In some way we all separate people into “us” and “them,” don’t we?

I suppose we could argue we have no choice but to do that. It’s ingrained in our nature. Look at the world, full of opposites. Male and female. North Pole/South Pole. East and west. Plus and minus. Day and night. Apples and oranges. Up and down. Left brain/right brain. Electrons and protons. The list could go on. So much of the world is either this or that, we can’t help ourselves, can we?

Our natural inclination is helped along by what we are taught and experience every day. Think about it for a minute. Is there any human activity, especially any American activity or relationship that isn’t in some way about competition, getting ahead of someone else? We fight over the last piece of pie. We try to attract a romantic partner who has other choices. Governments seek to control resources and influence policies. Sports teams exploit the weaknesses of opponents. Awards shows honor the best, at least as voted by this group or that. Reality shows exalt the human tendency to do anything to win money and keep someone else from having what we want. Businesses survive or prosper depending in part on how well they distinguish themselves from the competition in quality of products and customer service. As James Kirk said on a classic Star Trek: “We compete for everything.”

You might wish, think, pray that the church would be different. Romans 12 says that should not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of our minds. As believers, we’re supposed to be distinct from the world’s way of doing things and follow a new path. And at least as I read the Bible, that means being part of God’s dream of gathering everything into one. As someone once said: “In the gospel, there is no us and them.”

Not quite true to what we actually see and do, is it? In fact, the church often leads the way in dividing the world into us and them. In congregations everywhere and any denomination you care to name, decisions are routinely made about who is in and who is out, who can be ordained and who can’t, who is a believer and who isn’t, whom we can trust to lead us and whom we can’t. The church reflects and promotes quite often the worst divisions and prejudices of society instead of healing them. This sad state of affairs has gone on for centuries. Benjamin Franklin once observed that organized religion “serves principally to divide us and make us unfriendly to one another” (The Nation, 12/26/05: 8).

And why not, we ask? We’ve got the support of Jesus: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matthew 12:30, NRSV). Pretty clear! You’re either with Jesus or you’re not. He says so! You’ve either acknowledged Jesus as your Lord or you haven’t. You either trust him to save you or you don’t. You either believe him and believe in him or you don’t. Not a lot of wiggle room there as far as I’m concerned if we’re taking Jesus seriously.

But before we go congratulating ourselves on how well we follow Jesus as we divide up the world into us and them, let’s listen to something else he says.

Here’s the set-up. A man who is not one of the official disciples has been casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and he’s been successful. He’s helping people. But the disciples try to stop him because he’s not one of them, their group. “He’s not following us,” they told Jesus. But Jesus tells them they were wrong to try to stop him. Someone who does a deed of power in Jesus’ name, who behaves like a follower of Jesus, will not be able to speak evil of Jesus. Actions of compassion and healing produce words of praise. And here’s the really important line for us today: “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40).

Is that just the same thing as we heard before stated differently? I don’t think so. Jesus makes a distinction between himself and the group gathered around him. In other words, the in group is not the only group honoring Jesus. The officially recognized man or woman is not the only one who follows the Lord. Presbyterians or Baptists or Catholics or whatever have no exclusive claim on him. He doesn’t belong to you or me. And Christianity of whatever kind is not the same as Jesus.

Bottom line: You can be with Jesus and not be with me. Let me say that again: you can be with Jesus and not be with me. And I can be with Jesus, and not be with you.

The evangelical author and pastor Brian McLaren has called on Christians to practice what he calls a “generous orthodoxy.” He means that to refer to “something lived, not just talked or written about, “ a humble rediscovery of the simple, mysterious way of Jesus” (A Generous Orthodoxy: 19). McLaren says that this kind of orthodoxy is a practice, that is, something we do. It includes, first, humility “that allows us to admit that our past and current” doctrines and formulas of faith “may have been limited or distorted.” Then charity or love toward those of other traditions who “may understand some things better than our group—even though we are more conscious of what we think we understand better.” Next, courage “to be faithful to the true path of our faith as we understand it even when it is unpopular, dangerous, and difficult to do so.” And finally, diligence to see again and again the true path of our faith whenever we feel we have lost our way, which seems pretty often” (30).

OK, let’s say you’re buying the idea that you can be with Jesus and not be with me, and vice versa. We’re generously orthodox like Dr. McLaren recommends. Still there’s a nagging, gnawing question: how do you know who’s with Jesus?

Maybe we can tell by the way they dress. But that doesn’t really work, does it? A cross around the neck might just be a piece of jewelry, and the wearer totally pagan. On the other hand, somebody that dresses not exactly like Susie Sunday School or Johnny Youth Group could in fact be deeply in love with our Lord.

Well, if it isn’t dress, then maybe how they talk. They punctuate their speech with religious phrases. But our Lord himself said it: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7).

Talk is cheap. Deeds matter. Donald Miller, author of that great book Blue Like Jazz, says it this way: “What I believe is not what I say I believe; what I believe is what I do” (quoted on www.emergingminister.com).

And that’s how you tell, isn’t it? Again, Jesus said it: “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7). In other words, does someone do what Jesus did?

Think of it this way: How do you tell who are your friends? Just look at how they treat you over time, allowing for human failing. Do they treat you with justice, kindness, compassion, and hospitality and do they ask the same from you? Do you feel like your conversations are real dialogues, two people taking each other seriously? Are you accountable to each other?

So, who is with Jesus? Look at the fruit of their lives. Do they act like Jesus? With compassion toward the left-out, with self-sacrificing love, with concern for justice, with an insistence that the so-called “religious” live up to their calling? Or as he himself put it in the scripture cited earlier: “He who does not gather with me scatters.” Jesus gathers. He gathers together disciples from all walks of life, whose paths might never cross except for him. He gathers us in to praise him. He gathers up the broken pieces of our troubled lives and puts them all together and makes us whole again. He gathers all who belong to him, so none is lost. And as Scripture says, he died to gather into one all the dispersed children of God (John 11:52, NRSV). And this as well: “God has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:9,10, NRSV).

The one who does not belong to Jesus scatters, promoting suspicion, brokenness, hatred, and discord. The one who belongs to Jesus, who is with him, gathers as he gathers. And people are brought together with understanding and compassion.

As somebody said, in the gospel, there is no us and them.

(c) 2006 by Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

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