From whom would you accept a cup of cold water?
I ask that question because I think this week’s reading contains some of the more heart-breaking lines in Scripture: “And we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
Just pause and think about that for a moment. The disciples come across someone who, as they report to Jesus, was “casting out demons in your name.” That is, they came across someone who was relieving intense misery, following Jesus’ example, and doing so in Jesus’ name.
But none of that was apparently enough for the disciples. Why? “Because he was not following us.” Notice the shift in pronouns. This other exorcist is doing works of power in “your name,” but “not following us.” Apparently, it’s not enough to be a follower of Jesus; you have to be a certain kind of follower. One that toes the line, that shares their theological commitments, that conforms to the disciples’ expectations.
It’s interesting that John, the disciple making the report, seems to expect Jesus’ approval. He’s not asking a question, “should we have stopped him?” But rather offers an almost matter-of-fact account: “And we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
Far from giving his stamp of approval, however, Jesus corrects John and the others: “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.” It’s almost as if the disciples don’t realise how significant or challenging their mission is, and Jesus admonishes them to find and accept help wherever they can.
But then he goes further, saying: “For 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.” Notice what a small, even paltry example Jesus uses. In just a sentence or two, Jesus has gone from talking about “deeds of power” to “giving someone a cup of water.” That small gesture alone, according to Jesus, is enough to secure the reward.
Jesus made it clear that he and his disciples were not a little clique, working in a corner of life, fenced off from others. His world view, his God’s-eye view, made him well aware that God’s actions were not limited only to the forms with which his disciples were familiar.
What is the lesson in this for us? Don’t Jesus’ words ring true as a rebuke for us of our often blind and unbending exclusiveness, our arrogant assumptions that God’s action among us is limited to forms with which we are most comfortable and most familiar?
What Jesus taught his disciples is equally a lesson for us. Christians can’t fence themselves off from others who have different ways of following Jesus and of finding God. The one who is not against us is for us. The one who is not against Jesus is on the side of Jesus.
In this, Jesus gives us a model for a broader view. There is an issue of tolerance. Doesn’t Jesus’ message to the disciples help us stop short when we fall into the all too common trap of thinking in terms of “us” and “them” – seeing life only from the perspective of our own groups?
Intolerance of ‘the other’ is certainly an attitude that Jesus rejected in today’s gospel reading. Possibly he realised that the disciples considered the man casting out demons as a threat to their inner-circle status. He was an outsider, so they tried to stop him.
What was true for the disciples has been true throughout history. The world and the church have fought for centuries in such fence-building, even wall-building. The stories of the past schisms and divisions are many. And, living out of the tendencies of the same human nature, we still act this way in our time, don’t we?
Standing against this, Jesus’ words remind us that Christianity is not the preserve of a privileged few. He reminds us that no one seeking to do the Lord’s work is an outsider. He reminds us to welcome all people who are willing to join the journey, following the Lord. Over and over again, Jesus’ words remind us to be including – not excluding. Over and over again, Jesus’ words rebuke us when we turn against others because they are different. Over and over again, the life Jesus lived and the way he taught his first disciples remind us of the scandal of our divisions.
There is another side to this, of course. Sometimes conscience and / or practicality dictate that we separate ourselves from others, but the message here, at the very least, is not to do so lightly – not to draw a line in the sand except as a last resort. Jesus helps us work against the subtle temptation to think that “for me to be right, anyone who disagrees with me must be wrong.”
Jesus seems to be telling the disciples something like this: “Look for the commonality. Recognise that there are many among you who might work or think differently, but don’t jump to the conclusion that that makes them wrong – or against you – or against me.” Different doesn’t mean wrong.
He helps us to see that truth is always bigger than any one person’s, or any one group’s grasp of it. Jesus cautions us against inflexibility of thought or deed. He helps us embrace tolerance of a variety of actions and viewpoints. He helps us re-learn what is so easy to forget: that diversity is not only good; it’s absolutely essential for the health of the Body of Christ.
Today’s gospel reinforces a belief that what we need in the church today is less “either / or” and more “both / and.”
Where do we find commonality? Why not begin by looking to our earliest roots? Those who can declare that “Jesus is Lord” are not against us, and therefore are for us, and for Christ. Those who can follow the steps of Jesus, taking up their crosses and denying themselves for the sake of God and God’s children are not against us, and therefore are for us, and for Christ.
The story of today’s gospel is about the disciples’ attempt to draw a circle around Jesus and themselves – shutting out the one who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name but wasn’t one of them. Perhaps a concise, powerful poem by the American poet, Edwin Markham, can help us remember that Jesus ordered the disciples not to exclude that man and to recall that those who are not against us are for us.
In his poem “Outwitted,” Edwin Markham writes:
“He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.”
Rev Lizzie Campbell