The Depths of the Gospel

Scripture:  Mark 9:38-50

It is well known and established that I am a huge Star Wars fan, so it sometimes comes as a surprise to some that I am also a fairly big fan of Star Trek.   They are very different takes on science fiction, and I clearly think there is room to really enjoy both.  However, I was not always a Star Trek fan.  What really pulled me into Star Trek was the reboot movie starting Chris Pine as Captain Kirk that came out in 2009.  Initially I liked this movie because honestly it has a lot more in common with the action and high adventure of Star Wars than the cerebral, hard sci-fi of classic Star Trek.  However, watching that movie led me to wanting to see more Star Trek.  Growing up, my family did casually watch The Next Generation show, so I went back and watched that on Netflix.  I casually mentioned to a friend that I was watching through Star Trek: The Next Generation and he suggested I watch Stark Trek:  Deep Space Nine, which is his favorite series.   I did, and the later seasons have a strong military focus.  This led me to find Federation Commander a Star Trek inspired Starship combat game, which is one of my absolute favorite board games to this day.  Federation Commander drew its inspiration from the original 1960’s series, so I went back and watched that.   Within three to four years, I went from not caring much about Star Trek to considering myself a fairly big and invested fan, mostly think to the 2009 movie.

In 2015 a historic movie theater which focuses in showing older movies, was doing a one weekend screening of Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan.   We attended one of the showings with a group of people, one of which was a big enough of a Trekkie that she had an original series science officer uniform.  Before the movie started I was talking with her, and we were interrupted by some guy behind us saying something to the effect of “why are you wearing that?”

It was said with a derogatory tone, full of vitriol.  Capturing our attention we turned to him, and he immediately apologized.  He saw that she was wearing an original series uniform.  He had initially mistaken it for a uniform from that 2009 reboot movie, and he was concerned that she was not a “real fan” of “real Star Trek”.   I guess in this guy’s view anyone who liked the new Star Trek movies, the ones that pulled me into Stark Trek, did not count.  They were not real fans.  They did not belong.   He was apparently so concerned about this that before he realized he mistakenly misidentified the uniform he was going to call out a woman he had never met.

This guy was looking to be a gatekeeper.   Gate keeping is when someone takes it upon themselves to decide who does or does not have access to a community or identity.  This guy took was trying to take it upon himself to declare who did or did not get to be a fan of Star Trek based on his arbitrary standards.  Unfortunately, gate keeping happens a lot.   It happens a lot in geeky fandoms, but it happens elsewhere as well.  For instance, if you are a diehard fan of a sports team then you have likely heard someone else complain about “bandwagon fans”.  Perhaps, instead of trying to determine who is in and who is out everyone would be a lot happier if all of these gatekeepers would just let people enjoy things.

Unfortunately, gatekeeping has long been a problem in faith as well.   From close to the very beginning of Christianity have been people who have appointed themselves as gatekeepers who spend a lot of energy and effort to determine who is adhering to doctrinal purity and meeting their arbitrary standard.  It is somewhat odd that this has been a reoccurring problem in Christianity, because Jesus himself essentially said not to do it.  This morning’s scripture illustrates that there is more than one way to come to know Christ.  This morning’s scripture reveals that we should not seek to be gatekeepers because there is a depth to grace.

In our modern era we tend to like things highly organized which is why we have divided the bible into chapters, verses, and subsections.  This can make it handy to find and reference scripture, but the downside is that our organizational efforts make it possible to compartmentalize and consider scripture in isolation.   There is a decent chance that your bible might be like mine and it takes this morning’s scripture and divides it into sub-sections labeled something like “Whoever is not against us is for us” and “Causing to stumble.”  The issue is that this morning’s entire scripture is not two thoughts but one connected thought about how our efforts to determine who is for us can cause others to stumble.

This morning’s scripture begins with the disciples bringing to Jesus what they perceive to be a problem.  Someone is driving out demons in the name of Jesus, but they do not know the guy.  From a certain point of view, the reaction of the disciples is understandable.   The person they saw was not one of the disciples, but he was acting in Jesus name and in the culture of the day that just was not how things were done.  The disciples were followers of Jesus.  He was their rabbi.  The cultural expectation of the time is that disciples of a rabbi followed their teacher for years, learning at the feet of the rabbi day in and day out.  After a long time of doing this, only the best of the best of the disciples would be sent out to act in the rabbi’s name.   So here was this person, who they did not know, acting in Jesus’ name.   Not just acting in Jesus name, succeeding in Jesus name.  Verse 38 reports that the disciple did not see someone attempting to drive out demons, it reports they saw someone actually doing that in Jesus name.  This person did not fit their notion of what it meant to be a disciple, so they told him to stop.  In response to someone they did not know doing the miraculous, the disciple’s initial reaction was to be a gatekeeper.

