Bible Reading at the NEAC 2008 Consultation
by Rev. Paul Perkin
November 15, 2008
What does a truly Christian inclusivity look like, a biblical Christ-honouring inclusivity? What are its limits? And what is its breadth? We'll take as our model the example and teaching of Jesus in two incidents in Mark Ch.9:33-41. See end of text for the passage.
You notice the common idea of being welcoming, or to use our vogue word, being inclusive (welcoming children on the one hand, and welcoming colleagues in ministry, on the other hand), and the connected phrase common to both: 'In my name' that is 'in the name of Jesus' - serving in his name (welcoming children in his name), and working in his name (whether it's opposing evil, or giving a cup of water in his name). The connecting thought is what it means to do these in an inclusive, Christ-honouring way - a way that Christ could put his name to.
So we have here two incidents, and the first raises the issue of
The narrow limits of Christ-honouring inclusivity.
The inner circle of Christ's disciples were in no doubt about how limited in their view Christian inclusivity should be. In fact they could hardly have been more exclusive.
As they walked south to Jerusalem, perhaps Jesus leading the way, he hears bickering behind him, raised voices. So (33), and they didn't dare tell him because they were so ashamed (34).
Peter perhaps was saying: 'The disciples can be just reverend, the three of us can be Rt.Rev'd but I'll be Most Rev. Everybody else is not so reverend. Who will be greatest? They were still thinking of the Kingdom of God in terms of status. Peter, James and John no doubt telling the other nine 'We were on the Mt of Transfiguration: that makes us a special sort of triumvirate at the top'.
Christ can do nothing with people who are still thinking and talking about their own importance.
That lust for pre-eminence is never satisfied, and always fractures relationship. Given that Peter, James and John were already in their own eyes the very right revs, isn't it extraordinary that James and John, who were of course brothers, wanted to go even further, and cut Peter out in ch.10 (35). Matthew adds candidly that their mother was behind it. That's what self-importance does, it cuts us off from one person after another after another, until we end up in a community of one, in which we are by definition the most important.
Jesus gave a verbal rebuke and a visual one:
1) The verbal rebuke: Jesus said: I want to take your social values and turn them upside down. If you want to be greatest, start at the bottom (35). They didn't get it now, nor in chapter 10, nor at the last supper. Because it was a secret rendez-vous there was no servant to receive them. The bowl of water and towel were there, because some of the disciples had gone to prepare the room earlier, but no servant to wash their feet. And you can imagine all the disciples looked at the basin, looked at the towel, and each said: 'Well, I'm not going to do it'. So they all sat down with dirty feet. And half-way through the meal Jesus took his cloak off, picked up the bowl of water, and said: 'I'm going to wash your feet'. It must have been shattering. You've got to turn your thinking upside down. If you want to be great then serve.
2) The visual rebuke. He took a child, v.36, possibly Peter's son if he was in their house in Capernaum, and said: If you think you're important, you must not only reverse your idea by becoming a servant, you must also serve unimportant people (37). If you give time to an unimportant child (in the society of Jesus' day children had very little status of importance), he can't give you anything in return, your prestige won't go up. But if you welcome and honour a child in my name, you welcome and honour me; and if you welcome and honour me, you welcome and honour God. (you welcome the presence and grace of God into your life - which ought to be an incentive for every single person to be queuing up to become a Children's Church helper)
To honour Jesus is to honour God, to fail to honour Jesus is to fail to honour God, so that Judaism and Islam as religious systems cannot sufficiently welcome God or be honouring to him, because they fail to sufficiently receive and honour Jesus. We honour God by honouring Jesus, we dishonour God by dishonouring Jesus - this is the narrow limit to Christian inclusion.
So we see how this was all precipitated by the disciples. They narrowed down their inclusivity according to personalities, members of their own exclusive clique, even their own family. They ranked one another according to their own definition of greatness, they focused on the people in themselves - in the way that if we're honest we can so easily count some and discount others.
And Jesus demolishes their exclusive self-importance, but he doesn't abolish the limits of inclusivity altogether. He replaces their limit to Christian inclusivity with another limit, defined not by personalities, but rather by the response to Jesus himself (which is in itself a devastatingly self-conscious claim to his own divinity). The two-fold test of any person, or sect, or project, or ministry or teaching is:
* On the one hand does this honour Christ, his life, does it receive his teaching, welcome it and submit to it? Does it welcome Christ?
* And on the other hand is it said or done in the name of Christ? Does Christ welcome this? Would he put his name to it? And that question is not settled simply by tacking on the formula 'In Jesus' name' at the end of a prayer, or 'In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit' at the beginning of a sermon. Nor is it a matter of proof-texting the explicit sayings of Jesus in a red-letter bible - for our bible is the OT, Jesus's bible, and the NT, the apostolic testimony to Jesus. It is to the sum total of the biblical witness that we must appeal. Would Jesus welcome a revisionist understanding of sexual morality? We have to ask whether the all-round witness of scripture would welcome it. As the psalm puts it: 'The sum of thy word is truth'.
