There are several different versions of this story, and you may have heard one of them before. Our 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders even experienced this story last week in Sunday School. It goes a little like this:
An old, wise prophet was asked by a young child, “What is the difference between spending an eternity in God’s presence and an eternity away from God’s presence?” The old, wise prophet said, “In both places, there is a long table filled with food. All of it is amazing, perfectly cooked, perfectly seasoned, incredibly fresh, and no matter who is at the table, it is their favorite food. There is more than enough for everyone at the table to have their fill. Now, all of the people who are in God’s presence for all of eternity are fully satisfied, and it looks like are enjoying the meal. The people spending eternity away from God’s presence look like they haven’t eaten in days, maybe weeks. There is all this wonderful food in front of them, and yet, they are starving.”
The young child has a puzzled look and says, “How can one group be starving and the other full if there is plenty of food?”
The wise old prophet had a heart-breaking smile and says, “Here’s the catch: Each of the utensils are Five-Feet long. The people who are starving are all trying to feed themselves; the people who are full are feeding each other.”
In many ways, this is a story not only of eternity in or out of God’s presence, but a story of Christian community, too. We have been hearing for the past several weeks about what it means to be in Christian community through the writing of James, the brother of Jesus. One of the things I love about this New Testament letter is the sheer timelessness of it. The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament contain all things necessary to our Salvation and are vital to our understanding of God, and how God has moved through human history. Much of it is also better understood if we know more of the context and timing of the letter or book being written. Paul’s letters to the fledgling church in Corinth, for example, are great pieces of Christian teaching on their own. But when we understand the commercial and political realities the people of Corinth were facing, the letter becomes all the more clear. (And in case you’re wondering, Corinth made Las Vegas look like Mayberry…)
But James’ epistle to the followers of Jesus scattered about the Middle East has this quality that some say leave the epistle as one of the lesser studied books of the New Testament, even though it was one of the earliest written by someone who was an eye witness to the life and teachings of Jesus. While James’ Letter is often called a book of wisdom, putting it in the same genre as Proverbs and the Song of Solomon, this letter focuses on those facing temptation and trial because of their faith.
Over the past several weeks, we have heard James speak of the human tongue as the rudder of a ship or a bit in the mouth of a horse. James talks at great length in chapter 2 about “faith” and “works.” That faith is fine, but it doesn’t mean much without some elbow grease behind it. He has warned against partiality among believers, and about being “do-ers” of the Word, and not merely “hear-ers.” That last one is one of my favorites, and one that challenges me every time I hear it. James’ letter does what Jesus himself did: It comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. In today’s passage, he talks about the need to be a people of prayer, not only for ourselves, but for those in our community, too. We don’t pray, of course, because God needs the reminder that someone is in need of divine intervention. God knows that much. We pray so that we can be open to God’s response of how we might share the Good News with those who need to be comforted, especially those in our immediate community. Maybe it’s by our physical presence or the laying on of hands and anointing of oil. Maybe it’s through the comfort of a meal. Or maybe just some flowers and a note that says “I’m praying for you.” Much of what is written in the closing passage of the book that we heard today is about that work of faithful people.
So, what does Christian Community look like to us, right here, in a whole other part of the world, nearly 2,000 years after James’ writing? I’d venture to say, “much the same.” Oh, sure, we have toys and tools that James and his flock didn’t have, but we continue to strive to be a people of God who care for each other through in times of celebration and mourning, with prayer, meals, hospital visits, transportation, doing a little grocery shopping, maybe? We are a people who strive to know more about God and Jesus and the Bible, and we know that we don’t plod along those paths alone, but we walk with each other, hold each other’s hands while we hold each other accountable. And we know that putting in “sweat equity” in Christian Community is just as important in the kitchen as it is out in the field or in an office.
If we are to respond to those in our community with prayer and healing and works of compassion, James’ epistle then begs the question who exactly is in our community? Yes, I know that Jesus answers the question of who our neighbor is in the story of the Good Samaritan. But Jesus’ Disciples face the question of who is part of their community in today’s Gospel lesson. They get all worried and maybe a little uppity because they saw someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but this someone was not a part of their group. You almost have to wonder how John said it to Jesus, right? Maybe with a little trepidation: “Um, so, yeah, Jesus, um… There was this guyyyy…” or maybe he was more like the tattle-tell on the playground: “Jesuuuus! There was this guy, and I know he shouldn’t have been doing things in your name because, well, you know… he’s not one of us!”
But Jesus doesn’t have time for any of that. “Do not stop him,” Jesus says, “for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able to speak evil of me.” Jesus, I think, is beginning convey that this movement he’s started is getting to be bigger than he is. (And we can discuss at some other point whether or not Jesus could have anticipated how big this movement would get…) Here’s someone, and Mark doesn’t name him, who may not have even been able to pick Jesus out of the crowd, but knows and acts on the teachings of Jesus to help heal people of their ailments. The very human side of Jesus could get very concerned about “controlling the message,” or keeping tabs on who’s doing what in his name. But the very divine Jesus knows that God is at work, and that the message and the healing that was happening among God’s people was proof that Jesus’ ministry was working.
The reality is that it’s a bit of a strange moment for that exchange because it’s right in between two scenes with children. Another example, maybe, of the disciples just not “getting it.” At the end of last week’s Gospel, Jesus put a child on his lap and said if anyone welcomes this child, this person who is near the bottom of the rung in society, then they’ve welcomed me. And after he tells the disciples not to worry about someone casting out demons in his name, he turns again to a child and says, “Y’all better not lead this one astray or you’ll wish you hadn’t.” The answer to who is in their community is right in front of them: It’s not only the people they know and trust, but it’s the people who are on the margins of society, who are seen and treated as less-than, as second- or third-class.
Jesus is turning things, as he constantly does, on their head. This notion of Christian Community that he’s laying out, that will continue to grow in the years after his death, resurrection, and ascension, it’s not going to look like what community may have looked like in the past. James is taking things a step further, too, when he talks about confessing your sins to one another. Unheard of! People only confessed their sins to God, not another person. But here again, if we are to be supportive of each other, if we are to not only hold each other’s hands, but hold each other accountable in our walk with Christ, then we can’t always keep to ourselves those things that keep us distant from the Almighty. And like John and the other disciples learned, community is a process in which we learn and grow. It doesn’t happen overnight. And as James and his friends found out, it doesn’t always happen easily.
If you were to ask me the biggest struggle we have in our journey with Jesus towards Christian Community, it is telling the story of how we are just that. It’s telling the story of how we as people of faith have reached out to each other in prayer and in helpful works; it’s telling the story of how we have been able to walk with others who are struggling to know where and how God is in their life; it’s being vulnerable enough to tell how and where we ourselves have found the joy that comes from being with other people who are faithfully walking with Christ as well. It’s not that we don’t have the stories to tell; it’s sometimes that we are unsure of how to put them in words.
James calls on the faithful to be bold in asking for prayers and believing that those prayers will be answered. Jesus is showing his disciples that their community is bigger than they realize and includes those whom we might not always think to include or want to include. The challenge that Jesus and his brother James leave us with today is to be bold in our faith: To tell the story of how our faith in Jesus and being part of a Christian Community has changed our life and the lives of those around us, and to recognize that sometimes, the way our faith in Jesus has changed our lives is by loving and welcoming into that community those whom Jesus would have welcomed and loved.