrase, “if it had not been the Lord who had been on our side” (Psalm 124:1-2), speaks with certainty that God was (and is) on their side. For the psalmist, this is about the futility of Israel to save itself from the grasp of its enemies or from the overwhelming flood. Gratitude becomes the result here. However, from another vantage point, we can easily project the psalmist’s certainty forward, concluding that since God is on our side, who can stand against us?

The gospel lesson enters the conversation at this point. As Jesus is traveling with his disciples, John states that he and several of his companions saw a person invoking Jesus’ name in order to perform a miracle to help someone. In response, they worked to stop that person “because he was not following us” (Mark 9:38). This exchange is placed immediately after last week’s gospel lesson, where Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37).

We are not told what motivates John to speak up in this moment and tell Jesus this story. Perhaps he is concerned that this new miracle worker is usurping the disciples’ self-described importance. Maybe he thinks he is protecting Jesus from outsiders. Perhaps he simply picks up on “in my name” in Jesus’ previous instruction and proceeds to talk about another instance where his name was used. Of course, Mark’s gospel is filled with examples of the disciples simply failing to understand what Jesus is talking about. That is especially true in this particular section of Mark.

Jesus’ response is simple yet profoundly helpful: “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). He notes that anyone who can support Jesus to the extent of performing a miracle cannot truly betray him elsewhere. 

As we saw in last week’s lesson, Jesus uses a single word to open doors to the marginalized: whoever. There is an inclusivity here that holds off on painting lines of division. Whoever. This word seeks to find friends and allies in unexpected places. Whoever. Rather than taking sides against our neighbors, we are urged to take sides with God and find fellowship and common ground with whoever we find there.

Contemplating these passages in light of our present experiences (and even reflecting on older events such as the Downgrade Controversy), we see Jesus unsettling our certainty about God being on our side. More importantly, we see Jesus blurring any lines we may prefer to draw or divisions we might like to solidify. This undermines the entire project of excessively drawing lines in the first place.

This does not mean that there will not be serious doctrinal differences that might be problematic, but Jesus cautions against seeing every difference as a fault line and point of division. “Whoever is not against us is for us.” This is crucial for taking Jesus’ closing admonition in this week’s lesson seriously: “be at peace with one another” (Mark 9:50).

Image Credit: Chris Goldberg

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