It sounds like some kind of demarcation dispute, doesn’t it? Like the ones we used to hear about, where someone did something that was someone else’s job… next thing you know, everyone was on strike!
John says to Jesus, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he was not following us”. His inference is that because this ‘someone’ person isn’t one of them, he’s not playing the game. Honestly, that ‘someone’: what a troublemaker!
Healing in Jesus’ name, for John, is the job of Jesus and his disciples, and no one else. He’s unimpressed, and expects Jesus to be as well, after all Jesus’ reputation is at stake here… I think we can safely say that he expects a very different answer from the one Jesus gives him!
Jesus: “Whoever is not against us is for us”.
John: (speakingveryquickly) “Yes, Lord, that’s exactly what I think too, the absolute nerve of that ‘someone’… Say what? Are you SURE?”
It seems that little has changed over the years… Jesus’ words stand out from the crowd.
His enigmatic statement has as much to say today as it did for John and the others.
“Whoever is not against us is for us”. You don’t hear it that much anymore… We’re much more likely to hear it turned around, until it becomes this: “Whoever is NOT US, is against us”.
We live in a culture, and a country, that is progressively becoming more dominated by fear, and I’m angry about it: angry at those who are creating this culture, and angry at us for letting them get away with it!
We live surrounded:
• by advertising that reinforces a fear of not having as much ‘stuff’ as other people.
• by media who choose and manipulate stories to make us feel afraid, so that we’ll rely on them as the ‘truth tellers’
• by politicians who use fear of other people (even defenceless ones in rusty old boats!), people who are different in culture or religion, so that we’ll vote for their party to ‘protect’ us.
“Whoever is not against us is for us”. It stands out from the crowd.
As I sat with this gospel story, many other stories crossed my mind. I want to share a ‘scene’ each from 4 of these very briefly:
1. Nearly 20 years ago, at my home church in Adelaide. A young woman, leading us in Prayers for the world: “We pray against Muslims, because they hate Christians big-time!” I remember my anger that this was done in a public act of worship – also my sadness that when several of us raised it with her later, she could see no problem with the idea of such a GOD.
2. Forward 10-12 years, worship at Hobart North UCA included a conversation between myself and “A” (former Sierra Leonese refugee and faithful Muslim). Theme: “Strangers becoming friends”. It was a faith-enriching experience. At one point “A” commented “Rod, most of the things we’re talking about are not Christian issues or Muslim issues, they are human issues”.
3. I was honoured to be invited to a multi faith gathering at the Hobart Mosque, soon after it opened. There, with Jews, Muslims, and other Christians I heard the words of the Imam, “S”: “Whether you are Christian, Jewish or Muslim, if your neighbour does not feel safe around you, you are not faithful”.
4. Very soon after this, I visited a local Christian church in my capacity as Chaplaincy Committee Chair for our local tertiary college. I was asked if I’d been to visit “the opposition”. I waited a few seconds for more clues, wondering if they meant the Mosque. Turns out they meant the Catholics: they were ignoring the Muslims! (Me to myself: “Smile and wave, Rod, smile and wave!”)
These are a few of many such stories in my life and faith walk.
Each ‘scene’ has stayed with me and spoken to me over the years, about experience of people presumed to be somehow different: ‘them’ to my ‘us’, if you like.
It so happens that each of them concerns relationships with people of different religious faith and practice. There are many other forms of difference I could have used, but these were the ones on my mind as I read and re-read Jesus’ words with John. It’s also true that this particular cause of division is the one that keeps getting thrust at us these days.
I think it occupies the minds of many people in this country at present.
It seems to me all too easy to make a judgement of ‘otherness’ about people, on the basis of what they believe – or what we imagine they believe… I get really sick of hearing how “Christians believe. this (or that) about same gender marriage” or “you’re a Christian, so you must believe ‘your’ God lets wars happen”, or “Oh, Islam is a religion of hate, not like Christianity”… And so it goes on.
And when we make such judgements of ‘otherness’, it invariably becomes ‘wrongness’.
“We can’t both be right, and I am, so you’re not”. And we get very interested in ‘right belief’, and arguments dismissive of other people’s ‘wrong belief’.
Now I’m not arguing against us being clear on what we believe and why, and how that affects the decisions we make and the attitudes we carry. For followers of all faiths, that’s really important.
But I am suggesting that Jesus was a fair bit less interested in right belief than we might think: in divisions created over points of doctrine, in ideas that led to people copping injustice, or being ground down by ‘the way things are’.
I believe he was much more interested in right action and right imagination!
It’s there in his stories, his actions, his parables…
It’s there in his attacks on the rulers and Pharisees. He holds them to account because they use their learning, their ‘right belief’, to gain power over others. They should know better, he says… often!
And it’s there in his words to John about ‘someone’: about this one who’s been healing in Jesus’ name without being one of them. “Whoever is not against us is for us”.
For Jesus, it seems that everything else comes after this: If people are being freed from whatever oppresses them, if people are coming to wholeness out of brokenness, then that’s a good thing!
It doesn’t seem to matter how, or if the person helping this to happen has the right belief, or membership in the right club. First and foremost Jesus cares about people. This, he says, is the way of GOD. “It does not matter if the love comes from his hand or the hand of another, as long as it comes” (1)
… right practice… right imagination.
I wrestled with how to talk about this stuff with our children today, and decided that it’s way too abstract for little ones (nearly all under 5 yrs). But the gospel of Jesus demands that we take this seriously. And so a part of what we’re trying to do with our children is to model the gospel for them:
• to help them learn a different truth from the one that poisons our society today,
• to teach them, in song, words, actions, whatever it takes, to approach the world with blessing, not suspicion, as Jesus did.
“Imagine a world” Jesus suggested, “where what we say of God is reflected in how we treat each other”
“Repent… turn from living as if God isn’t involved in the world, and live as if the reign of God is among us!”
“Imagine a world where the Spirit of God is seen and acknowledged as active in people within wide range of beliefs and ideas-where we talk not of Christian issues, Muslim issues, economic issues , political issues and the like, but of human issues”.
“Imagine a world where our first thought towards someone different from us is openness and interest, rather than fear that they’ll take what’s ours.
“Imagine a world where people accept goodness with pleasure, rather than suspicion…”
Just imagine… “Whoever is not against us, is for us”.
That Jesus… He STILL stands out from the crowd!! (And thank GOD for that!)
1. Bill Loader, First Thoughts on the gospel 30.9.2012 http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader