One of the major issues confronting our world is its shrinkage. You may scratch your head for a moment on that comment thinking, “Isn’t the earth the same size as it has been for billions of years? There aren’t parts of it eroding into space, are there?” No. That’s not the kind of shrinkage I am talking about. It’s the shrinkage that has been ongoing since the development of more types and faster types of travel and communication. It is in this regard that I think the world is getting smaller.
Consider this, 150 years ago, if you wanted to know what was going on half-way around the world, you had to wait days, if not weeks or months to find out. Letters from overseas were carried upon horseback to an awaiting boat–most probably a sail boat although steam engines were beginning to arrive on the scene. The letter would arrive and be delivered on horseback to its location, but if you were very lucky, the railroad might be able to carry it a bit faster to your location. Communication took time–a long time. Travel took time–much longer than it does now. Today, we have instant communication anywhere in the world by satellite phone or internet. We can board an airplane today and in less than 24 hours can be sitting on the other side of the world. We can drive down to Katy in under an hour’s time whereas 100 years ago it would have taken half a day. The world has shrunk because of technology, and that has had some consequences.
Among those consequences is that we are now forced to rub shoulders with people who are vastly different than we are. We are now coming into contact with people of all sorts of races, religions, worldviews and identities. If you engage this world in any way, you will run into people who do not look like you, think like you, or act like you. Amazingly enough, we are doing a pretty good job of coexisting in this world without destroying each other; but there is quite a bit of tension–quite a bit of tension.
We see that tension rear its head in politics; in spirited debate; in the various wars around the world. There is heightened tension right now between Israel and Palestine. There is heightened tension between Democrats and Republicans. There is heightened tension between conservatives and liberals. There is heightened tension between those who believe in God and those who are atheist. There is heightened tension between Christians and Muslims. Various worldviews around the world are in a constant struggle to interact and offer people a sense of belonging and sense of understanding about the nature of reality. And there is a struggle for truth–which worldview is true and leads us to respect and honor one another?
Some have argued that no one worldview can have a hold on the truth. No one worldview or religion can grasp ultimate truth if that ultimate truth even exists. In fact, some use a rather fascinating illustration to show this. It’s an illustration called the “Blind Men and the Elephant.” Perhaps you have heard it. Depending on the version, five or six blind men encounter an elephant, and each of them touch a different part of the elephant. After their encounter, the men argue about what the elephant is like. One argues the elephant is like a rope–long, narrow, and stringy, because he touched the tail. One argues the elephant is like a wall because he touched the torso. One argues the elephant is like a tree truck as he touched the leg. One argues the elephant is like a hose because he touched the trunk. Another argues the elephant is like a spear, long and sharp because he touched the tusk. Round and round and round they argue–all of them, in one way right, and all of them in one way wrong. And, some argue, that’s the way with religions and worldviews. All of them get something right. All of them get something wrong. Leslie Newbigin gave a rebuttal of sorts to this parable as he realized something: you cannot say that all worldviews have something right and something wrong unless you can see the entire perspective of reality yourself. You cannot possibly know all worldviews have something right and something wrong unless you yourself know the truth! Therefore, people who try to tell you that reality is this way are simply trying to convert you to their way of thinking! They have no idea if it’s true or not. It is just another competing worldview.
The Christian worldview offers a particular way of looking at the world, and it is a way that unabashedly claims to know the truth while honoring and respecting those outside its belief system. It seeks converts but does not seek to harm or hurt those outside the faith. Now, that has not been the case because there are those who have warped Christianity’s teachings, but this morning, I would like to show you what Christianity teaches using this little snippet from Mark chapter nine.
This little piece begins with the disciple John coming up to Jesus and saying, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” Now, keep in mind the following points: first, remember that just a few verses earlier Mark recounted how the disciples were UNABLE to cast out a demon. So it is with no great irony that John is trying to stop someone else from successfully doing what the disciples were unsuccessful at accomplishing. Secondly, immediately preceding John’s statement was Jesus’ teaching on greatness. “Whoever wants to be first of all must be last of all and servant of all.” Does it strike you how John, who is speaking for the rest of the disciples as well, doesn’t quite seem to get humility? Finally, consider this last point which was rammed home to me by James Edwards in his commentary on this text. I never even considered this point until I read it, and it makes absolute sense to me now. Edwards says, “John’s report that the independent exorcist ‘was not following us’ is depressingly ironic. We should expect him to say ‘because he was not following you.’ Is it not a little presumptuous at this stage of discipleship for John to think himself and the other disciples as worthy of being followed?” I hope you caught Edwards’ gist there. John and the disciples are still quite consumed with themselves. They think they are something special because they follow Jesus. They rank themselves with Jesus, but in reality, it’s not about them!!! It’s never supposed to be about them or us!! It’s always supposed to be about Jesus!!!
