Trinity 17 B (2012) Mark 9.38-50
‘Whoever is not against us is for us,’ says Jesus when his friends worry that there are people doing miracles in Jesus’ name who aren’t part of their posse. The disciples’ worry is a very human one, it’s about control. It’s a very similar one to the story in Acts when it turns out that a whole load of Gentiles are showing all the fruits of the Spirit, despite not having been baptised. In both cases, the proof of the pudding seems to be in the eating, or perhaps, by their fruits they are shown to be of God.
‘Whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of water because they are a believer, then they will not lose their reward,’ Jesus goes on to say. There’s at least a basic lesson here for the disciples: they, the twelve, the inner circle, are by no means the only followers of Jesus, and there is a role in the building of the kingdom not only for apostles, prophets, missionaries and teachers, but for the quieter, less spectacular ministries of hospitality and care.
But this whole passage is about more than that. It’s not completely straightforward reading at first, but there is a hugely important nugget of truth in this reading which needs teasing out. It’s in three parts.
The first part is that God is very good at taking what we do offer and using it to do something amazing. Look at the feeding of the five thousand, when he turned one person’s packed lunch into a hearty meal for a whole crowd. Look at the wedding at Cana when he turned hard work and plain water into finest wine. Look at the parable of the sheep and the goats when he takes the basic human kindness of people who don’t even consider that they’ve been serving God and counts it to their salvation. God is brilliant at finding in us something good, something worth using, worth encouraging, worth celebrating, seeing even in our hesitant offerings the potential to build his kingdom.
The second part concerns the very real truth that there are things that get in the way of all that. There are things we do and think and say that pollute our kindness, that subvert our good intentions, that poison the good fruit that we might otherwise offer to God. These things will be different for each of us, but there are certainly some popular besetting sins: anger and resentment, being quick to take offense or slow to forgive, assuming the worst of each other, rather than the best – it is for each of us to discern within ourselves what stumbling blocks we lay down both for others and for ourselves, for these are the things that risk stopping us being able to offer the simple things we have to God.
The third part is that God is also simply amazing at spotting what he can use, and purging away what he can’t use. He sees our sins far more clearly than we do. He knows the difference between real current sins that are actively acting against him, and the memories of past sins that are long forgiven by God and yet still haunt us and cripple us. He is adept at sifting through the complexity of our lives and finding in us things that are worthwhile, precious, priceless… and of identifying those things that need to be excised. God is the great divider: but the division between the sheep and the goats, and between the wheat and the tares, is not between one person and another, but within each of us, separating out what can be used in the building of the kingdom and what cannot.
And yes, we may be amazed by what it turns out God can use. For even some of our memories of past hurts and wrong-doing can become the cup of water that we offer to a fellow pilgrim.
Trust in God, that he can use far more of each of us than we can possibly imagine. And in that trust, find also the courage to ask God, once and for all, to free us from those few things that really do stand in the way.
For whatever is not against God, can be used in his service and to his glory.