ack when my partner, Matt, was first starting at his church, he introduced a new practice in worship. At the passing of the peace, rather than launching directly into greeting one another, the worship leader would first say, “The Peace of the Lord be always with you,” and the congregation would respond, “And also with you.”
Now, the observant among you may note that this is exactly what we do every Sunday here at St. Stephen’s, and I suspect that you have never given it very much thought, because why would you? It seems like a small and innocuous change. And indeed, for many in his church, it was. However, for a small few of his more stalwart members, which here means “members who are stubbornly resistant to change,” it was the cause of much consternation. In due course, he was informed by these few members that this new practice had no place in their church because it was, “too Catholic.”
This accusation may leave you scratching your head, because this way of passing the Peace in worship is not uniquely, or even particularly, Catholic. But if you have ever spent time with Congregationalists, or any number of other Protestant traditions, then you will know that the label, “too Catholic,” is simply shorthand for, “I don’t like this thing.” It does not matter if the thing in question is actually Catholic.
Coming forward to receive Communion from the front of the church? Too Catholic. The pastor is wearing a collar? Too Catholic. Saying the Creed or Confession in worship? Too Catholic. The clergy being involved in the budget process? Too Catholic. A new hymn on Sunday morning that you don’t like? Probably too Catholic.
A friend of ours once related just such one of these stories one evening as we shared dinner. She had introduced singing a hymn into a new place in the service, as a sung response after the sermon. Within a week or two, a stalwart member of the congregation pulled her aside to share that this new thing was too Catholic.
“But it is not at all Catholic!” I exclaimed in exasperation as she finished her story. And, indeed, it is not. For, much like we do in The Episcopal Church, the Roman Catholic order of worship follows the sermon with a recitation of the Creed. “More to the point,” my friend interjected, “So what if it is?”
While I had been caught up in the technicality of whether it was Catholic or not, she had gone straight for the heart of the matter. Why do we equate things that are Catholic with being wrong, or bad, or undesirable? Why are we so quick to use the Catholic tradition as the whipping boy or straw man in our own sense of religious rightness?
“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
John, one of Jesus’ more stalwart disciples, was incensed to find this person doing ministry in Jesus’ name, for he was not part of John’s group of Jesus’ followers. He was not part of their group and was outside their control. He was outside their group and could not be trusted to do this work right. He could not be trusted because, no doubt, his style of exorcism was probably “too Catholic.”
I suppose that there is some comfort in the knowledge that after two thousand years, we are still making the same mistakes that the first disciples made. “Teacher, we heard someone proclaiming the Good News in your name, and we did not listen to them, we did not invite them in, we drove them away because they were too Catholic, they were too Protestant, they were too Evangelical, they were not Bible-based enough, they had not yet been saved.”
Jesus’ response, which is the Biblical equivalent of “What the hell is wrong with you?” is as radical to us now as it was to John and the other befuddled disciples. For anyone who ministers in the name of Jesus cannot be against Christ, and anyone who is not against Christ is for him. Even if they minster in ways we would not, using traditions we find foreign and strange, and doing things differently than we do them, if they accomplish anything in Christ’s name, it is because Christ is with them. Even as Christ is with us.
As radical as that message was to the disciples, as radical as it is still to us today, there is a part of this story that is even more radical yet. It is the revelation that Jesus had other followers. What was more shocking to John and his fellow disciples than finding another person doing works of power in Jesus’ name, was realizing that they were not the only followers of Jesus.
John and his fellow disciples were not the only loci of God’s work in the world. You, me, and all of us together today are not the center of Jesus’ work in the world. Now, I know that this sounds obvious, but let it sink in for a moment.
Jesus has other followers not known to us, and we here at St. Stephen’s are not the center of God’s work in the world. Jesus has other followers not known to us, and we who are a part of this thing we call the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion are not the center of God’s work in the world. Jesus has other followers not known to us, and we who would dare to call ourselves Christian are not the loci of God’s work in the world.
God is so much bigger than us, bigger than this church, bigger than our denomination, and bigger than the whole Christian tradition. God is bigger than we can possibly imagine. What is more, God is at work in the world in ways we have not imagined. And God is accomplishing this work through people we do not expect.
God’s work, Christ’s ministry, is accomplished through Christians like us, yes. And God’s work is accomplished through Christians not like us. And God’s work is realized through people who have no faith or were never introduced to the faith. And God’s work is done through our Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers. And Christ’s ministry is accomplished by the incarcerated and the homeless. And Christ’s Good News is proclaimed on the tongues of immigrants and refugees, even when we do not understand the words that they speak. And God’s vision of the new creation is shared in the dreams of the orphan and the elderly waiting forgotten in the nursing home alike.
Jesus has other followers not known to us. If we, like John, labor under the pretense that we alone have a corner on Jesus’ ministry, then we will find ourselves in the position of working against God’s work in the world. Then truly it would be better if we had a millstone hung around our neck and were thrown into the sea.
But Jesus does not want that. God does not desire that. Better yet, we should be humble. We should approach the world with an attitude of humility and the expectation that we will find God at work around every corner and in every person we meet.
When we do this, we will discover all the great multitude who share in our claim on Christ. We will discover all the many and varied ways God works in our world, through people who do not look like us, who do not believe like us, or who do not speak like us. We will see the ways Christ’s ministry is worked in Evangelicals and Baptists, through Catholics and Orthodox, through Methodists and Congregationalists, and yes, even through Episcopalians like us.