Which is why Jesus replies to them, “‘Do not stop him [and the Greek gives you the sense of “do not stop him or anyone like him now or ever]; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me.” Now, I want to point out quickly here that the other exorcist was not casting out demons in the name of any other religion or in the name of any other god. Some might like to take Jesus’ words and expand them to all religions here. You cannot do that. Jesus said plainly and clearly that this was being done in His name. When someone does something in Jesus’ name, we are called to humbly step back. We are called to celebrate what they are doing. For anyone who does something in Jesus’ name is not against us. We are working toward the same goal and purpose–if we are working in. Jesus’. Name.
Of course, that now raises the question of, “Well, what if someone is not doing anything in Jesus’ name?”
Jesus continues, “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.” Some have massively misinterpreted this verse. They have suggested that if we are doing even the littlest of actions, then we will be rewarded. They suggest that Christianity is about doing all sorts of little things with great love, but you need to look very, very carefully at what Jesus says here. This is not about the actions of His disciples. This is about the actions of those who are outside the circle of Christianity. This is about those who are not following Jesus. “Whoever gives YOU a cup of water to drink BECAUSE YOU BEAR THE NAME OF CHRIST will by no means lose the reward.” If there are those outside the faith who welcome you; who embrace you; who are kind to you, Jesus sees that as a welcoming of Himself. Try to wrap your head around that for a moment. Even if someone does not believe in Him or trust Him, when they care for you, they are caring for Jesus, and Jesus honors that. Which means, if Jesus is honoring the actions of those who care for us in such a manner, should we not do the same? Of course we should, and I will return to this in just a minute after dealing with the final verse.
Jesus finishes, “‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” This comment would have called up historical precedent because the Roman army had inflicted this exact punishment some Jewish Zealots who had tried to rebel against them under Judas the Galilean (Lane 346)1. Again, let me point out that Jesus is reinforcing the idea that we should not inhibit someone who is striving to do good in His name. In our zealous nature to make sure everyone does everything “right” we may cause others to stumble. We may cause others to fall. We may cause others to walk away from the faith, and Jesus says this would be cause for us to have a millstone hung around our necks and us be cast into the ocean.
Again, the problem confronted throughout this particular teaching by Jesus is the problem of self-righteousness. John and the other disciples thought they were better than this other exorcist because of their close association with Jesus. Humility was severely lacking. If we look down our noses at those who are outside of the Christian faith and treat them as less than those created in the image of God, this again is self-righteousness. If we go around criticizing others for trying to follow Christ in a manner that we think is wrong or undignified or less than perfect, then we are being self-righteous. And this self-righteousness comes from thinking that religion and following Jesus focuses on our actions.
This is exactly where Christianity diverges massively from the rest of the world’s religions. For the rest of the world’s religions focus on what we do. They say we must do the right things to be accepted. We must accomplish good works or the deity will turn against us. This leads us to either despair because we do not believe we can accomplish those works or it leads us to become self-righteous because we think we are accomplishing those works and others should do like we do.
But Christianity says we are not saved by our works. We are not saved by casting out demons. We are not saved by bringing cups of water. We are not saved by living perfectly, morally, and uprightly. We are not saved by telling everyone else how they should or should not act. We are saved totally and completely by sheer grace. Let me repeat that again, you are only saved by sheer grace. You are saved only and completely by Jesus and His actions on your behalf. You are saved only by what Jesus accomplished for you on the cross by dying the death you deserved. You have no righteousness to stand on.
St. Paul put it this way in the third chapter of the book of Philippians, “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through trust in Christ, the righteousness from God based on trust.”
You see, Paul had every right to think that his works had guaranteed him righteousness with God, and Paul was indeed self-righteous. He persecuted the church because he thought he could accomplish the works of the law. But Jesus appeared to Paul and radically changed his worldview. Paul knew that Jesus came into the world and saved him by sheer grace. No longer could Paul trust in himself. Paul knew he must trust in Jesus.
And when you trust in Jesus, when you trust in His work on the cross, several things become abundantly clear. First, you know that you have seen God. You have seen the Truth. For you have seen the God who became flesh. Secondly, you are humbled because you know that you did nothing to deserve what you have been given. Your heart is no longer hardened because you know that Jesus died for you when you least deserved it and were living in sin. And finally, you have a heart for others. You cherish those who work in Jesus’ name, and you see those who do not work in Jesus’ name as those created in the image of God who God longs to bring into fellowship with Him. You long to bring them the news of what Jesus accomplished on the cross. For even though Jesus indeed died for you, you remember John 3:16 and 17.
“For God so loved the world–the WORLD–that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world–THE WORLD–not to condemn the world, but that the world–THE WORLD–might be saved through Him.” If we know that Jesus came to save the WORLD, we know that means all of the people in it. If your heart is touched by this, I invite you to delve further into the Christian worldview, for I think you will find within it the Truth who brings peace to this shrinking world. Amen.
1. New International Commentary on the New Testament. “The Gospel of Mark”. William Lane.