Pastor Chris Tweitmann
Us versus them.
When phrased like this – in opposition to each other – these two seemingly innocuous pronouns become the two most dangerous words in our human vocabulary.
“Us” versus “them.”
At times, the impulse to choose sides feels instinctive to us.
While not always intentional or malicious, we tend to gravitate toward others and organize into groups with like-minded people.
People who see the world and engage life the way we do.
People who share an affinity for the same things we value.
People who agree with us and recognize those who don’t agree with us as “other.”
“Us” versus “them.”
Our propensity toward drawing lines and taking sides is most evident whenever there is a conflict.
Whether it is a dust-up with our family or our spouse, a disagreement with a friend, or an argument with a complete stranger – especially when someone crosses us, we reflexively become defensive and adopt an adversarial posture.
And these days as we have become divided according to political party lines, social and cultural issues, and theological perspectives, our default tendency is an “us” versus “them” mentality.
Daily we are barraged by news outlets, radio or online commentators, and even commercial advertisers, that provoke and challenge us to pick a side.
The repeated rally cry is those who are not with and for us are against us.
But today as we return to the Gospel of Luke and we witness the twelve disciples fall into the same mindset – not once but twice in their encounters with others, Jesus is going to challenge the prevailing assumption that existed back then and continues on still today.
Let us listen carefully as the sharp line we tend to draw between “us” versus “them” is about to be rebuked and erased by the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. (TEXT)
Here we have two brief interactions between Jesus and his disciples – interactions that offer us insight into how we are to engage both Christians and non-Christians.
The first incident comes in direct response to a previous conversation Jesus has been having with his followers
“An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest.” – Luke 9:46
– a conversation initiated out of an argument about who would be the greatest disciple.
Jesus swiftly interrupts and ends their debate
“Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him.” – Luke 9:47
as he reframes greatness in the Kingdom of God through the object lesson of a small child standing before them.
Greatness in the Kingdom of God is not exclusive to a select few based on whatever one achieves or accomplishes on their own.
“Then he said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.” – Luke 9:48
Greatness in the Kingdom of God is available to all through being in relationship with, following Jesus – welcoming and serving others like Christ – particularly those in need.
We can imagine the awkward pause, the painful silence in the aftermath of Jesus’ correction of the disciples’ ego trip.
Seemingly to change the subject, one of the twelve, John, blurts out something about an unknown person who is casting out demons in Jesus name.
“Master,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.” – Luke 9:49
John, apparently speaking for all the disciples, goes on to complain to Jesus about how they tried to stop what this individual was doing but evidently, they were unsuccessful.
The disciples’ rationale for seeking to shut down the ministry of this man is simple: “because he is not one of us.”
Did you hear it? Did we witness John draw that old, familiar line – between us and them?
Let us not miss the irony here.
After having just been invited to welcome and serve – to include others particularly the most vulnerable and in need, John and the disciples remain fixated on drawing boundaries in terms of who should be excluded from participating in the Kingdom of God.
Notice, several assumptions are being made here.
John and the disciples assume the power of Jesus’ name – the exercise of the power of the Kingdom of God ought to remain within their circle of discipleship.
John and the disciples assume this perceived outsider is an imposter accomplishing deeds in opposition to Jesus.
They assume they have the authority and ability to regulate and stop the work of the Kingdom of God – whatever is happening in the name of Jesus.
But none of their assumptions are bearing out, so they complain to Jesus.
And make no mistake, they fully expect Jesus to be on their side.
“Master, someone else, not from our group, not from our church, they were doing things in your name. Can you believe that?
Well, we tried to stop them in your name because they are NOT with us, not part of our circle. You need to step in and shut them down.”
Jesus’ reply is not what they were expecting as Christ proclaims: “Do not stop him, for whoever is not against you is for you.” – Luke 9:50
Much can be said in a single sentence as once again, Jesus challenges the assumptions of his disciples.
For what’s implied in Jesus’ response is this unnamed person is not an imposter or an adversary.
No one could be genuinely casting out demons with the power of Christ unless that person authentically looked to and relied on Jesus through prayer – abiding and communing with the Lord.
This, of course deconstructs another presumption being made by John and the crew – that those in the immediate company of Jesus are not the only faithful disciples of Christ.
Clearly, there were others who were receptive to the good news of the Kingdom of God.
Others who, in addition to the twelve, were committed to following Jesus, and thus were empowered with his Spirit and enabled to act in Christ’s name.
That this is most certainly true bears out only a few verses beyond this passage.
