World communion Sunday began in the 1930’s by the Presbyterian church as a testament to the times. As Nazi power grew in Europe and that continent was embroiled in the birth of another war that would eventually engulf the whole world, Christian denominations came together to provide an alternative vision for the world. During the 40’s, World Communion Sunday was adopted by the Methodist church and by other denominations involved in the Ecumenical movement as a symbol of solidarity amidst our worldly divisions. Gathering around the table as Christians, instead of as Methodists, or Baptists, or Episcopalians, became a hope for the future—a hope that we one day will be enfolded back into the family of Christ that knows no boundaries or divisions.
In this day and age, with the Ecumenical movement on a budgetary respirator of sorts, and with its influence waning in favor of more divisive Christian voices, what does World Communion mean to us today? How many other churches in Morris are observing World Communion Sunday? Do you know? I don’t! Our community doesn’t have a ministerial alliance that would plan a community wide celebration like this. We now have a cross-denominational youth partnership, and we have worked with other churches on projects in the community, but we are certainly in a different mindset than what might have been envisioned by the pioneers of the World Communion Sunday movement.
Today’s scriptures focus us on two similar accounts of the power of God manifested in those whom the “in-crowd” considered “unworthy.” The same kind of situation happens with Jesus’ crew. While Jesus is up on a mountain, his disciples are trying to heal people and are unsuccessful. Jesus comes down and, much like Moses, complains to God—“How much longer am I going to be stuck down here among these faithless people!” After Jesus heals those people that the disciples were trying in vain to heal, John comes back to camp with his chest stuck out—“Jesus, I saw some people casting out demons in your name, and I told them to stop because they weren’t one of us!”
The disciples had seen a man casting out demons in Jesus' name; and because he did not follow them, they tried to stop him. More about this strange exorcist is not told us. It may even be that the name "Jesus" was nothing more to him than a magical formula that worked miracles. But if so, it doesn't seem to have been this that the disciples objected to. The problem, in their eyes, was simply that he wasn't one of them, and they were jealous for their rights and privileges.
You may remember that, as the story has come down to us, the disciples had just been debating that most momentous of all theological questions: Which of us is the greatest? They had rank, privilege and exclusive rights on their minds.
High fives are passed among the disciples. “John, you laid the smack down!” his brother James exclaims. “Wait just a minute,” comes a voice from the corner. Jesus has moved outside the circle of self-congratulations. “If they are using my name to cast out demons, they’re not speaking ill of me! Whoever is not against us is for us!”
Jesus, in this story at least, is speaking of an inclusiveness that his disciples don’t understand quite yet. This passage is in marked contrast to what later comes from Jesus’ mouth in Matthew 12:30 and Luke 11:23: “He who is not with me is against me.” George Bush picked up on this last saying when he was speaking about attacking Afghanistan in November of 2001. I wonder what the world would look like if we adopted Mark’s version of the saying.
Luke actually makes room for both sayings in his Gospel. Also in Luke 9:49-50. Most commentaries point out the seemingly obvious contradiction between these two lines of thinking: but I read one article that seems more compelling to me. B.A. Gerrish, a scholar at Union Seminary in Richmond, VA writes that “The first, "Whoever is not against us is for us," calls for generosity in our estimate of others; the second, "Whoever is not with me is against me," calls for honesty in testing ourselves. By the one, we accept the profession of others; by the other, we try our own profession. One says, "Judge not"; the other says, "Examine yourself."
Gerrish continues, “Why was it, in particular, that the disciples wanted to stop that other man? Not, apparently, because they were greatly worried about his loyalty to their Master, but because he wasn't one of them. And if that is so, then was it his profession of Christ's name that was in question, or theirs?
John told the Master, perhaps expecting to be praised, that he and his friends had stopped the man from casting out demons in Jesus' name; and Jesus replied, "Whoever is not against us is for us." But he might just as well have said: John, are you really with me? Or is there something you value more than loyalty to me? Are you more concerned for your group than for my name? He said: "whoever is not against us is for us." Might he not just as well have said, "John, whoever is not with me is against me"?
And so world communion Sunday reminds us how futile and perhaps how dangerous it is to take the words of Jesus, “either you are with me or you are against me,” and apply it to anything other than our own commitment to Christ. It is not a measuring rod to hold up to others. Christ gave us a different saying for that—“if you are not against us, then you are for us.” With how the world has changed since 2001 as well, I would venture to say that it is also not a good statement of foreign policy. I believe Jesus would have agreed much more with Abraham Lincoln’s question of national self-examination when he said, “I do not pray that God is on our side, but that we are on God’s side.”
When we gather around this table to have fellowship together in remembrance of Jesus’ life and love for us, we can be assured we are on God’s side. When we confess our sins together and forgive one another, we can be assured that we are on God’s side. When we accept God’s work in the outsider—the person on the margins: we can be assured that we are on God’s side. If we draw a boundary line between “us” and “them,” we draw a boundary between “us” and God.
Gerrish concluded his article by writing, “As one of my favorite theologians, Friedrich Schleiermacher, wrote more than a century and a half ago: "All who start from the living word of the Saviour, and from living faith in him, stand on the same ground with us; and there can never be a reason for us to withdraw from fellowship with them." It has taken Christians a very long time to learn that lesson. And perhaps now we can take a second look at our many traditions and ask, not "Which of us is right?" but, "Have they seen something in their encounter with the Lord which we have missed in ours, or not seen so clearly?"