Text: Mark 9:38-50
Date: Pentecost 19 Proper 21 + 9/30/18
I assume you’ve heard the old joke about a Christian who died and upon arrival it heaven St. Peter gave him a tour. First they pass by a beautiful sanctuary from which come chanting and the pleasant aroma of incense. “These are the Episcopalians” Peter says. Next they came to a more plain room where people are holding hands and washing each other’s feet. “These are the Mennonites” says Peter. Then they pass by a river with people dancing in the water. “Here are the Baptists” he says. Finally, they come to a little white church with a simple bell tower. They can hear a German chorale as Peter puts his finger to his mouth and says, “Shhh… Be very quiet here.” After silently tip toeing past the building the new resident asks what that was all about. “Those are the Missouri Synod Lutherans” he replied, “They think they are the only ones here!”
In 1867 C. F. W. Walther, the first president of our church body, published a work with the provocative title, “The Evangelical Lutheran Church the True Visible Church of God on Earth.” I’m sure it struck people then as it does now of being a rather arrogant claim. But such is our inheritance of pure teaching back to Martin Luther and others that we can and ought to have such confidence. Of the 25 theses he lists just a few will help us with today’s Gospel. First, the one holy Christian Church on earth is nothing but the total of all who truly believe in Christ including those who have gone before us and those yet to me. The Church is a fellowship of faith.
Though the one holy Christian Church, as a spiritual temple, cannot be seen but only believed, yet there are infallible outward marks by which its presence is known; which marks are the pure preaching of God’s Word and the unadulterated administration of the holy Sacraments. In addition, of course, would be the observation of the fruits of faith, love and good works.
Walther then says, “Though church-writers sometimes call communions holding God’s Word essentially true, i.e., real churches over against non-churches, yet over against erring churches, or sects, a true visible Church in the absolute sense is that only in which God’s Word is preached right and the holy Sacraments are administered in accordance with the Gospel.” In other words, no, we do not believe we Lutherans will be the only ones in heaven. (Though some like to say those who go to heaven end up being Lutherans!). We admit that there can be and is genuine, saving faith among people of other so-called denominations even amid errors or lack of certain understanding as long as that faith is in Jesus Christ crucified and risen for the life of the world.
When the disciples in today’s Gospel complain to Jesus about “someone casting out demons in your name…(who) are not following us,” they began to sound like our old joke. Jesus arrested their attention saying, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us.”
The difference is that this anonymous exorcist has in some way become familiar with Jesus and had a certain elementary level of faith in His Name. In other words we are not dealing with a person who is settled in his mind not to join Jesus and his disciples but only with one whose knowledge is still limited, whose faith is young, who may grow in that faith to a more complete confession.
Now be careful, for this does not mean to talk about people who are indifferent to Jesus even though they think they are not actively against Him. Indifference and coldness ends up as being against Jesus. The person who doesn’t regularly go to church to hear the Gospel may not think they are “despising” God’s Word, but refusing to hear it is despising it.
Saving faith may begin in the simplest way, as it does with our children. But faith grows into confession as we say the same thing as we hear in God’s Word, namely, that this Jesus not only performed miracles or taught God’s Word but came to bear our sins and be our Savior by taking our sins in His body to the death of the Cross. So we confess Him, “who suffered under Pontius Pilate, died and was buried, and the third day he rose again from the dead and ascended to the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from whence He will come to judge the living and the dead.” Such detail or content of faith is necessary for salvation and not just an outward relation with the Church. Those who refuse to believe those details end up being against Jesus and condemned.
So today Jesus is not asking us merely to be tolerant of other Christians but rather patient in hopes that their faith may increase in the Word of God and thus be one with us in the great number of the redeemed.