James 5:13-20

Mark 9:38-50

You’ve had no reason to notice, but one of the changes to our denomination’s constitution that went into effect at the beginning of August was a change to the way adult members are received when they transfer from one congregation to another. The change is that now people are required to stand before the congregation and “make a public profession of their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior,” just as they did when they were confirmed.

As I read it, this change isn’t a huge deal, but one Presbyterian pastor has raised some serious flags about how the amendment came about. The issue is that a congregation welcomed someone into membership someone who described Divinity – God, the Christ, and the Holy Spirit – in non-traditional ways. Sadly, charges were brought against the congregation, and the debate produced an overture to the General Assembly that would have required certain language from people any time they joined a church. The GA backed down the intensity of this requirement, and the amendment as adopted specifically acknowledges that nontraditional language may be appropriate (score one for the Advisory Committee on the Constitution). So things turned out to be pretty innocuous, but they imply a much more touchy question: what, precisely, must you believe in order to join the church?

Now, I have to admit that I find theology endlessly fascinating, and I’m usually quite happy to debate just what we mean by this or that idea. Theology matters deeply, because what we confess informs how we pray (or worship or work), and how we pray shapes what kind of follower of Jesus we are. What’s most important to me is that we live faithfully and richly in the grace and love of God. In one sense, the amendment – both in its original form and as it was adopted – agrees with that idea. It tries to “raise the bar” for membership, so joining a church means more than just subscribing to a new cable provider. In another sense, it’s more about branding, doing “quality control” over the people and metaphysics that try to make their way into our pews.

This is what the disciples are worried about in our gospel reading this morning, too. Maybe we should call it an issue of trademark infringement: this other healer is driving out unclean spirits in Jesus’ name without paying royalties. Apparently, it was fairly common in the early days of the church for people to notice that ‘Jesus’ was a powerful name, and they’d use it outside the bounds of the emerging movement. The disciples are bothered by this, but Jesus apparently takes it as an honor, a sign of partnership.

If we’re working for God’s ways in the world, we can probably use all the partners we can get, and the partners are there to be found. Listen to this bit from today’s Minute for Mission:

C. N. Jenkins Memorial Presbyterian Church “filled in” as worship participants and leaders at the Thursday night service of the Charlotte Rescue Mission-Rebound. A small group of dedicated Bible study members, accompanied by their pastor, the Rev. Dr. Jerry L. Cannon, worshiped with a group of men who started out as strangers but quickly became friends. That monthly worship experience has continued for fourteen years. It was a divine pairing for C. N. Jenkins and the Charlotte Rescue Mission-Rebound.

. . . .

C. N. Jenkins Memorial has expanded from being a partner in the Thursday night worship to being a home church for many of the clients of Rebound. The men from Rebound have become active members in the church where they serve as greeters, ushers, choir members, and deacons.

Maybe this calls for a little aside: this is the Minute for Mission for today, which our denomination has designated “Evangelism Sunday.” That’s a word we’re often pretty uncomfortable with, as a wider church and as a congregation, when it sounds like hollering for everyone to hear about why our God is wonderful and especially why your God is wrong. But “evangelism” is just “bearing good news,” the way that C. N. Jenkins Memorial Presbyterian Church carried the good news of acceptance and recovery to the clients at Charlotte Rescue Mission-Rebound. We may or may not speak this good news out loud, but we must always work prayerfully to live it. As St Francis said, “Preach always. Use words if you must.”

Even more than we preach, we should look for where the good news shows up, which is always at the place where God’s activity and the world’s needs come together (with thanks to Mark Davis and Mark Achtemeier). So we pray for the world’s needs every Sunday – the needs of God’s whole community, not just our limited group of it. We pray for healing, even in a world where medical cures aren’t as mysterious as they used to be. We – all of us – guide and teach this community around us, because we have something great and convincing to share. We celebrate the good news of lives restored, blessings shared, even and especially when that news doesn’t belong to this community. We can celebrate good news, even when it doesn’t look religious in the way we’re religious.

So, what does it mean for you to “reaffirm the vows taken at Baptism by

a. professing [your] faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior,

b. renouncing evil and affirming [your] reliance on God’s grace, [and]

c. declaring [your] intention to participate actively and responsibly in the worship and mission of the church”?

I think there’s something meaningful in these words, in this promise, even if we hold to many different images of Christ and ways of conceiving “God.”

On some level, the last promise, to “participate actively and responsibly in the worship and mission of the church” may be all it takes to uphold the theological statement the church assumes we make in becoming members. The life of the Church is what draws us into the deeper meaning of this confession. We might begin by knowing only that ‘Jesus’ is a word of power, or that Christ’s followers are deserving of respect and support, but eventually we either drop off, or we learn more deeply what this faith life together means. (Maybe both, I guess.) We learn this by sticking it out, even and especially with those who challenge the ways that we think of Church or understand God. Thank God for this band of disagreeable people!

Amen.

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