For a time I worked as a Summer Youth Ministries Intern in Palatka, Florida.  The church was rather large, but Palatka was small.  It was location off Route 17 about an hour north of Deland, Florida, where I was a student at Stetson University.

As I made the trek from Deland to Palatka a few times, I noticed a little tiny white church building that has been stuck in my mind all these years.  What made them so noticeable was their wooden church sign.  In big letters the name of the church was painted for all passersby to see.  The sign read:

The Inspired and Inerrant Word of God in Christ Church:
Independent, Holiness, Apostolic, Spirit-Filled, Biblical, and Fundamentalist!

Then, as if this wasn’t clear enough, the subtitled on the sign read:

This is THE Church!

Of course, the implication being:

“There is NO OTHER church!”

Or at least,

“There is no other church that’s got EVERYTHING RIGHT, the way we do in here!”

I always wanted to visit that church, but I was afraid.  If they had everything right, I was worried that if I went in there, I might mess things up!  You see I am not sure I have everything right.  That might bother some people.  After all, some folks expect “the pastor” to have it all together.  The pastor is supposed to have all the answers.  The pastor is supposed to be a paragon of wisdom and virtue.  The pastor is supposed to be the epitome of doctrinal purity.  The pastor is supposed to be the quintessence example of theological orthodoxy.

Now I will submit that at some level I have some greater knowledge and experience dealing with concepts theological and biblical.  Yet despite all the scholarly degrees, despite all the volumes read in theological and biblical studies, and despite the some 2500 sermons and bible studies I have researched, prepared, and preached, I want you to know that at my core, I am a fellow struggler.  I have some strong convictions – but I try to take them with the proverbial grain of salt, because I feel certain that I am not correct on every count.  You can’t be married for 20 years and not discover that you are wrong, at least on a few occasions.

So I would not feel comfortable putting a sign in front of our building, saying “This is the church!”  I know that there are people and traditions and pastors who have a great love for Jesus and who interpret the Bible differently than I do in some very significant ways.  I know that there are churches that have a great love for Jesus who worship in significantly differently than we do.  I know that there are Christians who have a great love for Jesus who call themselves Episcopalian, Methodist, Congregationalist, Presbyterian, or Roman Catholic.  I know that there are traditions or people who have a great love for Jesus that see themselves as reformed, or progressive, or traditionalist, or charismatic.  So, to put a sign in front of this building declaring that “This is THE Church!” would make me feel uncomfortable.

And yet there are those in many congregations – like that little church between Palatka and Deland – who see themselves as “THE CHURCH!”

It’s not just congregations, though, that carry this attitude.  It’s some Christians.  Oh, certainly not in here.  They are in all those other churches.

There are those who draw lines between themselves and other Christians for all sorts of reasons.

Did you know that she’s a Republican?

Did you hear that he’s a Democrat?

Can you believe that she actually asked that question in Sunday School?

How can a person believe something like that and call themselves a Christian?

Maybe it’s not just issues of politics and doctrine!  Maybe it’s about stuff even more trivial.  It’s the way they walk, or talk, or dress, or act.  She’s a little strange.  He’s a bit odd.  She’s just plain weird.  Now he’s different, isn’t he?

And so, we draw a circle around ourselves and make it clear who’s inside our circle and who’s outside the circle.  What’s worse, we even justify our circles of exclusivity using terms of spirituality and theology.

In 1988, while still in seminary, I had the opportunity to visit the Middle East.  On one of our stops in Bethlehem, we visited the Church of the Nativity, which rests over the spot where tradition says that Jesus was born.

As we toured the facility, our tour guide told us a violent and bloody story about  the conflicts that surround that spot.  The conflicts are not between Palestinian and Israeli or between Arab and Jew.  The conflict was between various factions of Christianity.  For the last several years prior to our arrival, Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Coptic Christian traditions have gathered near the Church of the Nativity in violent protest, each declaring their superiority over other Christian traditions.