For when we turn to the next chapter in Luke’s gospel, we’ll read of Jesus appointing and sending out 70 disciples – followers who will have the ability to cast out evil spirits.
But perhaps the most compelling insight is how Jesus reframes the way his disciples ought to perceive the situation before them.
What this perceived “rogue” follower is doing in Christ’s name is not opposed to the work of the twelve disciples.
It is a part of the work to which they have been called – reflecting and embodying the love, grace, and truth of the Kingdom of God.
In fact, what this unnamed individual is accomplishing is something, most recently, the twelve disciples had failed to be able to do themselves.
Do we remember? Look just a few verses back in this chapter.
“A man in the crowd called out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child. A spirit seizes him and he suddenly screams; it throws him into convulsions so that he foams at the mouth. It scarcely ever leaves him and is destroying him. I begged your disciples to drive it out, but they could not.” – Luke 9:38 – 40
Only moments ago, before their argument with each other, the disciples were impotent in their efforts to relieve a poor father’s demon-plagued son in Jesus’ name.
We must then wonder what is truly behind these assumptions being made by John and the rest – the assumption of exclusivity, the assumption of opposition, the assumption of having more power and control than they actually do.
Even if, from their point of view, this person is an “outsider,” if he or she is being fruitful for the Kingdom of God and obviously accomplishing what is good, just, and true in Jesus’ name, why would they want to stop that?
Could it be jealousy or envy due to the prosperous efforts of others in contrast to their own limitations or struggles?
Is it perhaps a sense of comparison or competition, a sense of entitlement – of wanting their association with Christ and the power of Jesus’ name for themselves?
The twelve disciples make their appeal in defense of Jesus’ good name but in truth, in drawing a line between “us” and “them,” they are really seeking to defend their own territory – to protect their special relationship with Jesus, – to attempt to restrict the power of the Spirit to their own wielding.
The disciples created a problem where a problem didn’t exist.
And it ended up revealing more about them – the growth edges in their relationship with Jesus, their lack in understanding the character of Christ and the Kingdom of God, than it did about the person with whom they took issue and offense.
Can we relate to this within the Church?
As we look around and count so many churches in every city – churches typically not in communication with each other, not working together but often acting in opposition to each other, dare we deny how easily we adopt a competitive posture towards each other in serving Jesus rather than abiding in the collaborative work of the Spirit?
Don’t we, as modern-day disciples of Jesus, also find ourselves falling into this trap of attempting to divide the Body of Christ – criticizing, questioning, and excluding others who follow Jesus in a different way than we do?
And in our zeal for so-called purity and truth, in all our attempts to defend Jesus – who by the way never asks to be defended, as we presumptively draw lines between “us” and “them,” are we really so sure, so confident, where we end up is closer rather than farther from Christ?
But someone out there is thinking, Is following Jesus then just a free for all without any theological convictions, ethical boundaries or moral standards – where anything goes?
Of course not.
Jesus isn’t declaring we should embrace or celebrate the witness and ministry of anyone and everyone who labels themselves as belonging to him.
No, elsewhere, Jesus calls us to be discerning as not everyone who speaks in his name is actually abiding in him and seeking to serve others for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
Elsewhere, Christ calls us to carefully evaluate the fruit of others – both the integrity of their lives as well as the outcome of their efforts in his name.
No one is perfect. No individual Church on earth is perfect.
All in Christ are works in progress – subject to ongoing refinement and maturity.
No one, no individual Church has an absolute monopoly on all the wisdom and ongoing work of God.
But the character of Christ reflected through another person is not hard to miss unless we are blinded by our pride and insecurity.
Jesus plainly teaches us, embodies the shape and ethics of the Kingdom so that we can tell the difference between someone serving themselves versus seeking to serve another person.
And the taste and flavor of the fruit of the Spirit is distinctively defined for us in the Bible – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control…
…the taste and flavor of the fruit of the Spirit is distinctively defined for us so we know exactly what we’re looking for – what’s truly from the Lord and what is clearly not.
Notice, John – again on behalf of the disciples – doesn’t accuse this unnamed person of being guilty of doing something wrong – falsely misrepresenting Christ or hurting others in the name of Jesus.
The only thing John decries is this person is not one of us.
But what Christ reveals is the power of his name and the work of the Kingdom of God – are not something limited to anyone’s company or control.
If God’s grace is not based on personal merit or achievement or our standing before others, then the Spirit will move and work as the Spirit will – through whomever God’s grace comes upon – first, bringing them to Jesus and then empowering them to follow Christ.
