Sunday, September 30, 2018

Pentecost 19, Year B (2018)

Proper 21 :: Numbers 11: 4–6, 10–16, 24–29; Psalm 124; James 5: 13–20; Mark 9: 38–50
This is the homily given at St. John’s, Huntingdon, Pennsylvania by Fr. Gene Tucker on Sunday, September 30, 2018.
(Homily texts: Numbers 11: 4–6, 10–16, 24–29 & Mark 9: 38-50)
“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (English Standard Version) These words, found in John 3: 8, were spoken by the Lord as part of His conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus.
The Lord’s words could easily be spoken in connection with today’s Old Testament reading from Numbers, chapter eleven, and from our Gospel text, taken from the end of Mark, chapter nine.
For in each case, God’s people are struggling with the idea that some outside persons – persons who were not of their inner circle - were showing signs of God’s inspiration and power. It is the idea that these very human people, people who were following the Lord and who counted themselves as members of God’s inner circle, couldn’t control the work of God that connects these two readings together.
Let’s explore each one in depth just a little.
In the Numbers passage, Moses is dealing with a rebellious people. The element within Israel that was causing all the trouble is identified by the word “rabble”. So it seems clear that not everyone in the camp of the Israelites was grumbling about their menu, which consisted of manna, supplied by God. As a result of this tumult, Moses finds himself between the people and God. God tells Moses to appoint seventy elders to assist in governing the people. (In the verses that are omitted from today’s lectionary, God tells Moses that He is going to meet the needs of the people in their desire for meat, telling Moses that He is going to supply them with quail, so much quail, in fact, that God says it will be coming out of their noses.) So Moses gathers the seventy at the tent of meeting, which is located at the edge of the camp. God’s presence and God’s spirit descends on each one of the seventy who had gathered, and they begin to react to God’s power and inspiration as some of the Spirit of God that had already been granted to Moses descends on them. They begin to prophesy. (It is interesting to note that this manifestation of God’s power was only temporary.) But two others who were called to the meeting with God weren’t present….Eldad and Medad were elsewhere. But they, too exhibit the same signs as the seventy had.
At this point, Joshua tells Moses to forbid these two from prophesying. Somehow, Joshua feels that, because they weren’t at the meeting, they shouldn’t be doing what the others did.
Hold onto that thought for a bit, and we’ll come back to it.
Now, let’s turn our attention to our Gospel text.
Here, we find Jesus being confronted by John, who says, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” (English Standard Version)
Two aspects of what John said are worth our notice:  For one thing, John admits (or seems to) that the person was carrying out a successful ministry in Jesus’ name. For another, John says that the person wasn’t following us. (Italics mine)….notice that John doesn’t say that the person wasn’t following you (the Lord).
Can we put God in a box?
Can we count ourselves as members of God’s inner circle, and then take it upon ourselves to decide whoever else is in that inner circle or not?
Obviously, the answer to both of these questions is a resounding “No”.
Then what is the criterion by which someone may be recognized as a genuine disciple of the Lord?
I think the answer is found in both our Old Testament and Gospel texts this morning: In each case, those who weren’t part of the recognized inner circle were showing signs of God’s inspiration and power.
Ultimately, that’s the true test of faithful Christian living.
Are there limits to what falls within faithful Christian living? Most assuredly so, as the history of the Church will attest: The early Church had to deal with more than one challenge to acceptable belief….my own short list would include the challenges posed by Marcion in the 2nd century, by Gnosticism in the 1st through early 4th centuries, by Arianism in the 4th and 5th centuries, and by Pelagius in the 4th and 5th centuries. Rightfully, each of these is called “heresy”. As the Church wrestled with each of these challenges, the full understanding of what God had done in the sending of Jesus Christ was hammered out.
There is no shortage of challenges to acceptable belief before the Church today, either. For example, consider the challenges of the New Age movement, or of those outside the Church who believe that they can pick-and-choose what to believe. (Some of those within the Church hold the same attitudes.) These challenges are not dissimilar from the challenges of the very early Church. We can learn a lot from the early Church’s actions in maintaining correct belief in the face of the challenges they faced.
In the final analysis, it is the outward and unmistakable fruit of God’s indwelling Spirit that confirms the faithfulness of a person’s inner disposition toward God.
We would do well to look for that fruit before determining whether or not we are encountering a faithful follower of the Lord.