“Whoever Is Not Against Us Is For Us”

“Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”

“Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.”  ~ Mark 9:38-40

I have long thought that we Christians would do well to embrace any and all who walk and work on the side of love, regardless of their theology, religion or ideology. God is love and love is what’s left in the end and it never fails, so why not? Why should I not stand side by side and shoulder to shoulder with anyone who is on the side of love, regardless of what else we disagree with? Whoever is not against us is for us, right?

Unfortunately, the church has long chosen to embrace this idea from the opposite side of the coin. In both Matthew and Luke, Jesus is recorded as saying, “whoever is not for us is against us.” This saying has often been used to reject those who, while perhaps sharing the same devotion to love, are not actively for Christianity. And not only those who are not actively for Christianity, but for the same peculiar form of Christianity.

This is how we end up with the bizarre spectacle of atheist volunteers being turned away from helping at Christian soup kitchens. Or one group of Christians denouncing another, apparently equally devout group of Christians. It’s how we have so many supposed leaders who are able to convince their followers to see the world in “us vs them” terms. “If you’re not for us, you are against us.”

But look at the context for Jesus saying “if you are not for us, you are against us”. In both Matthew and Luke, it is spoken in response to people who accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Satan. Jesus responds by saying:

“Any kingdom divided against itself is laid waste; and any city or house divided against itself will not stand. If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? If I by Beelzebul cast out demons, by whom do your sons cast them out? For this reason they will be your judges. But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can anyone enter the strong man’s house and carry off his property, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house.”

Now, the first, obvious point that Jesus is making here is about unity. A house that is divided against itself will fall. Satan knows this, but the people of God need to be taught it.

Beyond that, there’s this somewhat odd bit about a strong man and his house that is often misunderstood. Usually when Jesus speaks of a powerful man like a king or a landowner, he is alluding to God. However, in this case, the strong man is not God, but Beelzebul. What Jesus is saying is that the devil is like a strong man who has been bound up so that his house can be plundered.

In the early church, it was universally accepted that when Jesus died on the cross, he descended into hell, wrested the keys of death from Satan and plundered his house, taking with him into heaven the souls held prisoner there. This was what Jesus was sent to do: to set the prisoner free and lift oppression.

Of course, when he tells this story, Jesus has not yet been crucified. Yet here he is already plundering the strong man’s house and taking back those who were possessed by him. Which is why Jesus goes on to say:

“Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.”

Prior to his death and resurrection, Jesus is preparing for the ultimate victory over the strongman who holds humanity captive. It is the Holy Spirit who has bound up the strong man, so that Jesus can begin the plunder of his house. The accusation that Jesus was working for the strong man was blasphemy against the Holy Spirit because it failed to recognize the power of God at work.

The reason Jesus says that this sin will not be forgiven is simply because if you do not recognize your Savior’s voice or the hand of God at work, you will not respond to it.

If you cannot tell the power of God from the power of the devil, how will you be saved? You will turn away from God and towards Satan without even knowing what you are doing. If you are as blind as the Pharisees, you could die and be in the presence of the Holy One and be repulsed by the source of all that is good, thinking it is evil.

Which is why blasphemy against the Holy Spirit can’t be forgiven. Forgiveness must be accepted in order to bear fruit, but if you reject the forgiveness God offers because you mistake God for Satan, how can you benefit from it?

So, it is in this context that Jesus says, “He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me, scatters.” What he is saying is that anyone who is not with him – recognizing the hand of God and the work of the Holy Spirit when they see it – is against him. Anyone who sees the work of the Holy Spirit and instead of celebrating it, rejects it is against Jesus.

Labeling someone as against us due to differences in doctrine, religion and ideology is foolish in the extreme. As Jesus says in John’s gospel:

“The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

The Spirit moves as it will. It will not be contained by human minds, beliefs and expectations. Failing to recognize the Spirit when it is at work ought to be considered far more dangerous than the possibility that those we associate with may not be pure or righteous enough.

Notice that those who are with Jesus gather, while those who against him scatter. Jesus and his followers are tasked with gathering up the harvest. It is the job of Jesus’ followers to recognize the Spirit moving and claim the harvest for Jesus regardless of where the harvest appears. After all, as with the landowner in the parable of the talents, God “reaps where he has not sown and gathers where he scattered no seed.” The whole harvest belongs to God.