And if the Gospel is being preached both in word and deed, if the oppression and suffering brought by the Enemy is being expelled, if the freedom and salvation of the Kingdom of God is being realized, then we ought to recognize and welcome a friend, a partner in life and ministry rather than perceive or label an enemy.
Some time then passes as Jesus sets his face, his inevitable course towards the city of Jerusalem
“As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” – Luke 9:51
– heading that way, as Luke hints, to give his life on the Cross for ours, to embrace and yet conquer death so that we can truly live.
Now we need to keep in mind those who were traveling with Jesus were many – far more than just the twelve disciples.
Again, based on the next chapter of Luke, we know there were at least 70 people who were part of his entourage.
A group of people that large would overwhelm a small village.
Many villages would not immediately have the accommodation or the resources for such a large group if they showed up unannounced.
Therefore, messengers would be sent out ahead to visit these villages and request the needed hospitality – food, drink, lodging.
“And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him;” – Luke 9:52
That was the plan. That was the local custom. That was the proper etiquette. But somebody forgot to tell the Samaritans.
“…but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem.” – Luke 9:53
If we don’t recall, there wasn’t much love between Jews and Samaritans.
Despite having ancient familial connections, the animosity between the two groups ran deep.
It is likely on the basis of this long-standing feud between them and particularly, as Luke tells us, that Jesus was headed toward Jerusalem – the capital of Israel which the Samaritans refused to recognize, that this village refused to welcome Jesus and offer any hospitality.
This affront is not lost on the disciples who, despite the passage of time, soon make it apparent the heart of the lessons Jesus had just tried to teach them hasn’t quite sunk in yet.
Once again, John pipes up. But this time he is accompanied by his brother, James.
Together, James and John, the Sons of Zebedee are nicknamed in the gospels, the Sons of Thunder.
We quickly get an idea why this is so based on what happens next.
In response to the Samaritan village’s rejection of Jesus, James and John go ballistic.
“When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” – Luke 9:54
They turn to Jesus looking for the launch codes to go nuclear on the whole town – to call down fire from heaven and carpet bomb every man, women, and child.
Once again, the disciples take the bait.
Rather than the resist the line between “us” and “them” the Samaritans have drawn through their actions, the disciples prove more than willing to take sides.
These people have rejected their Master. These people have rejected the Messiah. These people have proven they don’t belong. These people have proven they are beyond hope. These Samaritans deserve to be punished – completely cut-off, eradicated.
The disciples – notice yet again – bear some aggrieved sense of offense on behalf of Jesus.
And in their presumptive anger, forgetting Father Abraham, who long ago once tried to DELAY the judgment of the Lord – bringing down fire on a village – the disciples are overly anxious to call down the thunder – to exercise divine authority and power in a supposed defense of the Kingdom of God.
But this move likely designed to impress Jesus – to prove their loyalty and their greatness – backfires.
Jesus doesn’t stop and say, “That’s a good idea, that’s the right call but you’re getting a little ahead of yourselves guys, reigning down fire from heaven is my job, remember?”
Jesus doesn’t stop and condemn this village telling his followers, “Oh don’t you worry, one day those Samaritans will get theirs. I’ll see to that.”
No, Luke keeps it short, sweet, and to the point.
“But Jesus turned and rebuked them.” – Luke 9:55
Without missing a beat, Jesus turns – Jesus stops whatever he is doing and focuses his undivided attention not on the Samaritans who have rejected him but on his followers who are misrepresenting him.
Jesus doesn’t condemn the village. Jesus rebukes his disciples.
To be clear, Jesus isn’t condoning the Samaritan village rejecting him when he corrects James and John. That’s not the issue.
Jesus is addressing a misconception on the part of his disciples.
James and John wrongly perceive that since they were with Jesus – invited and called members of his band of followers, they had the prerogative, the right, and the responsibility to dole out judgment and consequences wherever they saw fit – especially to those who didn’t accept Christ.
Sadly, tragically, we may need this correction as well.
These days we are increasingly losing or worse, willfully choosing to forsake recognizing and welcoming diverse perspectives, varied experiences, and other opinions.
Both the propagation of fear and continued championing of the lie that “My way is the right way, my way is the only way” have caused us to remain entrenched in our corners – digging in our heels, refusing to listen and consider anything outside of our political views and ideological certainties.
And so, within our workplaces, our neighborhoods, our families and our marriages, and even some of our friendships, we find ourselves incapable of having a real conversation anymore or breaking bread together without stepping on a landmine.