Now think about that!  In the very spot that prompts us to remember the angels singing, “Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward All,” people have gathered in Jesus name to declare war on others who also worship and serve under the banner of Christ
In a sense, this is what was happening in the biblical text for today.  Listen to these words again, spoken by John.

“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
Do you catch what’s happening?  Here’s a man who is doing good works.  He’s doing these works in the name of Jesus.  That means he is acting “under the authority” of Jesus.  He’s doing the works of God’s Kingdom under the authority of Jesus.  So far, so good, right?

The next thing we notice is that the man was not a part of “inner circle” of the twelve disciples.  He wasn’t in the right group.  He wasn’t from the right tradition.  He wasn’t from their same denomination.  He didn’t pal around with the right people.  He was outside the circle of the accepted orthodoxy of John’s theology.  That being the case, John (probably acting as a spokesperson for the rest of the group) wanted to make this unnamed disciple stop.

There is one more thing we notice.  This nameless disciple was evidently very successful at what he was doing.  When this nameless disciple preached, people responded.  When this nameless disciple offered the proverbial alter-call, the people confessed faith and trust.  When this nameless disciple laid hands on the sick and prayed for their healing in Jesus name, those whom he prayed for were healed.

Let’s put it another way.  When you looked at this nameless disciple, you could clearly see evidence of God’s activity in and through his life.  You could clearly see Jesus making a difference in his life and an impact through his life.

That, more than anything, must have really aggravated John and the other disciples.  Let’s reflect back on the story from the first part of the ninth chapter of Mark.  Three of Jesus disciples (James, John, and Peter) had just returned from the mountain-top experience where they had experienced the Transfiguration of Jesus.  When they arrived in the valley they happened upon a scene involving the disciples, some scribes, and a man with a sick child.  The man had brought his son to the disciples for healing.  The disciples prayed and acted as seemed appropriate in light of what Jesus had taught them, but no matter what they tried, they could not heal the young boy.

Don’t you imagine that must have been a bit embarrassing for them?  It’s tough enough for your efforts to seem unsuccessful when you are doing everything right.  It’s even worse when somebody who is not even a part of your group, tribe, or tradition, is able to do the things you should be doing, but can’t.

So what did John do?  He began to gripe that this other fellow was doing good deeds, in Jesus name, but was not a part of their group.  First, they complained to the nameless disciple.  The text indicates that they tried to get him to stop, but he refused.  Poor disciples!  Apparently they not accomplish what this man was doing, nor could they stop him from doing it.

So, when that could not work, they took their complaint to Jesus.  “Lord, there is a guy doing good deed in your name, but he is not a part of our group and we can’t make him stop.”  The implication is simple.  They wanted Jesus to make the man stop.  They want the word to go forth that they, the twelve, have exclusive right to this man named Jesus.    They wanted to draw a circle around themselves and Jesus.  They wanted to determine who was on the inside of the circle – with them and Jesus.  They also wanted to decide who was on the outside of the circle.

I’ve been put outside the circle on a number of times.  It doesn’t feel good when you are excluded.  It is especially painful when you are just trying to do something good and somebody goes on the attack.

It happened to me recently from a fellow pastor from another community.  I made some comment that he overheard about some point of theology about “end times” that he disagreed with, and he attacked.  He challenged my belief both in the Resurrection, and the Virgin Birth all in one paragraph.  He called me a liberal!

Just to be clear, I believe in the Virgin Birth.  I believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  Still, because I did not agree with him on some doctrinal point about ‘end times” I was immediately cast outside the circle of acceptable people through whom Jesus could operate.

This is not the first time I have been called a liberal.  It’s happened lots of times.  Despite the fact that I am in agreement with the fundamental doctrines of orthodox Christianity, I have still had people draw a circle around them and Jesus – a circle that places me on the outside.

I have been accused of liberalism for the following issues:

Not using the King James Version of the Bible

Affirming the role of women as leaders in all aspect of church ministry

Being married to a woman who has filled the pulpit as a preacher

Following the New Revised Common Lectionary when planning my preaching.

