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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Christians can be their own worst enemies. Perhaps you’ve heard this old joke. A man arrived at the gates of heaven where St. Peter asked him, “Religion?” The man said, “Methodist.” St. Peter looked down his list and said, “Go to Room 24, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.” Another man arrived at the gates of heaven. “Religion?” St. Peter asked, “Lutheran.” The man said. “Go to Room 18, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.” A third man arrived at the gates. “Religion?” St. Peter asked. “Presbyterian,” he said. “Go to Room 11, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.” The man then added, “I can understand there being different rooms for different denominations, but why must I be quiet when I pass Room 8?” St. Peter told him, “Well, the Baptists are in Room 8, and they think they’re the only ones here.”
Of course, that story should not be so surprising. It’s almost scriptural. In the Book of Revelation, we read that the new Jerusalem will come down from heaven “adorned as a bride for her husband,” and there will be “great, high wall with twelve gates, and each gate will be made of a single pearl. There will be three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west.” So why shouldn’t there be a sign above each pearly gate, one for the “Methodists,” one the “Lutherans,” one for the “Presbyterians,” one for the “Baptists” and one for “Catholics,” and so forth, all around the wall? The surprise, however, is that when all have entered the walls of heaven, they will find themselves all in the same place. All of the good, religious strangers will stare at one another for a moment and then hopefully burst into laughter. But no doubt there will be some snarling. You see, Christians can be their own worst enemies.
Jesus didn’t speak about walls and separate rooms. He didn’t emphasize the differences between groups and factions, political parties and nationalities. Jesus taught his disciples instead that “Whoever is not against us is for us”, but ever since then, all kinds of public leaders have chosen to rephrase these words to read, “Whoever is not for us is against us!” If you aren’t part of the solution then you are part of the problem. From Lenin and Mussolini to George Orwell to George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton, even literary figures have used the words. In “Beauty and the Beast,” Gaston tells the villagers, “If you’re not with us, you’re against us” before he locked up Belle and her father and led the angry mob to hunt down he Beast. And at the end of “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith,” Darth Vader told Obi-Wan Kenobi, “If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy.” Clever and powerful words, but that was not what Jesus taught.
Mind you Jesus did say some harsh things, “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off, it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.” But that was not a warning for those who were against him. Those were words for those who were with him and yet chose by their words and actions to lead people astray, and become a stumbling block for them in their faith.
My friends, we live in a troubled, polarized world, but Christians don’t have to embrace the uncivil tone that surrounds us. We don’t have to be viscerally opposed to someone with a different point of view, or political understanding. Instead, we can choose to embrace Jesus’ words that “Whoever is not against us is for.” And honor those who are different from us, “For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”
Let us begin again, by reflecting on the opening verse of this passage. We don’t know what motivated the disciple John and the other disciples suddenly to stop an unknown man from exorcising demons in the name of Jesus. Perhaps, John was trying to justify himself. In the previous scene, he had been caught arguing with his brother about who was greatest. It was then, that Jesus had placed a child in the center of his little band of twelve and said that whoever welcomed one such child, welcomed him. Now it could be that the disciples were simply trying to protect the name of Jesus. After all, you just can’t have anyone going around and exorcising demons. What if this man had a checkered past? What if he carried with him a nasty reputation? There was a lot of responsibility in wearing the name of Christ and being his representative. This man was not recognized as one of the twelve.
John was actually proud of what he had done. In a time where people were defined by their special interest groups, he believed that everybody had to stand in one camp or the other. The Herodians sneered at the Sadducees. The Sadducees would not speak with the Pharisees. The Romans disregarded everyone. None of these divisions was treated casually. They were vicious. People wouldn’t even break bread with one another. They used dehumanizing rhetoric to describe one another. There was no generous, allowance for differences. If you disagreed, it meant you didn’t love God, you didn’t love country, you didn’t love your fellow man. Indeed, each group believed deeply that if you weren’t for them, you were against them. Jesus’ own disciples fell into this same way of thinking. So when they heard of someone else going around invoking the name of Jesus, someone whose beliefs and social positions they have not vetted, they confronted him and tried to silence him. They then returned to Jesus with puffed up chests, expecting their teacher would applaud them for their purity of purpose, but Jesus surprised them. “Don’t stop him,” the Lord said, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”
God, you see, is not calling us to be like the twelve disciples, who were preoccupied with questions of who was in and who is out, who was right and who was wrong, who was pure and who was tainted. God wants us to be like that unnamed man who didn’t have time for such questions because he was too busy healing and feeding and sowing seeds of grace and mercy abundantly in the name of Jesus. That is the true calling of the church.
My friends, the church has good news to share. Jesus is calling you and me to offer his peace to the world. It is a peace that passes all understanding, “a peace with your present, your future and your past.” It is a peace that finds reconciliation with your neighbor, and it is a peace with God. Yes, Jesus is inviting you to offer the promise of abundance to those who have not heard. He said,. “I have come that you should have life and live it abundantly.” And Jesus is inviting you to share the promise of everlasting life with those who are without hope. “For whoever believes in me, should not perish but have everlasting life.
Unfortunately, we can all fall into the same bad habits as the disciples. We choose sides, instead of Jesus. We choose ideology over God’s integrity. For us, Jesus’ words of warning should be strikingly clear, “If anyone of you put a stumbling block before one of the little one who believes in me, it would be better if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you be thrown in into the sea.” .” So beware of becoming your own worst enemy.
Jesus then taught his disciples that a true change of habits and perspective all begins with gestures of hospitality. In the ancient world to give a cup of cold water was a symbol of hospitality and of meeting another person’s essential need. The giving of a cup of cold water was a pure gift, a meaningful expression of hospitality and genuinely welcoming another person into one’s home or community. It is to be noted how simple the help is. You are not asked to do great things for others, things beyond your power. You are asked to give the simple things that any person can give. It is the simple act of kindnesses and respect and civility that is needed in the world today
Years ago, I attended a workshop entitled, Congregational Tools for Effective Evangelism. It included a survey of people who had recently joined a congregation. The new members were given a list of 48 reasons why they joined a particular congregation. The “seven highest ranked reasons for joining” were:
1) Because of what the pastor was like as a person.
2) Because members made me feel welcomed when I attended.
3) Because it helped me in my attempt to live a Christian life.
4) Because I especially like the worship services.
5) Because it was a place where my children could receive good religious education.
6) Because the pastor preaches good sermons.
7) Because I felt that something was missing in my life.
What was the second highest factor? “Because people made me feel welcomed when I attended.” And what was the sixth highest factor? “Because the pastor preaches good sermons.” In other words, the power of welcoming by the congregation was more important than the power of the preaching by the pastor. What the congregation said in the pews, and how they treated each other before, during and after the worship was more important than what the pastor said from the pulpit. Of course, it is not that what the pastor preached was unimportant; it was that what the congregation’s role in “welcoming” was very important. Often we as Christians undervalue the power of being a genuinely and deeply welcoming community, but we shouldn’t. And we should be afraid to acknowledge that others may be doing a better job of welcoming than we are.
My friends, let us not stumble and become our own worst enemy. Let us not draw lines that the Lord Jesus did not draw. “For whoever is not against us is for us.” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.