This epidemic of societal polarization even has infected the Church – a Church that already had a bad reputation for telling the world “Jesus loves and forgives you” while acting very unloving and unforgiving towards the world – especially when it rejects Christ.
Beloved, if we spend most of our time as Christians being angry and criticizing the world, we will have little energy or time to love the world to which we have been called to serve.
Too many sermons, bible studies, Christian radio and television programs, blog posts, and YouTube videos berate, threaten, and condemn those who are not living as God intended, who do not embrace Jesus as the Messiah.
How quickly we forget or forsake how we came to be in the company, the grace of Christ – not because our house was in order, not because we had it all together, not because we initiated opening the door – inviting Jesus into our lives.
No, even while we were yet sinners – God came down in Christ to us and knocked on our door.
Even before the imperfections of our character and moral failures of our lives, Jesus was baptized into our humanity – inviting us to learn from and follow him.
And even after all that, even as we rejected Christ – condemning and nailing him to the Cross – Jesus didn’t die because we took his life,
Jesus willingly gave his life for us.
Beloved, it is because of HOW we came to faith, found forgiveness, and received salvation in Christ, that we have no basis, no presumption of either judgment or condemnation of another person.
No matter who they are. No matter what they’ve done or not done.
For grace is not merely how we come into relationship with Jesus; grace is how we live out our relationship with Christ – how we reflect and share Jesus to others.
Living out of the grace we have been given means loving unconditionally rather than summarily judging.
Living out of the grace we have been given means accepting and seeking to understand rather than rejecting and outright condemning.
Living out of the grace we have been given means forgiving even without an apology rather than retaliating in kind.
Living out of the grace we have been given means to keep creating and fostering spaces of hospitality and dialogue, even as such overtures get rejected again and again rather than going to war, cutting off relationship, or seeking to punish others.
Notice, the grace Jesus extends to this Samaritan village.
“Then he and his disciples went to another village.” – Luke 9:56
Rather than judge and condemn, Jesus passes the community by and moves on to another village.
Jesus models for us what he previously taught his disciples to do when the Gospel we share, when the invitation of the Kingdom of God we proclaim, isn’t welcomed.
“If people do not welcome you, leave their town and shake the dust off your feet as a witness against their rejection of you.” – Luke 9:5
Jesus shakes the dust off his feet and keeps moving forward – not closing the door on anyone but leaving open the possibility of the reception of him in the future.
In following Jesus, we are called to go and do likewise.
While we have been commissioned to proclaim in word and deed the truth of the good news of Christ, we are called to speak that truth in love – the love we have received, we keep receiving from Jesus.
We are called to love, not retaliate or preemptively strike. We are called to be wise and discerning, but not to condemn.
For God alone is the One who knows the heart and mind of everyone. God alone is the One who judges the righteous from the unrighteous. God alone is the One who is setting all things right and true.
And God needs no defending or protecting in accomplishing this work.
And contrary to what some would teach or lead us to believe, God isn’t making all things new by way of a scorched earth policy.
Beloved, when we are overwhelmed by our fears and confusion, when find ourselves caught up in something unexpected and unpredictable, when things around have changed, keep changing, and we suddenly feel out of depth, it can be tempting to try and make the world smaller, it momentarily can feel good to have someone else to blame, it can be easy – even seem justifiable – to draw lines between “us” and “them.”
But both within the Church as well as among those who do not yet share faith in the Kingdom of God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ breaks down the wall dividing “us” and “them.”
No matter how we define “us” and no matter how we define “them”; in Christ we discover what we have in common is greater than whatever it is that divides us from each other.
For the most foundational tenet of biblical anthropology remains unchanging: We’re all, each of us, made in the image of God.
At the same time, we all share the same fundamental problem – an inherited disconnect, a self-willed spiritual divorce from our Creator, – a cancerous addiction to self we can only satisfy at the expense of others, – an unhealthy self-absorption that traps us in an impossible quest for perfection or greatness on our own but always leaves us with nothing more than guilt or shame.
There is only solution to the problem we all share. And by the grace of God, we have all been offered the cure to what ails us – the pathway to our freedom, the means of our redemption, the hope that can take us – even today – beyond the world we live in now to the world we dream about.
This is the Gospel. This is the good news. This is what binds and holds us together in all our differences in personality and perspective, in all our conflicting interests, in all our disagreements and arguments, in all fears and insecurities, in all our guilt and shame – that there is no “us” or “them” when it comes to the grace of God, that God didn’t so love “us” or “them” but loved all the world in giving us His Son Jesus Christ.
And this is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.