When I was young, I remember my mother’s painkiller of choice – I now realise that most mothers of small children have a painkiller of choice – was Anadin, which came in a striking yellow packet. You can still get them today, still yellow, design slightly less striking, for a mere £1.69 for 16. However, you can get generic aspirin now for 29 pence for 16. I remember making aspirin in the chemistry lab when I was an undergraduate. Later on, when Anadin was old hat along came Nurofen. You can still get them today for £2.29 for 16. However, you can get generic ibuprofen – which we certainly didn’t make in undergraduate chemistry lab – also for only 29 pence for 16.
In the field of medications, there may be one brand name for a particular medicine, but after the patent has expired you can get the same medicine with a generic label at a fraction of the cost. You can even get paracetamol in Poundland for 15 pence. They’re all the same, aren’t they? Are they all just a good? Well, in principle they’re all the same – made using the same formula for the same reasons. Yet, my personal favourite these days is Migraleve. The kind assistant in Boots tried to persuade me that the generic one was exactly the same ingredients, for less than half the price, but I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bring myself to have trust, to have faith, that the generic one would really work. It’s totally silly, when I’ll gladly buy the cheapest aspirin, paracetamol, and ibuprofen that I can find, but when I came to my trusted Migralelve I had to have the Genuine Article, just in case the other one didn’t work.
It’s all very well me banging on about being mean buying medicines, and I’m clearly a hypochondriac, but what has this got to do with anything? In today’s gospel reading Jesus talked about people doing good deeds in his name not being able to do evil, and that famous phrase “whoever is not against us is for us”. The disciples have found someone who wasn’t one of their number doing things in Jesus’s name, and they are very angry. Jesus tells them not to be so narrow in their outlook: “Whoever is not against us is for us”. Just because Jesus had chosen twelve to be apostles it doesn’t mean that no one else could trust in God as Jesus taught and participate in his ministry. The twelve disciples did not hold the franchise for relieving human suffering. Surely they should have celebrated the fact that the influence of Jesus was spreading, especially in view of their own failing, rather than try to be exclusive?
But is this curious passage really saying anything to us? It gets more bizarre as it goes on. I’m sure it’s certainly not a literal instruction to cut off our feet or hands or eyes. If it were that then absolutely everyone would be bumbling around with no hands, no feet, no eyes. I expect that you’ve probably encountered people who say things, you don’t need to go to church to be a Christian, I try to do good things, but I’m not sure what I believe, and such like. Whatever you think Jesus might or might not have intended by his blunt, outrageous, provocative statements in today’s reading, the one thing it is impossible to do is to reduce this to some bland moralistic ideal that could be anything. And this is where I started, and where my challenge for us is, are you a Brand Name Christian, or a generic person who does good?
This story I’m about to tell might have been me, or might have been any minister. I’ll tell it as I, but don’t worry who it is. I was settled at my desk, trying to compose my thoughts for a sermon. But not for long. I’m called out because of Warren. Warren is a ‘street-drinker’, well known to many people. Warren has collapsed on the manse drive and is having a ﬁt. There’s a risk of his choking on his vomit. A passer-by, who has already dialled 999, is talking to him gently, reassuring him that help is on its way. A man appears with a bundle of tissues to clear up the mess. Soon the paramedics are there, then the ambulance, then the police. They are all as kind and as caring as they are competent, although in the end Warren refuses their assistance and weaves his unsteady way off. I return to my desk and my text. I wonder about these good people who have been so attentive to Warren. I have no idea what they think about Jesus. Are they for him or against him? Would Jesus have thought them more hospitable than his disciples?
We can work together with all people of goodwill, there is that famous phrase about “people of all faiths and none”, but that doesn’t mean that we have no faith or foundation ourselves. No doubt you all remember seaside rock that has the name all the way through from front to back: Blackpool, Brighton, Skegness or Teignmouth. Brand name Christians have Christ in them from front to back in a different way from generic people of good will. Sometimes a stick of rock breaks, but the name is still there running through it. Sometimes you can’t read the name because the angles are peculiar, sometimes the name is hard to make out. But it’s always there even when its hard to see, and it’s always there whether the rock is in one solid piece, or smashed to smithereens.
Now, I’m just going to throw in a little bit of Reformed theology, and it’s this: not everyone in church is automatically a Brand Name Christian. That’s not to say there’s anyone here today in this building who isn’t, I’m not casting aspersions on the motivations of anyone here today, but simply that within the institution of the whole universal church there could be people who are not Brand Name Christians; and as a counter balance to that, there can be people outside the institutional church who could be Brand Name Christians.
It might be reassuring to remember that even Peter messed it up regularly. Perhaps you remember he denied Jesus three times and then the cock crowed? But he was forgiven, and went to on to great things. The good news is that whoever we are, wherever we are on life’s journey, God’s love is planted more deeply than all that is wrong.
So, the challenge from today’s complicated and convoluted gospel reading, is are we brand Name Christians, or generic people who do good? The generic person doing good is a copy of the Brand Name Christian, but without the Brand Name, there would be no generic. Though the generic person doing good might be composed of pretty much the same stuff, keep in mind that she or he is a copy of a Brand Name, a facsimile of the real McCoy.
There’s a little prayer by Thomas Merton that sums up what some of this might mean for you and for me, in the places that God calls us to be his disciples today:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.