38 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.’ 39But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. 40Whoever is not against us is for us. 41For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
If I asked you what a red octagon stood for, we could probably all recognize it as a symbol meaning “Stop”. If I described a circle divided into three equal parts, you might know that as a Mercedes-Benz symbol. If you drop a line straight down from the vertical line on the Mercedes symbol, we have a peace symbol. A check mark looking symbol on a pair of shoes is recognizable as the Nike swoosh.
In Christianity we have a few symbols as well. If we wanted name a few, we would probably name things like the cross, the manger, the Star of Bethlehem, and the empty tomb. Well today I want to add a few new symbols to our collection of symbols we associate with Christianity, symbols that you probably have never connected with Christianity before today. Two of these symbols are negative and one is positive. Today I want to look at golf clubs, highlighters and horse blinders and use these symbols to better understand how we have come to have so much division within Christianity and how we might be able to work together for the common goal of serving Jesus Christ.
I don’t golf. I think that simple fact has been a major disappointment to many people in this congregation. My older brother is the golfer in the family. But in spite of my inexperience, I do know a little about the game. For instance, some people might question why a golfer might need so many clubs. But I know that there is a reason that you golfers lug a big heavy bag around the golf course on a hot, sunny day. You carry them all around because each club serves a purpose, each one is necessary to achieve your goal.
We have drivers for the long shot, irons for chipping and wedges to get out of the sand trap. And of course we have the putter for those shots on the green. I don’t know how well somebody could golf with only one golf club. Which club would you select if you had to choose only one? You would probably choose according to what part of the game is most important to you. If the long game is the most important to you, you might grab that driver. If the short game was important to you, maybe you would grab the putter or the nine iron. But the truth is, if we truly want to golf well, we need a wide variety of clubs.
It is not a secret that the body of Christ is divided. Issues have caused churches to split into different groups that we call denominations. The Lutherans broke off from the Catholics, the Amish broke off from the Mennonites, the Methodists broke off from the Anglicans. Today, the number of denominations is staggering. Some estimates put the number of Christian denominations in the thousands! So who is right?
Well, I am a Mennonite. And I am not a Mennonite because of family reasons or pressures. I am not a Mennonite because I am afraid of being shunned or rejected by friends. I am a Mennonite because I believe that the Mennonite faith takes seriously some of the central beliefs of Christianity that I find important.
But this is not to say that I believe that other denominations are all wrong. In one of my classes, we have been sharing our “spiritual journeys” through life. The first person to share his journey told us about growing up in a charismatic church in Kentucky. And he shared with us that the teaching in his church was that they were the only ones going to heaven. They were the true followers of Jesus Christ.
Then this past Thursday, my friend Jim Schmitt shared his life story. Jim’s parents grew up Amish, but they became a part of a more “progressive” Amish-Mennonite congregation where Jim grew up (they drove cars, but only black cars). And one of the first things that Jim shared with us in class was this phrase, “Galen, you shared a couple of days ago about how your church growing up was the only church going to heaven. Well Galen, you were wrong. It was MY church growing up that was the only one going to heaven.”
Maybe this is teaching that some of you heard growing up. Perhaps you heard that only those who were Mennonite, or Baptist, or Catholic, or whatever denomination you might have grown up in was the only one that had it right, and the true followers of God. And that meant that your church was the only one that would be going to heaven. Now I never heard that statement made explicitly when I was growing up, but I do believe I heard that message implied.
Well, I am going to burst your bubble today if you still believe this. Because I don’t think Mennonites are the only people that will be in heaven. I don’t think we are the only true followers of Jesus Christ. When someone calls out, “Lets sing 606” in heaven, there will probably be a lot of people that don’t know what that means.
Yes, I believe that we as Mennonites have a lot of things going for us. Again, I wouldn’t be a Mennonite if I didn’t believe this to be true. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot learn from other denominations. Denominations are like golf clubs. We may be as different as a driver is from a putter. We may have different emphases. But we have a common goal, to put the ball in the hole. Or in our Christian context, our common goal is to be faithful servants of Jesus Christ.
