Monday, September 21, 2015

Who Draws the Line?

For the most part, Jesus is a nice guy. Whether you call your self a Christian or identify as an agnostic or claim to be a full-on atheist, I think we can all agree that Jesus shares a lot of good humanist ideas worth following. Welcoming the outcast, preaching non-violence, caring for the needy, and practicing humility are all laudable tenets anyone would be glad to emulate. Usually, Jesus says things that are easy to cozy up to. Even if they're radical, counter-cultural teachings like "turn the other cheek" or "to save your life you must lose it," his words are attractive at their core. So when he opens his mouth and lays down a threat, pointing a finger of condemnation at any who would cross him, it gets my attention.

This coming Sunday, we will hear Jesus say, "If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea." If Jesus gives an ultimatum like that--if Jesus predicts the consequences of disobeying him to be more dreadful than execution by drowning--we'd better pay attention.

But what is he talking about? Why this stern warning? This is Jesus' response to one of his disciples who was worried that someone outside their company was using Jesus' name to cast out demons. "Teacher, we tried to stop him," John explains, "because he was not following us." John has a traditional, in-or-out, membership-based approach to discipleship, but Jesus takes a pragmatic approach: "Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us." Notice the power of those words. As is so often the case with how God works, it is the opposite of what we expect. If you're not against us, then you're for us. The circle of exclusion isn't drawn by those on the inside as if to segregate themselves from the masses. The line in the sand is drawn only by those who except themselves from the ministry--as if to say, "I don't belong." The implications for the contemporary church are staggering.

Jesus explains that those who do a feat of power in his name will find it difficult to stay in opposition to his movement. That makes sense, and today's church leaders shouldn't forget it. If someone appeals to the name of Jesus--in prayer, in meditation, in crisis, in jest--and experiences the power of that name, they won't soon be able to speak evil of it. The message is practice first, comprehend second. In this case, Jesus' approach to evangelism is "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." That suggests to me that we should be purveyors of Jesus' name and not merely gatekeepers for congregations.

How often does the church say to someone, "I'm sorry, but you can't do it that way?" You must pray the way we pray. You must worship the way we worship. You must believe the way we believe. We try to help people "get it right" because we know from experience that our way of doing/being church is beneficial. Hearing the word faithfully preached and participating in the sacraments faithfully administered is crucial to developing a life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ. We want people to come and join our churches. That's how we measure success in discipleship. Although I might not be ready to give up on the importance of "average Sunday attendance," I wonder whether Jesus would look at the way we try to bring people into his company and warn us that we're in danger of suffering a punishment worse than having a millstone hung around our necks and being cast into the sea.

There is great power in Jesus' name. Who are we to attempt to restrict the use of that name and the power that goes with it to mechanisms we have approved? When we say to someone, "If you want to be a real Christian..." or "If you want to be sure you'll go to heaven...," we're guilty of placing stumbling blocks in front of people who may already be on the right track. The church should worry less about its own survival and more about sharing the name of Jesus with the world. If the power of Jesus is real in a person's life even if that person never darkens the door of a traditional church, we must believe that God has already grabbed onto his/her heart. Tell people about Jesus. Stop worrying about whether they go to church. Soon, no one who has experienced the power of Jesus will be able to speak ill of him. If you're not against us, you're for us.

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