I got a message earlier this week from a friend of mine who works for the Secret Service – he’s not an agent though, just a lawyer – saying that he wanted to send me something special. It’s called a challenge coin. I wasn’t familiar with that term so I looked it up. A challenge coin is a medallion given by an organization that marks the bearer as an official member. These days, they’re normally given as awards or commemoratives of special events, such as the Pope’s visit to the United States. However, traditionally, if someone were to question you as to whether you really belonged to a particular group, you could pull out the challenge coin as a sign of being an official member. Inevitably though, the coins would somehow end up in the hands of someone who was not a member, and a scandal would ensue.
Something similar is going on in the Gospel today. The disciples are upset that people who were outside of their group are casting out demons in the name of Jesus. Jesus had given this specific power to his disciples, so when they see others doing it, they’re upset. They are the official disciples – their visible discipleship is a kind of challenge coin, if you will, which they possess and these outsiders do not. But Jesus is unconcerned – indeed, he is glad that good is being done in his name. “Whoever is not against us is with us,” he tells them.
The Christian life – like life in general – is at times rife with the danger of tribalism. We see that just in the various proliferation of churches and Christian communities – we all profess faith in Jesus as Lord, but can’t seem to agree on very much else. Even in the Catholic Church, too often we allow ourselves to be divided into factions and parties, this side against that side, this particular group pushing back against the agenda of another, this member who wants to criticize or oppose or exclude that member over there.
Jesus is not interested in such petty disputes. Instead, he warns us against what really causes division – sin, especially the sin of scandal, of leading another astray because of our own poor example. Indeed, in the Gospel today he uses strong images to warn us – being thrown into the sea with a millstone around our neck rather than leading another to sin; cutting off our hand or plucking out our eye rather than sinning ourselves. The point is that whatever we think we might gain by giving into sinfulness, or worse, leading another into it – we will lose far, far more. Sin leads to divisions among us because it separates us from God.
How many of you were able to catch at least a glimpse of the media coverage of Pope Francis’s visit over the last few days? I myself probably watched too much of the coverage – not only because I get excited about anything related to the pope but also because of just how fascinating a figure Pope Francis is. It was remarkable to watch how no matter where he went, the people came out in masses to greet him, and no matter what station you turned to, the pundits seemed almost beside themselves with admiration and praise. Pope Francis is, in the words of one bishop, the most powerful spiritual leader of our time. Why? Certainly, many reasons – but, one at least, because he unifies, he unites. He calls out patterns of sinfulness wherever he finds them, right or left. He doesn’t care about appeasing one side or the other. He’s not concerned with distinctions of class or race or even religion. He’s only interested in pleasing Jesus, in identifying the face of Jesus in every person, no matter how lowly, and helping them and us see that same face as well.
Is it that surprising that this Pope is helping us to grow in understanding and respect for one another, to see various issues as not just political or social questions but as matters of morality and human dignity, to grow in awareness of the love and mercy and joy that comes from God? Is that that surprising? Not to me – because that’s what Jesus did. Only Jesus ultimately can bring together the factions that crop up among us, only he can disrupt our tribalism, only he overcomes the sin that divides us. Pope Francis is able to be such an inspiration to so many not because of who he is in himself, but because of who he represents.
But what happens when Pope Francis gets back on the plane today, when he returns to Rome, and the memories and emotions of his visit fade? Do things go back to being the same as before? They certainly don’t have to. Why? Because we’re not that different than Pope Francis. Yes, we may not have the white cassock or the title of Roman Pontiff; but we do have what all Christians have by virtue of our baptism – the Holy Spirit, living and breathing within us, capable of uniting us and doing the work of Jesus through us, if we let him. The same Spirit that fell upon Moses and the elders of Israel, the same Spirit that descended upon Mary and the Apostles, the same Spirit that guides and invigorates Pope Francis – we have a share in that Spirit too. We too can be prophets, disciples, spiritual leaders, representatives of Jesus. Where? In the classroom, in the conference room, around the dinner table, on the street, in the stadium, at the bar – every day, in every moment, you and I have the opportunity to not just say we’re the disciple of Jesus but to show we are, to let the Spirit we possess overcome the patterns of sin and division.
My friends, there’s no challenge coin to show you’re a Christian – there’s only the thoughts that guide us, the words we speak, the actions we do – there’s only the manner of our life that is proof of whether we really are following Jesus. Let’s open ourselves to where the Holy Spirit wishes to guide us to be instruments of healing and mercy and love, to conquer the sin and discord that still divides us in our day-to-day. In five days in our country, Pope Francis has inspired millions because we see in him the love of God. Could just one person today see in you or me the same?