Going dancing with my friends when I was younger and my body could still move

Allowing the “Sociables” of this church to have a dance a dance with a live band

Allowing my kids to watch “Barney” when they were younger

Being associated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship

Serving on the Virginia Baptist Mission Board

Being ecumenically minded and willing to partner with other Christian faith traditions

Not supporting a “community tent revival/crusade” in my last place of ministry

Attending a “Methodist” seminary to do my doctoral work

READING – I’ve been called a liberal for READING.

Honestly, this one threw me for a loop.  A fellow pastor once visited my office.  He saw several books on my shelf that he didn’t agree with.  Some of them were, shall we way, left of center.  “

You’re a liberal!” he said.

“I am?” was my reply.

“If you read this stuff you must be a liberal!” he declared.

“I read all kinds of stuff,” I said.  “Some of it conservative, some liberal, some liberationist, some secular.  I read all kinds of stuff!”  I said.

“I only read stuff that I agree with.  I’m not a liberal and don’t want to be confused by liberal theology,” he said.  From that point on, he also basically, ceased to be my friend.  Because I READ I have been called a liberal.

Really, I could go on and on, but you get the idea.  I have been labeled as weird, strange, odd, different, and wrong by lots of people.  Sometimes it’s been theological.  Sometimes it’s been political.    Sometimes it’s been cultural.  Sometimes it’s been over a difference of opinion.  Sometimes it’s been over a disagreement over my style of leadership.  It’s been lots of things.

I know what it feels like to be called names, to have lies told about me, to be attacked and put down, to be rejected and excluded, to have a circle drawn around Jesus and be told by some of his most ardent followers that I don’t belong inside the circle – that I don’t fit in.  Oh, sure, I have developed a thicker skin as I get older.  It doesn’t hurt as much as it once did.  When it does hurt, I am usually much better at hiding the pain.  Still, there are those moments when it does hurt.

I don’t say all this to make you feel sorry for me, but that’s not why I am offering this confessional glimpse into my heart and mind.  I am saying all this because, despite knowing the harm that such circles of exclusion can create, I still have the occasional propensity to draw some circles of my own.  I imagine I am not alone in this account.  I’ll bet that many of you have wept one day over being rejected and excluded by another, only to wake the following morning and start doing the same thing to somebody else.

We’ve acted like John a time or two haven’t we?   We’ve tried drawing our own circles and saying who is included and who is excluded.  But at the end of the day, it’s not felt right.  We know it was wrong.  We know that we’ve caused harm.  We know that this is not the kind of church that Jesus in building among us.

Oh, there is a core.  Don’t get me wrong.  There is a core.  But the core is not about our traditions, our culture, our rules, or our regulations.  The core is Jesus – and him alone.  The core that brings us together and makes us a family is our trust in Jesus to be our Savior, Lord, and Life.  The key question is:  “Are we willing to love him, follow him, and let him make a difference in the world through us?”

If the answer is yet, other matters are peripheral.  We may have differences and disagreements, but they will not tear us apart.

God is not building us to be one of those places where everyone has to walk in lock-step with everyone else.  We are not being built by God to be a place where everyone has to dress the same, act the same, pray the same, worship the same, and serve God in the same way.

Jesus’ words in response to John are instructive for us.  He says, “…the one who is not against us is for us.”

That doesn’t need a lot of explanation.  If somebody hasn’t set themselves up to be our enemy, then we should not set ourselves up to be their enemy.

Then Jesus says, “Live at peace with one another!”

Again, that doesn’t need a lot of explanation.  Don’t be mean to one another.  Instead, be nice to each other.  Respect one another.  Love one another.

In some places, these two phrases would require an entire series of sermons to expound upon and explain.  Not here!  Oh, we are not a perfect people.  But we’ve experienced enough of God’s love and grace to know in Christ we are all one body.  We are on the same side and engaged in the same mission.

That’s not all!  We also know that under Christ, we are a people of peace.  We know that despite our faults and failures, God has made peace with us through Jesus.  Now, because that is true, we are going to live at peace with one another – and share that peace with the world.  Amen!


Leave a Reply