More Faith-Ful Than Thou
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, because no one who does a miracle in my name will be able soon afterward to say anything bad about me. For whoever is not against us is for us. For I tell you the truth, whoever gives you a cup of water because51 you bear Christ’s name will never lose his reward.
Arius was a teacher in Alexandria, Egypt in the third and fourth centuries. The centuries of persecution of Christians just ended which gave him the opportunity to really focus on what he really loved: He loved to really dig into Christian theology and work out the logical ideas. But he wasn’t too enamoured of the influence of Greek philosophy in Christianity and he would warn his students about the creeping influence. One of the issues he took on was the idea that Jesus was eternal and was of the same substance -- the same spiritual “stuff”-- as God the creator. While he agreed that Jesus assisted in creation, Jesus was completely submitted to the Father and some time in the ancient past was begotten from the Father.
Unfortunately, Arius’ bishop, Alexander-- yeah, his name was Alexander of Alexandria-- strongly disagreed with him. He said that Arius had to teach that Jesus was the same substance as the Father. Arius said, well, sir, I have to teach what I see as true. This became a big issue. So big that people on the street of Alexandria-- and Rome and Constantinople-- argued about it. It was said that you couldn’t go down to the market without sellers arguing with buyers, “same substance!” “Different substance!” “Eternal!” “Created!”
Alexander was miffed. So was Emperor Constantine. He didn’t like his newly supported religion brining division among the people. He wanted a clean, pristine, pure religion to call his own. So he called a council of bishops from throughout the empire and said, “Decide this! Now!” They took a vote and Alexander of Alexandria won. So the Emperor turned to Arius and said, “Now you and anyone who believes in your heretical teaching, leave the empire! We want one pure belief, clean of heresy!” So Arius packed up his family, his disciples and left the Roman empire.
And from this point on, one of the essential ideas of Christianity was that the church would be endangered as a social entity unless everyone believed the same thing. This is where people insist upon the idea that we need to have a single, unified vision of the church. Unless we agree upon the basics, no one will listen to what we have to say. God forbid that we disagree-- in public even! The council of Nicea created a thing called a “creed” or a laundry list of beliefs, which was a tool for Christianity to use to clearly distinguish between who was in and who was out. Of course, they had to update that about every century, but still, it’s official.
Of course, this isn’t a new idea. Bishops were given authority in the mid-second century to quiet down heresy, whatever they thought that meant. Paul said that there was “one faith” and he argued with other Christians about which faith that was, even desiring that his opponents be castrated (although that might have been a joke). And in the text we were reading, we can see the disciples being pretty insistent about who is in and who is out.
The apostle John was kind of a hothead. That’s why Jesus named John and his brother James, “sons of thunder” because they were always ready to zap people for not being a part of the right group. Meaning their group. So John reported to Jesus their latest activity. They saw someone helping out a mentally ill person in the name of Jesus and they stopped them. “Who gave you authority to use that name? Have you attended Jesus’ classes? Do you have a monogrammed sweatshirt? Where is your membership card? Yep. I thought not. Sorry, until you belong to the right group, you don’t have the right teaching. If you don’t have the right teaching, you can’t use Jesus’ name.” So they shut this guy down.
Jesus’ response should have been, “Well, I totally understand that. This guy could have been doing good works in the totally wrong way. What if he said the Lord’s Prayer with the wrong words? What if he didn’t understand that I was the Messiah?” That’s what John was expecting.
Instead, Jesus got on John’s case. “What are you doing? Wasn’t this guy doing an act of love? Why did you stop him? Think of it this way: do you want the name of Jesus associated with sincerely someone helping someone out or being a self-righteous, judgmental jerk? I think the former, eh?
“This guy was on our side. We don’t know that because they took the right seminar, have the right degrees from the right college or belong to the right denomination. We know that because he is doing an act of love. That’s the guy we want to keep doing that kind of stuff! Next time you see someone doing an act of love, don’t look at the basis of their authority, rather thank them!”
Jesus even went on to say, that this guy who belonged to the wrong group, probably had the wrong theology would receive the blessing of God. He cannot be denied his reward. And anyone, Jesus said, who does good work in the name of Jesus-- no matter what their theology or outlook, no matter how heretical they are-- will receive God’s reward. If we are going to take this seriously, than any work of love, no matter how small is God’s work, even if done by people who believe in the wrong things.