It is the enemy who scatters and sows division. When we use Jesus’ teaching that “whoever is not for us is against us” to divide between “us and them”, “believer and non-believer”, “orthodox and heretic” and so on, we are playing the role of the one who scatters. Rather than gathering the harvest, we are rejecting it and throwing it aside as not good enough, not pure enough and not holy enough. Which is exactly what blasphemy against the Holy Spirit looks like.

So, how are we to avoid rejecting the work of the Holy Spirit? Well, we can go back to what Jesus said about those who were casting out demons in his name: “whoever is not against us is for us”. If someone is driven by love, they are for us. If someone wants more peace, joy, patience, justice, mercy and grace in the world, they are for us. Even if they are, as the disciples put it “not one of us”. After all, the Spirit moves where it will. And it is our job to gather the harvest, claiming it for the one who is the source of all good things.

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Jesus’ Gift to a Young Rich Man

As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. “You know the commandments, ‘DO NOT MURDER, DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY, DO NOT STEAL, DO NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS, Do not defraud, HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER.’” And he said to Him, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.” Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.

I remember years ago hearing someone say that morals are for rich people. Which I didn’t understand. I mean, I can understand how a lack of money could drive you to stealing or fraud. But otherwise, why would morals be optional for people just because they didn’t have money? You don’t need money to be a good person, after all.

I, of course, still don’t think that poor people don’t have morals and that morals are for people with money. But what I have come to understand two things. First, that having good morals does not make you a good person. I know plenty of people who never break any of the 10 commandments and are terrible people. The second thing I’ve learned is that it takes much more to hang onto morality when you are already depleted by a ridiculously stressful life.

When there’s no comfort or pleasure in your life, it’s much harder to turn away from the comfort found in the arms of someone you are not in a covenant relationship with. When your mother and father were so desperate and depleted by the time that they came home, that they lashed out at you, it’s much harder to honor them than it is when you have a mom who greets you after school with a plate of cookies and a smile and a dad who wants to play catch in the yard after work while you tell him about your day. When a shady mortgage broker has defrauded you and you’ve lost your home and are living out of a cheap motel room, it’s much harder to convince yourself to stick to the rules just on principle. Life’s just different when you’re just struggling to survive.

While we may admire the upstanding, morally sound, financially comfortable person, the truth is that many of those people wouldn’t have held up any better under trying circumstances than anyone else. Which is part of why we can’t judge people. Only God knows the heart. And sometimes even a good heart gets overwhelmed, depleted and despairs. Which isn’t an excuse for immorality, but it is an explanation. God knows this.

The thing is that while we see morality as something that is just expected of us, it was given as something to struggle with. We’re actually meant to fail at it. In Romans, Paul says, “through the law we become conscious of our sin.” If we can follow the law, without fail, then the law is not having the effect God intends it to have in our lives.

Now, does this mean that God has set us up for failure so that he can then show up and play the super-hero who graciously saves us? I can certainly understand why someone would think that. However, this isn’t the case. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul explains about the law, “therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith.”

As Brene Brown says, “we are wired for struggle.” The law was meant to cause us to struggle. It is in struggling that we learn, grow and change. Struggle is like weightlifting for the soul. It tears us down and builds up back up, shaping us in the process. By placing demands on us that we will struggle and fail to meet, the law becomes our teacher, showing us the way towards Christ.

If we never fail, we don’t need forgiveness. If we never rebel, we don’t need grace. If we never fall under our heavy load, we don’t need our burdens lifted. If we never rail against an unfair world and a seemingly uncaring God, we don’t need comfort. If we have no need of forgiveness, grace, burdens lifted or comfort, then we have no need for God. We all need God. But without struggling, we will never know just how much. Nor will we understand the value of what God has to offer us.

When Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” he’s not saying that rich people are worse people than everyone else. That they love money more than everyone else. Or that they care less about other people than everyone else. He says that it’s harder for rich people because the whole point of wealth is to protect us from struggles. The whole point of the law is to cause us to struggle. Which is why money and following God are so often in conflict.