In our scripture for today, the apostle John comes to Jesus and he says, v. 38 “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” The thing we need to see here is that the person was casting out demons in the name of Jesus. This unnamed man must have had some kind of exposure to Jesus. Perhaps this unnamed man was a part of the five thousand plus women and children that had gathered to hear Jesus teach and preach who were then fed from five loaves and two fish. Perhaps this unnamed man saw Jesus heal the sick, the deaf, and the blind in the chapters that come before our scripture for today. We can’t say for sure, but this unnamed man was able to cast out demons because he was doing it in Jesus’ name.
So if he was doing this in the name of Jesus, why did John and the other disciples try to stop him? Because this unnamed man wasn’t a part of their group. They tried to stop him because he wasn’t one of the twelve disciples. But Jesus said to them in verse 39, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.”
I have to wonder if this is why different denominations have started. We have seen other people doing things, even things in the name of Christ, and we say “They are not a part of us, they must be wrong.” They might not be exactly like us, but if someone is taking serious their attempt to live out their faith, then why do we, like John, try to stop them or criticize them behind their back? Why must we always look for the problems in other people’s theology or their programs? I suggest that instead of trying to stop them, we learn from one another, that we have conversations with one another.
I think there is a verse somewhere in the Bible, it goes something like, “Wherever two or three are gathered together…there are four or five different opinions.” Even within this congregation, we don’t all agree on everything, do we? We have Sunday School at nine thirty here and we have a discussion style class where everyone has an opportunity to share their beliefs. And I don’t think that I am going out on a limb when I say that probably not all of us agree with one another on every issue. We probably all have different understandings of scripture, and we definitely all have different life experiences that shape our understanding of the Gospel. There is even a small, small chance that once in a blue moon, someone might disagree with something that I say during the worship service. And that is okay.
We as Christians don’t have to agree on every single point. In fact, I think it is better for us to not agree on everything. That is how we grow, we learn from one another. We talk about our disagreements. If we agreed on everything, if we never had a conversation with someone that had a different understanding than we do, we would never grow in our understanding of Christ. The only time we should agree on everything is when we have everything figured out. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t claim to have it all figured out yet.
I will admit it, I like to have my amen corner. I like to hear the affirmations from the congregation when I say something that you agree with. Back in 2004, I got a “Preach it Brother!” from the congregation. Talk about motivation and affirmation.
But I am not always right. And this is probably going to be something that you aren’t going to hear in many other congregations. But when I am wrong, I want to know about it. They say ignorance is bliss, but I say ignorance is still ignorance.
Now when I say I want to know when I am wrong, I am not asking you to stand up in the middle of a service and yell out, “Your wrong, pastor!” And I would prefer to not hear it right after the sermon, either. That is an extremely vulnerable time. I have spent 10 hours or so preparing for a message, poured out my heart to you all, and it can be very hard to hear criticism right away.
But if I say something that you have serious theological issues with, call me up on Monday. Let’s get together for coffee and talk about our different understandings. If I am wrong, I want to know about it. I want to grow as a Christian. I don’t want to keep on being wrong. If you can show me scripturally why I am wrong, or if you can shed light on a different interpretation, hey, you’ve won over a brother. Even if we can’t come to an agreement, I think it is healthy to agree to disagree.
I can’t help but wonder how the church might be different today if rather than calling someone a heretic and excommunicating them, or burning someone at the steak, or splitting off into different denominations, what would have happened if more people could have just admitted that we are all human beings, that none of us have all the answers, that we can learn from one another over a cup of coffee. Maybe we wouldn’t have so many denominations today. And as we see the Christian population declining rapidly in the 21st century, we need to work together as the body of Christ to serve our God. Whoever is not against us is for us.
This brings me to our second symbol, what I consider to be one of the most detrimental inventions to Christianity. This little yellow marker that we call a highlighter. Oh, highlighters are great, right? I use highlighters all of the time in my school work. In my personal books, I often highlight important lines, things I might need to refer back to, things I might want to quote.
