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3rd October 2021

Into the Unknown- You Too?

Passage: Mark 9;38-40


READING: Mark 9, verses 38-40
A very short Gospel reading today but a heavily loaded one. Jesus says that anyone who is not against him is actually on his side. What do you make of that?
Like many of you, I was brought up when the UK was still nominally “Christian.” Even if you never went to church, you called yourself C of E. Sundays were separate from the working week so that people could attend church. Children learned Christian hymns at school, and we knew nothing about other faiths. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists were simply lumped together as Heathen and the Christian missionaries who went out from the west to convert these “heathen” to Christianity were our heroes, doing what Jesus wanted.

Again, like many of you, I suspect, I have found our modern, multi-cultural and secular society a huge challenge. We have come a long way, quite rightly, from trying to conquer the world for Jesus by waging war on “the heathen” but what should we be doing or saying to our neighbours and colleagues of other faiths or none? Jesus is not really helping us here because what he has just said almost amounts to universalism: “All roads lead to God.” “Anyone who is not against us is for us.” Yet elsewhere in the Gospels he tells us to go into all the world and make Christian disciples of all nations….. It is a problem.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta, head of a religious community serving the destitute and dying, got tired of hearing the word “problem.” When her nuns said to her, “Mother, we have a problem” because they were facing difficulties with supplies or local authorities or infestations of pests, Mother Teresa asked them instead, to use the word “blessing.” “Mother, we have a blessing.” It sounds like a great idea. I have tried to put it into practice myself- Jennifer, you do not have a problem. You have a blessing…” It does not always work. But this morning, faced with these brief, challenging verses, I see only two options. One is to try and cram what I seem to remember was a two-year university course on Christianity and other faiths into ten minutes, which would probably leave no-one in a state of peace which passes understanding. The other is to ask if there are blessings in this statement of Jesus. Let’s take a look.

First: the person who had upset Jesus’ disciples was casting out demons. As I have said before, demons were thought to be the cause of all mental and physical illness. This man was healing sickness and relieving pain.
There are many examples in the Bible where answering human need overrides religious differences. In the Old Testament there was Ruth the foreigner, whose loyal, sacrificial care of her Jewish mother-in-law made history. There was Naaman the Syrian General whose leprosy was healed by a Jewish prophet; and poor foreign widow whose food saved another Jewish prophet from starvation. In the Gospels there is Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan, his healing a Roman Centurion’s son and a Gentile woman’s daughter, in each case praising “faith” in coming to him for help even though they had not become “card carrying Christians.”
Nearer our own time, there is a story from World War One, of a devout Roman Catholic soldier fatally wounded and dying in no man’s land. He begged for a cross to be brought to him and it was a Jewish Rabbi who made a cross of two sticks, a cross- which to many Jews would have been a symbol of relentless persecution. This Rabbi walked out into no-man’s land to bring the comfort of the cross to his comrade, knowing full well that it would be only minutes before he himself would be shot down.

If we believe in a God of love-and, as a card-carrying Christian myself, I believe in the God of love we see in Jesus Christ- then all acts of love are godlike acts. We shall be hearing shortly from Andy Clare about the Foodbank an awesome example of people of any faith or none coming together to feed the hungry. There is no need to argue religion when you work side by side to supply food to those who otherwise would have none. When Jesus fed the crowd, he did ask which faith they professed. So, when we place theology aside in the cause of compassion, we are doing precisely what Jesus did. And in so doing we are able learn what we have in common with people of other faiths or none, rather than remain fixated on what divides us. That has to be a blessing, doesn’t it?

Second: It was pointed out in a commentary that the man in the Gospel story was succeeding where Jesus’ own disciples had failed. There are stories of them trying to heal and not managing it. Might they have been jealous?
It is possible. We are only human; naturally territorial. We don’t like people muscling in on what we have claimed as our space- whether professional, physical, family, religious. Most of us might admit to feeling threatened if others coming into “our space” are doing well and we are not.

It IS recorded in the Gospel that Jesus told his followers to go and make disciples of all nations and many have tried to do just that. But not always in what you might call a “Christian” way. Think of the so-called holy wars, the Inquisition, the widespread western colonialism masquerading as missionary work.
Some of you may have heard our own Dr Preman Niles speak or have read his books on the need for Asian Christians, for example, to develop a Christian theology which grows from their own culture, not from ours.
His daughter Damayanthi (again well known to many of us) has now published a book in which she calls us to acknowledge the plurality in nature, in humanity, in God. “Doing theology with humility, generosity and wonder” is the title. She enables us to face up to the pride and the politics and the power struggles which have skewed faith and corrupted evangelism. And we are called to celebrate our multi-cultural society because it impels us to face truth. We are not denying our own faith if we listen to other beliefs and arguments, any more than we are denying our Christianity if we place human need above religious division. I remember Carlo Carreto’s saying about non-believers- that they are the caustic soda which scrub the grime of prejudice and superstition from our faith, leaving us with the pure truth of the Gospel. And that has to be a blessing, doesn’t it?

And third, the challenge/ blessing of a multi faith society is that we need to work out for ourselves what we believe and why we believe it. The days when everyone went to church because it was “the thing to do” are long gone. We are a tiny minority in the UK and most people cannot understand what on earth we are doing here (meaning that, when we are down, we may start wondering too). Some of the people we know just shrug their shoulders and walk away; some are determined to challenge us and persist in asking difficult questions, pouring scorn on our fragile answers; but some really need to know Jesus. They desperately need a Saviour in their lives. And if the only voices they hear are the cynical ones or the angry ones or the jeering ones, they are not going to find Jesus.

Do we ever mention Jesus when we are out and about with other people? If someone asked us who he is and what he stands for, what would we say? If someone says they are scared of dying or at the end of their tether with living or cannot understand why God would allow Covid, do we have any answer to offer?
I know that in these days of respect for diversity we need to be careful what we say. But just think, so much of Jesus’ teaching was given in answer to what people asked him and not just shoved down their throats uninvited. It may be that if we encourage people to talk to us, to ask us questions, if we are ready to engage with them, we shall find our own beliefs becoming clearer and our own understanding of Jesus Christ growing deeper. And that has to be a blessing, doesn’t it?
I would like to close with a story from within our own church. Some of you may have heard me tell it before. Our Men of Leisure Group was at one time very much a multi faith group, with Sikhs and Hindus, Christians of several denominations and some professing no faith at all. They did not mind- you don’t need to discuss religion over carpet bowls and snooker. Then one evening before a Men of Leisure meeting, the Chairman phoned me with a tragedy- the daughter of one of the most popular members of the group had suddenly and unexpectedly died. And the following morning the Chairman would have to tell the others this news. I came and found-as you might expect- the men standing around horror-struck at the news. Instinctively, as a Minister, I said “let’s pray together for our dear friend and his family.” And we did. There was no time to ask which God, which faith, which words. We just brought our pain and our grief and shock and our loving concern to a power greater than ourselves. It was only as I walked home that it hit me what I had done- I had prayed with men of my own faith, of different faiths and none.
I am still a long way from declaring that “all roads lead to God.” I am still on that particular journey into the Unknown. All I can say, is that those few moments of united prayer in the face of tragedy was, for me, one of those awesome moments when, as a Christian minister, you know for sure you have done the right thing and that you are in the right job.
And that has to be a blessing, doesn’t it?
Thanks be to God. Amen