On 27th September 2015, the seventeenth Sunday after Trinity, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 19:7-end, James 5:13-20, Mark 9:38-50.
Last week’s Gospel passage ended with Jesus using a child as an object lesson. The disciples had been arguing about who was the greatest among them. Jesus corrected them by saying that anyone who wanted to be first had to take up the position of the last and the servant of all. Then he took a nobody, a child, and indicated that in welcoming such an insignificant person they would be welcoming Jesus himself. In this way Jesus turned the attention of the disciples from their own wish for status to those of no status to whom they were to minister.
Today’s Gospel follows immediately from last week’s passage. The way Mark writes it, it sounds as though it followed straight after Jesus had been talking about welcoming children. I imagine the disciples were feeling pretty ashamed and chastened after Jesus had addressed their misguided wish to be great as the world thinks of greatness. Suddenly John took the conversation in another direction: “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” To me it reads as though John hoped to regain Jesus’ favour as a result of doing something right. The disciples had been defending Jesus’ group from charlatans and interlopers. Surely that would gain them some approval?
Sadly not. Jesus did not want this man to be stopped from what he was doing. Although the man might not have been following Jesus in the same way as other recognised disciples were doing, he was using Jesus’ name and in some way aware of the power of it. It was unlikely that this man would be an enemy of Jesus and his disciples. As Jesus said, “For no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.” As though to hammer the message home, Jesus commended as worthy of reward those who did even a simple act of kindness to a Christian. Whereas the disciples were seeking to create a tight net around those who belonged to the fellowship, and to exclude those who did not seem to belong in the same way, Jesus was casting his net wide and including in it as many as possible.
Sometimes those who visit Epiphany Island ask what Anglicans are or what they believe. Anglicans, at their best, emulate what Jesus was doing on this occasion. Many churches have ways to define who belongs and who doesn’t, who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’, who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’. It may be a set of beliefs everyone adheres to, a creed all recite, ways of dressing or worshipping, even the translation of the Bible which is used, that might define the members of a particular church. There is a recognised way to become a member of the church. A group such as this is called a ‘bounded set’ (terminology first developed by anthropologist Paul Herbert about 30 years ago). Those who want to belong need to conform to whatever that church requires. It is rather like keeping livestock safe within a fenced area where they can be looked after and kept from danger at the cost of their freedom.
The Anglican Church is more like the other way of being: a ‘centred set’. Although Anglicans recite the creeds which have been around for many centuries, and though we have our ways of worshipping, there is really no boundary to define who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. Everyone who wishes to can belong. No one checks if they fulfil the qualifications. What defines those in the set is the direction of travel which is towards the centre. At the centre is Jesus. So anyone who wishes to travel with Anglicans, for however long or short a time, is welcome. We can travel together if we are all heading in a similar direction.
Some might be closer to the centre than others but that’s fine. This is why Anglican churches often have a lot of people who are loosely associated with them in various ways. In offline churches it might be mums who think of the church which runs a toddler group for them as ‘their church’ although they might seldom or never attend a Sunday service. Here on Epiphany it can include those who stop by to light a candle, or hang out on the sim because they like it, or post a prayer request or read the blog. It also includes those who come here regularly for a while, then stop for whatever reason, and return again at a much later date. I’ve seen this model described as being like a watering hole in Africa where animals come to drink. It is the source of water that draws them together even though they are free to roam. It is Jesus, the living water, who draws Anglicans and others who might not think of themselves as Anglicans, together as a fellowship. For a time at least, we are looking for the same thing in the same place.
Returning to the Gospel passage, Jesus carried on his conversation with the disciples by directing them away from judging others and towards examining their own ways of behaving. They were to be very careful not to damage the faith of others by putting obstacles in their way. It seems Jesus particularly was concerned about the message that the behaviour of the disciples might impart to “these little ones” – perhaps the young, or at least the young in faith. He went on to use very graphic language to explain just how seriously the disciples should take anything that caused them to stumble in their walk of faith: “Cut off your hand or your foot, pluck out your eye, if this is the cause of wrong living.” I don’t think anyone would believe that Jesus meant his disciples to literally damage themselves in this way, but he certainly intended them to separate themselves fully from anything that was causing them not to live as a Christian should.
What was true for the disciples then is true for us now. We could become so concerned about the behaviour of others that we don’t watch over our own behaviour. We could be so sure we are right that we begin to erect fences to separate those who are ‘in’ from those who are ‘out’. As I said earlier, the Anglican church at it’s best is a centred set. At our best, that’s what we are trying to be here on Epiphany Island.
One of the five points in our vision statement is that Anglicans of SL “is a community which welcomes and serves others, and is known for its love and care.” That will not happen automatically but only as we, individually and corporately, work to make it a reality.