|Love Your Neighbor as Yourself (Part 2)
April 18, 1999 / Mark 9:38-41
Jesus not only challenged his disciples to love those who were racially different from themselves but those who held different religious beliefs. Do you realize that the Parable of the Good Samaritan points to both race and religion as distinctions between the wounded man and his rescuer? Ironically, Jesus made the Samaritan the hero of the story ó a story told to a Jewish audience!
One of the most informative texts in this regard is one that deserves more attention than it gets among church people ó especially the more conservative ones like us. It is a love-your-neighbor passage. The circumstances that produced it are clear from the brief context in which it is set. The narrowness of his own disciples forced Jesus to confront them for their suspicion, hatred, and exclusion of someone whose experience of him was different from their own.
"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."
"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, for whoever is not against us is for us. I 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" (Mark 9:38-41).
A Very Personal History
I recall my first time ever to preach from this text. How could I forget it, for it is burned into my consciousness as one of the most significant days in my personal spiritual life? It was sixteen and one-half years ago now in the old building on 21st Avenue South. I "backed into" the task and wound up unsettling a few people ó and myself even more. As much as any half-hour period in my life, preaching that sermon stood my life on its ear and charted the course for my ministry since that day. If you will bear with me for a few minutes, Iíd like to speak uncomfortably in the first person to explain my meaning.
I had discovered to my chagrin and embarrassment several years ago that I didnít know the gospel of Godís grace and had been teaching instead a right-standing with God based on correct doctrine, scrupulous morals, church attendance, and good deeds. I determined to learn how to preach "Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2). The answer to the problem seemed clear enough: Preach the parts of the Bible that most clearly and directly focus on Jesus Christ. As someone put it, "You are most likely to find the gospel in the Gospels." So I began preaching through the Gospel of Mark ó a series of lessons that continued for sixty-four sermons. When the 6 p.m. worship time came on November 14, 1982, I had come to the block of text that included Mark 9:38-41. As I said that night, I was hoping nobody would show up! But a few people did, so I swallowed hard and prayed harder about what to do with my text.
Here is the essence of what I said after reading Jesusí words to his disciples about their narrowness, their judgmental spirit, their inability to love their spiritual neighbor for fear of losing their own favored status: Since Iíve never preached on this text before, never heard a sermon preached from it, and cannot find anything on it in any of the sermon books in my library, I donít know what to do except walk through its clear content with you and risk applying this text to our situation as a church. We are not the "one true church" outside of which there are no saved people. So not only is it false that "weíre the only ones going to heaven," but our obligation under God is to encourage rather than to oppose our neighbors who seek Christ, confess Christ, and serve Christ according to their best understanding of his will. If we have anything to teach those people, we will do so more effectively in a context of love and respect for them. More often than not, we may need to learn rather than teach. I will no longer try to prove my soundness in the Christian faith by the number of churches and individuals I exclude from fellowship but will try to be as gracious with them as I desire God to be with me.
I had told Myra that might be my last sermon with this church, and I was as prepared as possible to be set upon by its members or fired by its elders! The response I received that day from several dozen of the people who heard that sermon was this: "Iím glad to hear somebody finally say from the pulpit what Iíve believed for x years." Only the number of years varied! One person said, "Iím glad to hear somebody finally say from the pulpit what Iíve believed for forty years!"
A few months later, my friend Paul Rogers asked me to preach that sermon at a preacherís workshop at a camp near Centerville, Tennessee. I did. And a testy series of questions began to pepper me as first one and then another brother trained in my own tradition attacked what I had said ó "and where it could lead." I think I was holding my own fairly well against the few people who were asking the more "loaded" questions. Then Bro. J.M. Powell stood up from his chair, signaled to the moderator, and indicated he had something to say.
Because of the respect everyone present had for such a godly and well-read man within our heritage, Paul asked Bro. Powell to come to the front and use the microphone so everyone could hear him. You could have heard that proverbial pin drop as he made his way to the pulpit and microphone. I was trying to be calm ó but was thinking I might be about to witness my first lynching! The substance of what Bro Powell said was this: "Brethren, what you have heard this young man teach today is what Ďour preachersí used to say when the Restoration Movement was young and vibrant. Iím sad that we have strayed so far from the original plea of our movement that it shocks us to hear it put into words in our presence."
Bro. Powellís statement did not keep some who heard my speech from this text that day from writing some very harsh things. Those harsh ó and often simply false and intensely personal attacks ó did not convince me that what had been said was wrong or ought not to be said. So I published the basic content of that sermon in a 24-page tract titled "Christians Only: A Plea for Unity in Christ."
Around that same time, Bob Hooper had been photocopying documents and feeding them to me. There were articles from David Lipscomb, F.D. Srygley, M.C. Kurfees, H. Leo Boles, G.C. Brewer, and Reuel Lemmons. I wasnít a church historian and only knew most of those names in passing. The articles had a common theme and articulated in various ways an early motto of the American Restoration Movement ó the movement from which the Disciples of Christ, Independent Christian Church, and Church of Christ sprang. And here is the motto: "Christians only, but not the only Christians."
The growing sheaf of articles Bob gave me from those pioneer teachers in our heritage said the same thing I had had to discover for myself from Mark 9. No group within Christendom has a corner on the market of truth. Every church and every individual believer can only commit to an honest search for Christ and can never claim to possess him in an exclusive way. Christians have neither the right nor obligation to be stumbling blocks in each otherís way on the spiritual pilgrimage that leads from darkness to light, from sin to salvation, from Earth to Heaven. "This is what preachers in our churches used to say," Bob told me. "This is Ďnewí only in the sense that we have forgotten our roots."
