In our Gospel story this morning Jesus is confronting his disciples on the question of a “stumbling block”. That is Jesus tells his followers they must run a race and that race leads to a prize and the prize is salvation. Now some of you will hear that word, salvation and feel like you know exactly what Jesus means. You might imagine that salvation means as it has come to be defined for countless evangelicals, a personal renouncing of sin, a commitment to accept Jesus into your life and a grace-filled, faith-filled, life that follows. It goes to those powerful words, “what was lost has now been found.” Powerful images and powerful outcomes.
But recall that the word Jesus means “he who saves” and with that in mind I imagine salvation in a broader context, that what has created the conditions for your death has been defeated and the result is not only a new life but a better and more holistic life. I think when Jesus saves us it is from any and all causes of oppression, brokenness and alienation; personal, communal and structural. When the chains that enslave us are broken and we are free to be all that God intended the church cannot stop from offering their praise and thanksgiving. Can I get an Amen?
I have taken a lot of heat for this analysis, both from conservative and progressive Christians. Conservative Christians are clear, there is one way to Jesus, one way to heaven, one way to salvation. To expand, include or widen the path of this healing and transformative Spirit is heresy. When I share with them stories of spiritual healing in sweat lodges or in nature or through other world religions they immediately recoil, that is not healing a broken spirit in the right way, unless you use the right words, have the right theology or tie to the right traditions the healing is in fact not healing. Conservatives look at the people I see who are healed and in the best case scenario they believe it is a placebo and in the worst something evil.
My progressive Christian friends hear the word salvation and they want to run for the hills. The word has so much baggage it is always problematic in their eyes. Salvation has been used as a term to separate and divide so many Christians for so long that it only causes heartache for many of our fellow Christians. When I tell them about how an evangelical community came together to bring new life to persons with addiction, mental illness or a lifetime of incarceration they scoff, they think it is emotional manipulation or worse. Further, my progressive friends worry what signal it sends when people with challenges are told unless they give themselves wholly to Jesus they will continue to be “punished”, as if all hurt and pain is someone’s fault.
Let me say now something I need to make clear. Some pain we may bring on ourselves but mental, physical and emotional pain is an illness and like all illness it comes and goes not as a result of fault but as a result of our mortal bodies. All of us die, all of our bodies are in a state of decline and none of our parts are perfect. Some people live with cancer, some with dementia, and some with blood disorders. We all have illness and when we are ill we go to our doctors and we seek medical remedies. That is why anyone approaching me with complicated and complex psychological concerns are referred by me to doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists. I may have taken some courses in counselling or attended some lectures and workshops in mental health challenges but I am not a certified professional. I know my limitations.
But I also know spirituality can and does heal, does save some people. I have seen it with my own eyes. I have seen people who had given up on life turn around and engage the world with joy and a sense of meaning. Some have made that “conversion” through a personal relationship with Jesus, others have been transformed by a deep connection to God’s Creation, and still others have had an epiphany in a faith-filled community.
Let’s return to the text. “John 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. But Jesus said, Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For 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.” This is the stumbling block so worrisome to Jesus, the thing that can cause his followers to lose their balance and their way.
Whoever is not against us is for us. In Jesus’ world people were increasingly defined by their interest groups. Narrower and narrower became the things that defined who was with you and who was against you. The Herodians sneered at the Saducees. The Saducees would not truck with the Pharisees (except to conspire against Jesus, that is). The Romans practiced divide and conquer. People wouldn’t even break bread with one another. There was no generous allowance for difference. If you disagreed, it meant you didn’t love God. As the followers of Jesus coalesce into a defined group all their own, the disciples fall into this same way of thinking.
So when they hear of someone else going around invoking the name of Jesus—someone whose beliefs and social positions they have not vetted—they confront him and try to shut him up. They then return to Jesus with puffed up chests, expecting their teacher to applaud their purity and attempt to control the Gospel message, but Jesus surprises them. “Don’t stop him,” the Lord says, “Whoever is not against us is for us. For I tell you, whoever gives a cup of water to drink in my name will by no means lose the reward.”
If we are like John and the disciples and we try to stop everyone who does good for the church, who is igniting a healing Spirit, saving people from their despair because their methods are different than ours, then we are drastically slowing the works of the Holy Spirit. And the small act of sharing a cup of water highlights the importance of community in the church. When we can learn to judge people not on their doctrine, not on their style of worship, but on their ability to touch the Spirit of healing and new life then we can offer the kind of diverse methods to heal the diverse human needs we all know deep down exist.
I try to be as open as possible to the healing and life-giving spirit of those around me. I am eager to learn from a variety of voices and healing hands. For me the most important matter is the outcome of the salvation, is someone saved from a life of loss, rejection and alienation, is someone healed to be fully human and fully restored to place in community. Jesus is my touchstone, he is my way. But I am not blind and I am not without compassion. I see and I feel the healing from other sources. I am not interested in a purity text, I am interested in witnessing as much healing as possible in what is left with my life. Here at Bethany I hope and pray that together we can harness this spirit of healing and new life; from a variety of spiritual means, to be a place where people can see and feel the Spirit at work. Amen.