Proper 21 (26), Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
26 September 2021
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, explains heresy1 by speaking about 1 Corinthians 11 where people wanted to choose who they’d eat and drink with, wanted to choose their own company, you know the rich not sharing with the poor. At the beginning of the letter Paul speaks about a different kind of division, how some say that they belong to Apollos, others to Paul, and others to Cephas, instead of belonging to Christ. So, a heresy, says Williams, starts off not with ideas in your head but is about relationships in the body of Christ.
This went on, Williams says, to how people thought about God. Who had made the world and how did the world make sense, and perhaps the world had been made by a lesser god and that’s why things were so messy and one must therefore believe in the greater god behind the lesser god … Those kinds of questions were asked in the second century, and as in Corinth, this is about unity. In Corinth it was about the unity of the body of Christ, here it is about the unity of God and of God’s creation. And this question then gets also asked about Jesus, how does Jesus relate to God, and the Nicene Creed answers that question. Again it is about unity. Begotten not made … of one Being with the Father.
And so it is rather amazing how this desire to break things up, to distinguish oneself from others, goes all the way back in the Bible and is part of our fallen human nature.
I mean, you have Eldad and Medad prophesying outside of the tent and there is Joshua, the future leader of Israel who wants to stop them. Their prophesying, which I think, has to do with the problems Moses reported, is some kind of wisdom they speak to help people remember that they have left Egypt and its oppression behind and that they should no longer wish they were in Egypt, for you can’t be in Egypt without oppression. Yet Joshua wants them to stop, as if the Spirit of God could be contained in the tent of meeting. Moses’ simple reply is that he wishes all the people were filled with God’s Spirit.
In the Gospel reading we encounter a person exorcising demons in the name of Jesus, and John wants Jesus to tell him to stop, not because he is doing something bad, or idolatrous, but because John does not perceive the person to have bought into the franchise.
Jesus replies plainly that the man poses no danger and that those not against them are for them. Jesus is not always this generous,2 but he certainly is here.
It turns out that we are a people who are remarkably tribal and territorial, and it turns out that God is neither. God loves all people and desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim. 2:4)
Our tribalism runs along the lines of asking whether someone was Catholic or Christian, as if Catholics weren’t Christian, or suggesting one must be a born again Christian to be a Christian, or now you have people call themselves progressive Christians because they can’t stand being lumped in with ‘regressive’ Christians, which I can understand, but that does not mean that it’s not tribal or guided by a certain degree of hubris. Besides, if I call myself a progressive Christian, it seems likely that I am merely projecting my own political disposition onto Jesus, rather than taking my cues from Jesus.
Rowan Williams’ point is not that the church should always sing Kumbaya and embrace anything that comes along but that in its discernment it must make sure it allows God to be God. Yet allowing God to be God remembers that God is Lord of all.
We get hung up on differences. And of course, differences do matter. Whether someone is rich or poor, well or ill, young or old, part of a minority or majority, male or female, and so forth. All these things matter, certainly to each individual but they can be cause for division, yet not with God, and that is where the church needs to take its cues.
It is perhaps no surprise that this episode follows immediately on the heels of Jesus placing a child in the midst of the disciples, and for all we know, the child may still be with them. John who asks Jesus to stop the exorcist from doing good in Jesus’ name was part of the discussion of who among the disciples was the greatest, and it appears he is still caught up in the desire to come out on top.
That our desire to come out on top is dangerous to community and to others (for when one is up, others need to be down), is expressed in Jesus’ warnings against the things that make us sin. These words are hyperbole, they are not about maiming oneself, nor are they about hell, but they are about the real dangers of our tribalism bringing others to fall.
It is for this reason that Jesus had called a child into their midst. Not because they child was cute, but to redirect their desire and attention, so that they no longer would compete for power, would would be united in their care for the vulnerable. The care for the vulnerable is the antidote to our desire for power.
At readers we read a short story by Tobias Wolff.3 It is a story of two brothers, one successful, independent, and secular, the other religious, dependent, and defeated. They are estranged. The older brother has helped out the younger brother many times, and is on a mission to help him yet again. The younger brother is reluctant to accept the help but has nowhere else to go. There is something in the story about their childhood, not much, just enough to engage the reader’s imagination. The story ends in confrontation and introspection. The older brother reminds the younger brother that one of them is successful, the other not, one independent, the other dependent. At which point the dependent one has had enough and asks to be let off (he had been collected by his brother and they were travelling in the brother’s car to the brother’s home). The reader is left to speculate whether reconciliation will be sought and found.
It was a couple days later that I understood the story. The successful brother did everything right. He realized that his brother needed help and was willing to provide it, including having his brother live with him for an undetermined time. The problem was that he could not accept his brother for who he was, that he needed to remind his brother of his failures, and consequently what was well intended ultimately failed. It failed not because what he did, but because he did it without love, without the love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, and that never ends. (1 Cor 13)
I am not suggesting that such love is easy or that I possess such love. Only that it is the love of God that makes all things possible, including the healing of our divisions, or our tribalism, and of our pride. For those who love cannot be tribal.
What Moses only wishes (that all the Lord’s people were prophets and God’s spirit was on them) has been fulfilled in Jesus. In our baptism we were anointed with God’s spirit. Therefore, love that overcomes the divide is possible.
Thanks be to God.
1 Rowan Williams, What is Heresy today?, delivered on 6th November 2010 at the International Centre, Telford
2 see Matthew 12:30 during a confrontation with the religious establishment
3 in Listening for God, Volume 2, Contemporary Literature and the Life of Faith, Minneapolis, MN: AugsburgFortress 1996, The Rich Brother, page 71ff