Proper 21B/Ordinary 26B/Pentecost 19

38John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”39But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40Whoever is not against us is for us. 41For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

42“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

49“For everyone will be salted with fire. 50Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Who are you?

Really. Take a moment to ponder that question…and then ask yourself how you came to that answer.

Do we, that is, define ourselves by our accomplishments,

  • or our history,
  • or particular critical experiences,
  • or our relationships,
  • or some combination of the above?

Another way to get at this question might be to ask,

  • who gets to tell us who we are?
  • Who, that is, has the most influence in shaping our self-image?

Is it our parents, our partner or spouse,our friends and colleagues?

Or perhaps it’s 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 at least who we should be. Or maybe it’s the news media, eager to make us anxious with a constant barrage of worrisome headlines.

I ask these questions because I think this passage is very much about identity.

Though perhaps not at first glance. At first glance the passage appears to be about Jesus admonishing his disciples to lighten up, to stop worrying about others who are following him (but not, apparently, to the disciples’ satisfaction) and instead focus on what matters or, perhaps even more, on avoiding those things that can 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, in other words, to address some of the problems his folks are having with other Christians. Apparently, the early Christian church wasn’t all united in their beliefs, sometimes clashed with each other, and occasionally even berated one another over differences in practice. (Hmmm, sounds familiar?)

In other words, Mark was trying to help his congregation answer the question of who they are. Will they, he asks, 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 those things that are destructive to self, neighbor, and community.

Which brings me back to the question of identity and, in particular, 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.”

More complaint than observation, and perhaps even more accusation than complaint, the disciples want Jesus to affirm their judgment and action against this other follower because he was not playing by their rules or following their lead.

The disciples, in other words, have decided who they are and defined themselves over and against this other person. They are the leaders of the fledgling Jesus movement, more important than others doing works in Jesus name, the inner circle who should be obeyed by lesser disciples. What’s striking, of course, is that all this happens almost immediately after Jesus chided their earlier arguments about which of them was the greatest. It seems that all Jesus’ admonishment did was to encourage them to give up vying amongst themselves so that they could vie together against everyone else!

Which is probably because this identity question can be really, really hard to answer. We don’t come into this world knowing who we are, where we’ve come from, or where we’re going.

In this storm of uncertainty, we are often tempted to take matters into our own hands and address the question of identity on our own. Certainly, there’s plenty of encouragement from the culture to do just that. We are encouraged relentlessly to define ourselves through our accomplishments or, even more often, though our possessions. The moment you venture down this road, however, you’re doomed to a sense of scarcity where there is never “enough” – accomplishments, honor, possessions, money, youth, whatever commodity you’ve decided is your measure – and each and every other person around you therefore becomes a competitor. And before long you’re trying to tell other people what to do and judging them for not conforming to your expectations.

When Jesus sees this happen with his disciples, he responds by inviting them, as we saw last week, to entertain the peculiar logic of God’s kingdom where the weak and vulnerable are to be honored and where glory comes through service. This is the way of the cross. This week, he reiterates his counsel that mercy and love are the vehicles through which we discover and express our identity. And one of the great things about service, love, and mercy is that you never run out of them. There is no scarcity of opportunity to care for others, no lack of occasions to love your neighbor.

Chariots of Fire is one of those classic movies about Eric Liddell the Olympic runner and Christian missionary.  Prior to one of his races he talks about the daily race and our identity:

You came to see a race today. To see someone win. It happened to be me. But I want you to do more than just watch a race. I want you to take part in it. I want to compare faith to running in a race. It’s hard. It requires concentration of will, energy of soul. You experience elation when the winner breaks the tape – especially if you’ve got a bet on it. But how long does that last? You go home. Maybe your dinner’s burnt. Maybe you haven’t got a job. So who am I to say, “Believe, have faith,” in the face of life’s realities? I would like to give you something more permanent, but I can only point the way. I have no formula for winning the race. Everyone runs in her own way, or his own way. And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within. Jesus said, “Behold, the Kingdom of God is within you. If with all your hearts, you truly seek me, you shall ever surely find me.” If you commit yourself to the love of Christ, then that is how you run a straight race.

So I’ll ask again, As we attempt to run a straight race, who are we?

And, who influences how we see ourselves?

Christians have from the beginning of our story struggled with this question, so it is not surprising that we struggle with it still. But as we wrestle with it, I want to remind you, that identity finally isn’t something you can attain, but only receive as a gift. And one of the primary reasons Jesus came was to tell us that we are beloved, holy, precious, and honored in God’s eye so that we might also hear ourselves called to lives of love, mercy, compassion, and service. The cross, in other words, was not the vehicle by which Jesus made it possible for God to love us, but rather was God’s message through Jesus that we were and are loved all along.

Our identity begins with baptism and continues with a meal.

Based upon commentaries by David Lose, Micah D. Kiehl, Mary Charlotte Elia and David Henson