It has NOT been a quiet week in Philadelphia, my hometown. Beginning last weekend, signs of the coming Papal visit have been popping up (pope-ing up?) all over the place. By Monday afternoon, lines of porta-potties had been placed in strategic locations all over downtown. By Tuesday morning, security fences were in place. And by Wednesday, people who live “in the box” were getting out of town, or at least stocking up on essentials to avoid having to leave their homes for the next few days.
In many ways, people were preparing for this event as if it were a blizzard! I found myself wondering at one point if Philadelphia was preparing for a visit from the Pope, or setting itself up as a demilitarized zone.
The reactions of people to this visit have been all over the board. Some have simply been irritated by the inconvenience of major roadways being shut down and the restricted access to many parts of the city. Some have been angry that the Pope insists on discussing issues that, quote “belong in politics, not religion.” (More on that another time). Many have embraced this visit, finding inspiration and unity in Francis’ message of justice, peace, and love. Many others have been discouraged that he will not discuss some very important issues such as women’s role in the Catholic Church.
All of these points of view were ones I had expected. And then I encountered one point of view I had not anticipated. Earlier this week, while discussing the weekend’s events with a young man, he exclaimed, “I can’t stand the Pope! He’s leading all those people to Hell!”
Whoa, whoa, whoa, I replied. Let’s back up and take this from the beginning, because clearly this conversation jumped quickly to the end.
In some conservative corners of Protestant Christianity, there is an enduring belief that Catholicism is not a Christian denomination. Those who hold to a more literal interpretation of Scripture believe that Catholics, in their reverence for the Saints, and in particular, the Virgin Mary, are idolaters who have lost their understanding of Jesus as the only way to salvation.
Additionally, I have heard the Catholic practice of confession held up as an example of heresy: “I don’t need a priest to forgive me! All I need is Jesus to forgive me!”
We’ll come back to this in a minute, but first I would like to take a step back and look at our morning’s text.
This isn’t a great chapter for the disciples. I mean, if we look at chapter 9 of Mark compared to the rest of the gospel, they come off looking like a bunch of whining, self-impressed, uptight fools! Last week, we discussed their argument over who is greatest among them, and this morning’s incident follows immediately after. Honestly, I’m not sure how Jesus put up with it! I would’ve lost it on them a long time before this.
At the same time, maybe these texts are so irritating because they illuminate that which is indecent in us. Mark places these stories next to each other so that we, the reader, will understand them and interpret them together. Perhaps putting them together helps to emphasize the failure in ourselves to see the bigger picture.
How many times have we said, or hear someone say, ‘We saw someone…’ “That’s how a lot of judgment starts, doesn’t it?” (Lewis). I’m sure we have all heard a young child say words like this. ‘I saw Susie pulling flowers when you told us not to!’ or ‘I just saw Timmy open his eyes during the prayer!’
“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us!” The whining nature of this statement really just drives right off the page, doesn’t it? Well, if they don’t look like us, or act like us, or subscribe to our particular faith structure, then obviously they are wrong!
There are two ideas this text points us to which can help us this morning: identity and unity.
First, let’s look at how identity is explored in this text. David Lose, president of Lutheran Theological Seminary here in Philadelphia, sees this passage as “very much about identity” (Lose).
“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… and instead focus on what matters” (Lose). Yet if we look closer, we can tell that there is something else going on here.
How do we know who we are? Do we “define [ourselves] by [our] accomplishments, or [our] history, or particular critical experiences, or [our] relationships, or some combination of the above?” (Lose).
Or do our parents, spouses, friends, and colleagues tell us who we are through their influence on our self-image? “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 you anxious with a constant barrage of worrisome headlines” (Lose).
The disciples this morning have defined themselves as over and against someone else- in this case, whoever it was they saw casting out demons. Last week they were trying to define themselves individually as the greatest among them.
This isn’t new business, and it didn’t end here! As human beings we ache to know ourselves; to understand our lives; to make sense of the messiness we often find ourselves in. If our jobs are very important, we will define ourselves in that context; if our families are our center, we define ourselves as such; if our faith and church is the most important to us, it will be that.
Now, this isn’t bad! All of these things go into defining ourselves as individuals, even as we are called to be one in the body of Christ. However, where it gets muddy is when we start to see ourselves as better than, or more important than, another.
This may even be the exact type of situation Mark was writing in to when he penned his gospel. The early church, in its “first decades… faced disagreements about theology and evangelical strategy. The ability to communicate among churches was probably difficult and slow, accomplished mostly through emissaries and letters. If we imagine a close-knit community behind Mark’s gospel with a particular iteration and understanding of its heritage and tradition, then we might understand their anxiety or jealousy arising from encountering a community with similar claims” (Kiel). They were a new church, and if something came along that threatened their identity as Christ’s church, then it’s likely that insecurity and anxiety would take root.
Yet Mark, who I absolutely love for exactly this reason, “has no time for such anxiety, jealousy, or elitism. Jesus’ response encompasses a rather expansive, universalistic view of the church. As long as something is being done in the name of Christ, they will ‘by no means lose the reward’” (Kiel).
Which leads us to unity. “Ecumenism and intra-Christian dialogue may be an overlooked but important topic” in the modern church community (Kiel). Ecumenism is any interdenominational initiative that aims toward greater unity among Christian churches.
As the world has grown increasingly interconnected, our theologies, ideas, and values increasingly come into contact with other, often conflicting theologies, ideas, and values. This is not a bad thing, yet is often treated as such!
Another thing about our being mortal human beings, is that we are stubborn, and increasingly seek out “new” ideas and conversations that will only reaffirm our preconceived notions, not move us toward concepts that will shake our foundations.
Micah Kiel, an Associate Professor of Theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, writes of an experience that resonates quite clearly with me, so I take his words as my own:
“I am consistently disappointed and confounded by the lack of information my students have about forms of Christianity different from their own. Such ignorance is harmful to the body of Christ. The challenge, it would seem to me, is to find a way to express our beliefs in all their fullness, while listening and striving to understand those of another. This could yield common ground, growth, and insight. Centuries of violence, mistrust, ignorance, and caricature are much to overcome” (Kiel).
This includes our Catholic brothers and sisters who, though they may have vastly different theological ideas about what happens in the sacrament of communion, or about how their liturgy is structured, are still our brethren in Christ.
When I heard that young man talk so disparagingly about the Pope earlier this week, I could not help but hear echoes of the disciples in his words. But I also could not help but hear Jesus’ reply from verse 40: “whoever is not against us is for us.” Yes, our tradition broke from the Catholic Church almost five hundred years ago, and for some very good reasons. And yes, there are many things we have not reconciled between our faiths to this day (of course, the same could be said about the many Protestant traditions just in this country!).
Yet… everything I have heard from Francis, not only this week during his visit to our country but since he was elected Pope, has been affirming of everything Christ stood for, everything he died and rose again for: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, comforting the sick, caring for the widow and the orphan, welcoming the immigrant, the stranger.
What we need to be called to in moments like this, is “a remembrance of Baptism, discovering once again that we ultimately know who we are as we remember whose we are, God’s own beloved people, sent to” care for those in need, “and called to love others as Christ has loved us” (Lose). And in that unity is good news indeed. Amen.
Micah D. Kiel, workingpreacher.org
Karoline Lewis, workingpreacher.org
David Lose, davidlose.net