That's the two-fold test. Those two questions restrict the limit to a true Christian inclusivity, at the same time annihilating all pretensions to human self-importance, all the distinctions between persons that separates us and divide us and fracture Christian community.
If the first incident shows us the narrow limits of Christ-honouring inclusivity, the second incident shows us:
The wide breadth of Christian inclusivity, summed up in v.40 'whoever is not against us is for us'.
Mention of the name of Jesus in v.36 raises something they have just done. John, he had the nickname 'Son of thunder' - was he angrily, aggressively judgmental as a character? - John said: (38a). 'Jesus, we saw someone using your name, so we stopped it straight away'. And do you see why John stopped it? 'He's not in our trade union, he's not in our clique', end of v.38: 'He's not one of us'. You can see how they think. 'We are the genuine disciples, we are the true church, we are the real Christians'. And John was proud of it - and he thought Jesus would be pleased.
Jesus replied: (39,40) And Jesus put the same test both ways; in Matt.12 and Luke 11, 'He who is not with me is against me'. But a person who uses my name to release people from the powers of supernatural evil will not be against me - that's just rank intolerance, John - just because he doesn't follow you? join your band of disciples? This man was doing something for me - don't stop him.' This is the wide breadth of Christian inclusivity. Even though there will be many according to Matt.7 who will say on the last day 'Lord, Lord, did we not... in your name drive out demons?' to whom Jesus will say: 'I never knew you', that is for the Lord to say on the last day, not for us to say today. We must work on the prior assumption that our co-belligerents in working for the kingdom of Christ and against evil, are with Christ not against Christ.
Jesus adds two devastating sentences:
1) He turns the tables on John in v.(41). John, you will one day be on the receiving end needing other Christians' tolerant compassion. And I will reward those believers who come to your aid when you are desperate. See how he humbles John. He adds for good measure that casting out a demon is a very difficult thing - but if anyone just gives a cup of water to you, then that counts the same. That person will also be rewarded by God.
2) There's a fate worse than drowning for those who undermine Christian work. (42). What a terrifying lesson John learned that day - that he was in danger of a fate worse than drowning, because in his intolerance he lacked love.
So we see again how the disciples precipitated this emphasis on the need for Christian tolerance. A true Christian and biblical inclusivity is still bounded by the name of Jesus, but it recognises all parallel ministries working in that same name. And again there is a two-fold test question.
* On the one hand - does this person, or group or teaching say anything bad against Jesus? Jesus says in v.39 that no one who does a work truly in the name of Jesus will in the next moment be saying anything bad against Jesus himself. There are the obvious blatant examples of that, like the so-called Progressive Christianity Network which claims that a new Christianity for a new age needs to go beyond Jesus.
There are the less obvious examples that speak ill of the person and teaching of Christ: the systems that deny his all-sufficient sacrifice on the cross for sin, that add intermediaries between us and God. That is to say something bad about him for 'there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus'. Any system that locks the presence of Christ into the sacraments, or into priestly control - that says something bad about Jesus.
* And on the other hand - are they for or against us? That is, both Jesus himself, and those Jesus simply refers to as 'us' - not 'us' as defined by our band (that was John's mistake), but 'us' the historic, apostolic mainstream church throughout history.
- The prosecution and eviction of Christian congregations in N. America, by innovative teachings, is not for 'us', the apostolic 'us'. It is against 'us', including against Christ himself.
- Again, the relegation of other bible-believing denominations and ministries to a second-class place in our estimation, because they are not of us, our band, is to fail to recognise the real us, Christ's body today.
- Despising experimental and adventurous mission enterprises and church plants, just because they are unconventional culturally or because they upset tradition or church order, even though they are utterly orthodox biblically and lovingly mission-inspired, that is to despise 'us' - it is against Christ and his church founded on the apostles. The denominational HQ may not have authorised them, the likelihood is that Christ has.
- For biblical charismatics and non-charismatics to dismiss each other on secondary matters, which is often theoretically on doctrinal grounds, but practically often just because they are not one of us, our church stream, that is antagonistic to Christ.
- And to separate from those among whom we were once converted to Christ, who were our brothers and sisters in the youth groups, camps and Christian Unions (often in the name of having moved on, but in truth having moved away) is to have moved against 'us'. It is not just to move away from our evangelical roots - it is to move away from the rock from which we were hewn, Christ and the apostles - 'us'.
To sum up, these two incidents in Jesus' ministry are therefore the clearest appeal to a principled inclusivity, or to use the more Anglican term comprehensiveness - a comprehensiveness based on the person and teaching of Christ and his apostles.
Mark 9: 33-41
33 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the road?" 34But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all."
36 He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37"Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me."
Whoever Is Not Against Us Is for Us
38 "Teacher," said John, "we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us."
39 "Do not stop him," Jesus said. "No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, 40for whoever is not against us is for us. 41I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward.