Unfortunately, Arius’ bishop, Alexander– yeah, his name was Alexander of Alexandria– strongly disagreed with him. He said that Arius had to teach that Jesus was the same substance as the Father. Arius said, well, sir, I have to teach what I see as true. This became a big issue. So big that people on the street of Alexandria– and Rome and Constantinople– argued about it. It was said that you couldn’t go down to the market without sellers arguing with buyers, “same substance!” “Different substance!” “Eternal!” “Created!”
Alexander was miffed. So was Emperor Constantine. He didn’t like his newly supported religion brining division among the people. He wanted a clean, pristine, pure religion to call his own. So he called a council of bishops from throughout the empire and said, “Decide this! Now!” They took a vote and Alexander of Alexandria won. So the Emperor turned to Arius and said, “Now you and anyone who believes in your heretical teaching, leave the empire! We want one pure belief, clean of heresy!” So Arius packed up his family, his disciples and left the Roman empire.
The apostle John was kind of a hothead. That’s why Jesus named John and his brother James, “sons of thunder” because they were always ready to zap people for not being a part of the right group. Meaning their group. So John reported to Jesus their latest activity. They saw someone helping out a mentally ill person in the name of Jesus and they stopped them. “Who gave you authority to use that name? Have you attended Jesus’ classes? Do you have a monogrammed sweatshirt? Where is your membership card? Yep. I thought not. Sorry, until you belong to the right group, you don’t have the right teaching. If you don’t have the right teaching, you can’t use Jesus’ name.” So they shut this guy down.
Jesus’ response should have been, “Well, I totally understand that. This guy could have been doing good works in the totally wrong way. What if he said the Lord’s Prayer with the wrong words? What if he didn’t understand that I was the Messiah?” That’s what John was expecting.
“This guy was on our side. We don’t know that because they took the right seminar, have the right degrees from the right college or belong to the right denomination. We know that because he is doing an act of love. That’s the guy we want to keep doing that kind of stuff! Next time you see someone doing an act of love, don’t look at the basis of their authority, rather thank them!”
Jesus even went on to say, that this guy who belonged to the wrong group, probably had the wrong theology would receive the blessing of God. He cannot be denied his reward. And anyone, Jesus said, who does good work in the name of Jesus– no matter what their theology or outlook, no matter how heretical they are– will receive God’s reward. If we are going to take this seriously, than any work of love, no matter how small is God’s work, even if done by people who believe in the wrong things.
It’s easy to apply this to people like Franklin Graham who demands that Christian progressives are going to hell. Or people like John MacArthur who insist that all pentecostals and Charismatics are part of a diabolical heresy. It’s a good thing that us progressives are so open-minded and accepting of all people.
Of course, there is this guy that I’ve been reading lately, Bishop John Spong. He insists that orthodox Christianity is “Unbelievable” and that “Christianity must Change or Die.” His answer is to change the theology of Christianity, to recognize that Jesus resurrected in the spirit, not the body, to deny the virgin birth of Jesus, to deny the reality of the Exodus. I am not here to argue that he is wrong in his assessment, although I do think that his theology tends to be pretty focused on scholarship in the 70s and 80s. I am saying that he, just like the orthodox teachers he is arguing with, are focused on the wrong issues. Whether one does or does not believe in the virgin birth isn’t the issue at all. The issue is what foundation do you have to enact the love of Jesus.
On the other hand, if we think that Muslims aren’t the right kind of religion because they don’t believe in the right things, even though they give more to charity per capita than the Christian church, then we aren’t listening to Jesus. If we reject the good work of supporting women in pregnancies through poverty of the Pregnancy Crisis Centers, because they don’t agree with our politics, we have the same problem as those who reject Planned Parenthood and their good work. If we reject all of conservative Christianity because of their doctrine, then we are also rejecting the hospitals, the shelters, the many, many cups of cold water throughout the world they have also delivered.
Am I saying that God is pleased with all the work of all churches? Absolutely not. What I am saying is that God does not measure his people by words on a piece of paper. That God does not judge any of us based on ideas of what the future has in store for us. That God does not judge us based on which party we vote for. Rather, God blesses those who do acts of love.
Diane had a boss who owned a laundromat. He was an avid watcher of Fox and he voted for Bush and he was always talking about people who need to help themselves and get out of poverty. But when he saw someone in need, he was there for him. I have never liked Bill’s politics, nor did I care for his theology. But I cannot argue with his life. With the fact that his faith wasn’t primarily about teaching, but about how he lived. And I saw how he sacrificed, sometimes his well-being, for people in need. He may not be part of our group, but he is among the blessed of God because of his love. And it took me more than a minute to open my eyes and see that it isn’t about theology or posturing– God’s blessing is about how we respond to someone in need.
The other thing is something I wonder. Bible studies and classes are usually about making sure that everyone in the group is on the same page theologically, on the right page of belief and doctrine. Sometimes we have Bible studies to actually explore God’s will about something. But here is something I’ve considered. Perhaps instead of all this focus of studying doctrine and theology is the wrong step altogether, as enjoyable as it is. Perhaps we need to have love studies. How to best love and care for people. What is love in one context or another. When we have limited resources, who should be loved, this person or that? How do we make that determination? What is the loving and unloving way to obtain resources? What is the best approach to love, through things, presence or community? I wonder if we should have more love studies and fewer classes on what we believe. In so long as each session ends in action, and not just in thought.