It’s easy to apply this to people like Franklin Graham who demands that Christian progressives are going to hell. Or people like John MacArthur who insist that all pentecostals and Charismatics are part of a diabolical heresy. It’s a good thing that us progressives are so open-minded and accepting of all people.
Of course, there is this guy that I’ve been reading lately, Bishop John Sprong. He insists that orthodox Christianity is “Unbelievable” and that “Christianity must Change or Die.” His answer is to change the theology of Christianity, to recognize that Jesus resurrected in the spirit, not the body, to deny the virgin birth of Jesus, to deny the reality of the Exodus. I am not here to argue that he is wrong in his assessment, although I do think that his theology tends to be pretty focused on scholarship in the 70s and 80s. I am saying that he, just like the orthodox teachers he is arguing with, are focused on the wrong issues. Whether one does or does not believe in the virgin birth isn’t the issue at all. The issue is what foundation do you have to enact the love of Jesus.
If Jesus is bodily risen from the dead and so Jesus is the king of creation and so we must follow Jesus’ law of love and that is how you learn to love, God bless you. If you find that Jesus’ bodily resurrection is on shaky ground, but you are inspired by the Sermon on the Mount to live a life of love, then God bless you. If you are a Muslim who believes that Jesus is a prophet, but finds his life to be guiding yours to act with greater mercy, then God bless you.
On the other hand, if we think that Muslims aren’t the right kind of religion because they don’t believe in the right things, even though they give more to charity per capita than the Christian church, then we aren’t listening to Jesus. If we reject the good work of supporting women in pregnancies through poverty of the Pregnancy Crisis Centers, because they don’t agree with our politics, we have the same problem as those who reject Planned Parenthood and their good work. If we reject all of conservative Christianity because of their doctrine, then we are also rejecting the hospitals, the shelters, the many, many cups of cold water throughout the world they have also delivered.
Am I saying that God is pleased with all the work of all churches? Absolutely not. What I am saying is that God does not measure his people by words on a piece of paper. That God does not judge any of us based on ideas of what the future has in store for us. That God does not judge us based on which party we vote for. Rather, God blesses those who do acts of love.
Diane had a boss who owned a laundromat. He was an avid watcher of Fox and he voted for Bush and he was always talking about people who need to help themselves and get out of poverty. But when he saw someone in need, he was there for him. I have never liked Bill’s politics, nor did I care for his theology. But I cannot argue with his life. With the fact that his faith wasn’t primarily about teaching, but about how he lived. And I saw how he sacrificed, sometimes his well-being, for people in need. He may not be part of our group, but he is among the blessed of God because of his love. And it took me more than a minute to open my eyes and see that it isn’t about theology or posturing-- God’s blessing is about how we respond to someone in need.
I was a person opposed to the LGBTQ. There are men and women and there is God’s commandment and that’s enough. And then Vickie came into our lives. She would be classified as a transvestite by some, although her issues were more complicated than that. She and I went into counseling, so I could give her spiritual guidance while she was living in our house. In the end, she is the one who taught me. She taught me that the truest Christian may not have everything right according to the church, but is humble, serving and loving. In fact, the best Christian I know was thrown out of multiple churches because of issues that had nothing to do with love, but with the kinds of clothes she needed to wear. I thank God for her to come into our lives. She, more than anyone I know, taught me that love is more important than doctrine. And I have never forgotten that lesson.
Should we ignore theology? I don’t think so. Our theology can help us determine how best to love. But I think that we should take care not to judge someone who has a different theology or politic than we, because those things sometimes matter less than the practical details.
The other thing is something I wonder. Bible studies and classes are usually about making sure that everyone in the group is on the same page theologically, on the right page of belief and doctrine. Sometimes we have Bible studies to actually explore God’s will about something. But here is something I’ve considered. Perhaps instead of all this focus of studying doctrine and theology is the wrong step altogether, as enjoyable as it is. Perhaps we need to have love studies. How to best love and care for people. What is love in one context or another. When we have limited resources, who should be loved, this person or that? How do we make that determination? What is the loving and unloving way to obtain resources? What is the best approach to love, through things, presence or community? I wonder if we should have more love studies and fewer classes on what we believe. In so long as each session ends in action, and not just in thought.
On other thing I’ve been thinking about this. It has to do with trusting God, like what we talked about last week. If faith is really about trusting God, then we trust God to lead us in the Spirit, to get us to the right place, eventually. If we can trust God that much, perhaps we should trust that God is also leading other people who seek her as much as we do. That we should trust God enough to bring other people to the place they are supposed to be, even if we are sure that their way is the wrong way.