So I taught a four-week class on Wednesday evenings that became a book titled I Just Want to Be a Christian.1 It was published in the spring of 1984, not long after my father died of cancer of the pancreas. In the three and one-half weeks between the discovery of his disease and his death from it, I walked him through the second draft of the manuscript for the book. Because he was and always will be my ideal of Christian integrity, I had to know his opinion of a book whose publication he would not live to see.
After I laid out the theme and content of I Just Want to Be a Christian for my dad, this was his reaction: "Rubel, I grew up hearing that taught. We never claimed to be Ďthe only Christians.í I went to school to N.B. Hardeman and A.G. Freed. Iíve heard them say these things over and over again. Iíve wondered why we stopped teaching them. And I think weíve driven people away from Christ by our hard, rigid teaching." So the dedication page of the book reads as follows: "To my father, J.P. Shelly, who helped me think through the major issues of this book in the final days of his life and whose final request of me was that this volume be published."
This church has allowed me to teach the gospel without compromise ó and without the baggage of the "hard, rigid teaching" for which the Church of Christ has been known since 1930. Many of its members have been warned against both this church and its preacher by people who are either still committed to or who are unduly influenced by the old hard-line, unbiblical, and false-to-our-heritage sectarian spirit that still dominates some percentage of Churches of Christ.
There has been a great deal of fear for me to deal with in this spiritual journey. Fifteen years ago, I was terrified of the idea of cutting off from our old moorings without knowing where we would be tying off the boat! Could we jettison the hard edge of some unhealthy traditions without compromising an unwavering commitment to the authority of Scripture? Could we repudiate the "ugliness" of some of our critics without becoming harsh and unkind ourselves? Could we get past the pharisaical arrogance we abhorred without being arrogant Pharisees ourselves? Could we retain the healthy part of our historical heritage without having to break with that heritage altogether ó keep from "throwing out the baby with the bath," as it were?
By Godís grace as administered through godly, thoughtful, spiritual shepherds, he has kept us from overreacting to our background. As we embraced and lived the Christians-only-but-not-the-only-Christians theme, people from Baptist, Nazarene, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Christian Church, Presbyterian, and other backgrounds joined us on the journey. Now, while not breaking our ties with the Church of Christ, we are simply "a church of Christ serving greater Nashville." That is, we embrace the older, healthier part of our historical heritage that says we arenít interested in perpetuating a denomination called "Church of Christ" but simply trying to be a "church of Christ" ó a church that belongs to Christ, a church that honors Christ, a church that bears faithful witness to Christ. In the matrix of denominational division and sectarian judgment, we are simply trying to be the Family of God at Woodmont Hills. We just want to be Christians.
That fear I mentioned earlier has given way to humble confidence in the leading of God. We have stepped out in faith as one little church to try to be a "safe place" where:
Grace is preached from the pulpit and is the foundation for how people are to be treated.
Truth is preached without compromise, but also without a spirit of law and judgment.
The church leaders are aware of their own weaknesses and humanity. Instead of "having it all together" and being insulated from confrontation and change, they are in a process of healing and opening up to their own safe people for support and accountability.
The church uses small groups to touch peopleís lives, and sermons focus on community in the body of Christ as well as doctrine.
The culture is one of forgiven sinners, not self-righteous religious Pharisees.
The church, instead of being a self-contained unit and thinking it has all the answers, is networked into the community, availing itself of input from other sources such as churches, professionals, and organizations.
The teaching has a relational emphasis as well as a vertical one. Relationship between people is seen as part of spirituality as well as relationship to God.
The teaching sees brokenness, struggle, and inability as normal parts of the sanctification process.
There are opportunities to serve others through a variety of ministries.2
Our spiritual journey has been comparable to a child learning to walk. We have stubbed our toes at times. We have stumbled, fallen, and bloodied our noses a few times. We have bruises and knots on our heads for our efforts. But our Heavenly Father isnít at all displeased with our stumbling or offended by the bumps on our heads. He would be unhappy with us only if we had failed to try to walk in the light Christ Jesus put on our path.
As we meet for worship on this day, people are using race and religion as pretexts for violence, displacement, and unspeakable evil. Over against what is happening in the Balkans or in Africa, in the Middle East or in some church buildings is the charge from Jesus that we love one another, treat each other as we would want to be treated, and affirm one anotherís search for God.
Will we ever learn? Are we doomed to live the old model of suspicion, hatred, and exclusion until time ends? Will we continue to use race and color, language group and religion as excuses for our mistreatment of one another?
Heavenís criteria of acceptability for human beings is altogether spiritual: "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right," said the apostle Peter (Acts 10:34-35). Would that we were more like God. Would that we made our distinctions as God does. Would that we could abandon racism and sectarianism for the sake of the two great commandments that are supposed to govern us ó and to which we all give lip service.
We canít change what is happening in other places today, but we can leave here with a firm determination to live what we say we believe.
1Rubel Shelly, I Just Want to Be a Christian (Nashville: 20th Century Christian, 1984). A second edition of the book was published in 1986.
2Henry Cloud and John Townsend, Safe People (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), pp. 164-165.
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