Fortunately, Jesus tell his disciples to not do that.  Jesus tells his disciples not to be gatekeepers because whoever is not against us, is for us.   This is a message that we still need to hear today, because there is still a lot of gatekeeping in Christianity.   I know this from personal experience.  At a church I previously served, there was a woman who for a variety of reasons felt it was time for her to find a new church and she did at the United Methodist Church.  After attending for several months, I had a conversation with her and she wanted to make the change official and transfer her membership.  As is the process, we sent a letter of transfer to the church she had been previously attending.  In response, the pastor of that church called her and urged her to reconsider joining the Methodist church.  This pastor argued that the Methodist church was a “real church” with “real Christians”, and his reasoning is because we baptized infants and worse we allowed women to preach.   As it turned out one of the reasons why she was went to look for a new church was because of the attitude towards women she had encountered in the former church, so the pastor’s arguments confirmed she had actually made the right choice.

It saddened me to hear this story, because while the pastor church and I probably have some fairly sizeable disagreements about theology and Christian practice, we are likely still on the same team.   We likely both believe in God the father almighty, the maker of heaven and earth.  We likely both believe in Jesus Christ how only son our Lord, who was crucified, dead, and buried but on the third day rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.   We likely both believe in the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of sins, and the life everlasting.  As Christians we are called to unity, not uniformity.  We can have differences and still be on the same team.

One of the reasons why there are different Christian denominations is because we tend to emphasize different aspects of faith.  For instance, I am a United Methodist because the Methodist emphasis on experiencing grace throughout our lives in unique ways speaks to my experience with God.   Our emphasis on personal holiness which then compels us to social holiness, and making the world a more kind and loving place resonates with my soul.    However, other faith traditions emphasize other aspects.   Baptists tend to have a much greater emphasis on the moment of salvation and how that moment can be forever life changing.   Pentecostals have a much greater appreciation for the Holy Spirit’s active engagement in our lives, and Catholics fully embrace how they can experience the literal, real presence of Christ in the sacraments.   There is enough room in the depths of the gospel for all of these expressions to be valid.  There are real problems in the world, there is real evil, and there are people who need Jesus.  It is not fruitful for us to put down, belittle, and dismiss other Christians who have come to understand God’s grace through a different pathway than us.  If we are for Jesus then we are the same side as everyone else who is for Jesus.

In this morning’s scripture Jesus takes it one step further though, he talks about the consequences of gatekeeping.   He talks about what happens when we keep people from following Jesus because we do not think they are doing it right.  Gatekeeping the faith gets in the way of people finding the depths of grace and following Jesus.   Gatekeeping the faith can cause people to stumble, and Jesus has some fairly stern words for those who do that, “If anyone causes one of these little ones-those who believe in me- to stumble it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.”

Jesus feel so strongly about this that he goes full Tony Soprano.  As American Christians this can put us in a somewhat uncomfortable position.   Earlier this month Pew Research Center released a new study about the future of religion in America.   This study found that 30% of people who are raised with a Christian background step away from that background and stop identifying themselves as Christians.  The majority of people who make this switch do so between the ages of 17-29.   The report on the study does point out that the reason for this loss is in people who identify as Christian is complex and multifaceted.   Yet one of the given reasons for this is exactly what Jesus spoke against in this morning’s scripture.

In 2016 the hashtag #exvangelical was created for those who have raised Christian and since deconstructed or abandoned the faith.   On TikTok the Exvangelical hashtag has over 62 million views.  The majority of the stories that are told by people who use these hashtags have little to do with college professors indoctrinating them and a lot more to do with feeling like gatekeepers have pushed them out of the faith because they began asking questions, because their understanding of Jesus did not fit the church’s approved narrative, or because like the person casting out demons in this morning’s scripture they were not living out their faith in the expected way.  There are too many people who have stumbled, and turned away from Jesus because they feel like the gate has been closed in their face.   Gatekeeping has not place in the Christian faith.  It is not up to us to pick and choose who gets to come to Jesus.

At the end of this morning’s scripture Jesus states, “salt is good but if it loses its saltiness how can it be made salty again?”  Perhaps an example of salt losing its saltiness is a community of a faith, a church, that is supposed to be known for grace and love instead becomes known for who they do not welcome or accept.   May we never be that church.   As Jesus states at the end of verse 50, may we instead, “have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”   We do this when we accept one another despite our differences.  We do this when we recognize that if we love and follow Jesus we are the same side.  We do this when we resist to urge to allow our personal doctrines to get in the way of other people enjoying and knowing Jesus Christ, the savior of the world.  The depths of grace are boundless and there enough is for each of us and the whole human race.  So let’s not be gatekeepers but instead may we invite everyone-and I mean everyone- to come and know the depths of grace, the depths of God’s love, and the depths of the gospel.


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