Now have you ever wondered what verses of the Bible certain denominations view as the most important? Have you ever wondered what verses they would highlight, what verses they thought were important, what verses they might want to refer back to or quote? If I were to ask you what traditionally has been seen by Mennonites as the most important part of the Bible, what would you say? Probably Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7; the Sermon on the Mount. A Mennonite Bible would probably have these chapters highlighted. What about Lutherans? They would probably highlight the writings of Paul. The Baptists would probably highlight John 3:16 and Matthew 28, the Great Commission.
So who is right? Which section should we have highlighted? My answer is all of them! All of the verses are important. That is why I believe that a highlighter is such a dangerous tool for Christianity. Because when we begin to highlight certain texts in our Bibles, we are saying that the others are not important.
Now of course I am overstating my point a little bit. I do not read the Bible as a flat text. I do believe that certain texts are more important for the formation of Christian thought and the Christian life. But the point I wish to make is that though certain verses might be more central for our formation, the entire Bible is important for our understanding of who God is and what God has called us to be as a part of His kingdom.
But what do we do with Leviticus 19:19? We are not to plant two kinds of seed in one field. I should go tell my dad he is a sinner because he is mixing alfalfa with oats in his spring hay seeding. Now should this verse be central to our theology? Probably not, but it should inform our theology. Because there is an underlying purpose for this OT law. And it has to do with not cheating someone when they are purchasing grain from your field. And I do think that honesty is an important part of God’s plan for the redemption of creation.
As we seek to learn more about who God expects us to be as followers of Jesus Christ, it is important to look at all of these texts. We don’t have a Cliffs Notes Bible, and we need to be careful not to exclude certain parts of the Bible because they don’t make a lot of sense or don’t seem central. And that is why we need to learn from other denominations, because we all fall victim to highlighter abuse, only emphasizing certain scriptures. We need to learn from one another to have a good balance. Whoever is not against us is for us.
This brings me to our final symbol for this morning, the horse blinders. I grew up near Amish Country in Ohio, so I have seen a few horses in my days. When you see the horses pulling the buggies up and down the hilly roads around Wayne and Holmes Counties, you start to notice something attached to the bridles of the horses. What I am referring to is the blinders on either side of the horses’ head.
When we look at a horse, we can see that their eyes are on the side of their head, not on the front of their face like humans. This allows the horse to see things to their sides and much further behind themselves than we can. We call that peripheral vision. Having their eyes on the side of their heads is one way that God made these animals to keep them safe from predators. It makes it a lot more difficult for a predator to sneak up on an animal if it can see things coming from all angles.
Well there are not a lot of horse predators living in Amish Country, or anywhere we have domesticated horses. So, often people will put blinders on the bridle of the horse that prevents the horse from seeing to the side, only allowing them to focus on what is ahead. See, horses spook easily. And when these horses are out on the road pulling buggies, or on the race track, they could easily be spooked by things that come at them from the side or from behind. That is why the blinders are useful.
Well it seems to me that God may not have created us humans with the ability to see 360 degrees around, but He did give us the ability to pick up on a lot of things in our society happening all around us, things that might be considered “predators”.
We Mennonites tend to “pride” ourselves in our communities of faith. We look out for one another; we have disaster relief programs, financial assistance and stewardship organizations, and educational systems. All of these things are good. But some times, when we keep everything “in house.” When we don’t even interact with people from other denominations, we do ourselves and the kingdom of God a disservice. It can be like we are wearing horse blinders, not noticing the good things that other denominations are doing around us. There is work to do and we should not be blind to the ways that God is moving all around us, inviting us to be a part of a larger movement for the redemption of creation. Ecclesiastes 4:12 tells us that a cord of three strands is not easily broken. We have more power when we work together.
When we take off our blinders, we can see that there are millions of other Christians working for the same goal as us. Millions others that are seeking to be faithful servants of Jesus Christ, to provide a better life for those around us, to lead others to life in Jesus. When we put on our blinders and only stay within our church communities, we can miss out on how God is using other people of faith to build His kingdom on earth. Whoever is not against us, is for us.
Maybe I am a putter, maybe the woman sitting down the road at Calvary Baptist is a pitching wedge, maybe the Methodist in Kenya is a driver. The important thing is that we are all in God’s hand and that we can work together for His purpose. Let us seek together what God’s call is upon our lives. Whoever is not against us is for us.