Now, consider what Jesus does in his interaction with the young rich man. When the young man approaches, Jesus starts by disarming him. “Only God is good.” If the point of the law is to follow it, then those who are good at following it are completely justified in thinking that they are themselves good. But if only God is good and even Jesus refuses to accept that descriptor, then this young man knows he cannot stand on his own goodness. We are not good because of our morality, but any goodness we have comes from our connection with the one who is good – God alone.

Jesus then brings up the commandments in order to draw out the young man’s relationship with them. When the young man responds that he has kept to them from his youth, we see the problem; he’s never struggled. Sure, he may have faced temptation. But he’s never had to struggle with the law to the point of failure. Which means that the law has not had the intended effect in his life.

The story says that Jesus looked at this young man who has sought righteousness the only way he knew how and loved him. Jesus loves us all, of course. But he looked at this young man in particular and saw something in him that he loved in that moment. I suspect that what he saw was a young man who had done all of the right things and yet knew somehow that it was inadequate. Something in him knew that he needed more than to keep to the commandments in order to attain what he sought.

He could have gone to the Pharisees and asked them what he needed to do and explained that he kept to the commandments and always had. They would have been happy to tell him that he was right with God, especially in light of the financial support his family provided to the religious establishment. But he didn’t. For whatever reason, he sought Jesus. Which, oddly enough, is exactly what the law is supposed to do – lead us to Jesus.

So Jesus looked at this young man and loved him for whatever was in him that knew he was lacking. And he says, “sell all you own and give it away.”

Jesus knows perfectly well that he’s asking this young man to do something he cannot do. It wasn’t just love of money, comfort and security that made it impossible for this young man to do as Jesus instructs. It would have been terribly destructive and irresponsible for him to sell everything and give it away. It would have meant casting his entire family into the streets, for one thing.

Jesus had other followers who were wealthy. He never asks any of them to sell everything to follow him. But he loved this young man and so gave to him what the law could not – something to struggle with.

What Jesus and Paul Left Out

Let’s do some bible study, shall we? I look to do that sort of thing around here, donchano. Today I want to show you something kind of amazing about how both Jesus and Paul used scripture. And if we’re honest, it doesn’t fit with either liberal or conservative preferences for how to use scripture.

First, let’s look at these quotes from the Old Testament:

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
    and the day of vengeance of our God.

~ Isaiah 61:1-2

Rejoice, you nations, with his people,
    for he will avenge the blood of his servants;
he will take vengeance on his enemies
    and make atonement for his land and people.

~Deuteronomy 32:43

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Driving Out Demons

I don’t think I’ve mentioned recently how awesome (pastor, teacher, author) John Ortberg is. Or that I got to hear him teach fairly often during my brief stint at Willow Creek Community Church outside of Chicago. He was my favorite and I learned so much from him. Unfortunately, I have since forgotten the joke he used to tell about Norwegian girls and chest hair. But it was really funny. If I ever meet him, I’ll ask about it so I can share it with you, k?

Anyhow, today’s exegesis is by John Ortbrg from his book Who Is This Man? It’s on Mark 5 where Jesus casts the legion of demons out of a wild man:

“One day Jesus drops a bomb. It’s early in his ministry, things are going well, and he has drawn a crowd so large that he must teach from a boat in a lake so all can hear. That evening he says to his disciples, “Let’s go over to the other side.”

That’s the bomb. The “other side” is something of a technical term. Jesus is not talking just about geography. The other side of the lake was the region of Decapolis, the “ten cities.” This was largely enemy territory. Its inhabitants were pagan people. . .

The Jews regarded the other side as the place where Satan lived. It was dark, evil, oppressive, and demonic. No one would go to the other side—especially no rabbi. . .

Decapolis was also a center of Roman power in Jesus’ time. It housed a legion of six thousand Roman soldiers. The symbol of a Roman legion was a boar’s head. Jesus casually suggested one day, “Let’s go over to the other side.”

What was he doing? Didn’t he know that the kingdom is for our side? It’s almost as if he didn’t know that this is the other side. It’s almost as if he thought it’s his side. It’s almost as if he thought every side belonged to him, or that he belonged to every side. It’s almost as if he thought that all the peoples of the earth were now going to be blessed through him —even the seven nations of Canaan.

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