Not “one of us”?

“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… “for whoever is not against us is for us…” Mark 9:38-40.

The Christian charity Barnabas Fund reported a story last week about a village in Punjab, Pakistan.

The small village is predominantly Muslim, as you would expect. But it is also home to eight Christian families. It has never had a church building, but the Christians have set about building one. (Quite why such a tiny church actually needs a building I’m not sure – but that’s another matter, and is not for me to say.)

And the local Muslims have been offering their support to their Christian neighbours with both money and help with the construction work.

I read this and thought, This is a story that ought to be better known. So here it is. It made me think of Jesus’ words to his disciples about the “strange exorcist”, the man casting out demons in Jesus’ name even though he was “not one of us”.

All right, the parallel is far from exact – there’s a big difference between Muslims offering practical support to Christian neighbours and someone using Jesus’ name to carry out exorcisms. But there is a parallel; and if nothing else it’s worth noticing the gracious attitude of Jesus as opposed to the hard-line attitude of his disciple.

In a world where terrible things are being done in the name of Islam, and where there is a tendency in some circles to stereotype all Muslims as violent, extremist and wicked, we need to hear again the voice of Jesus.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that Muslims don’t need to come to faith in Jesus to find forgiveness, salvation and eternal life: they do (like all the rest of us). Nor is it heading down the “basically-all-religions-are-the-same” road (because they certainly aren’t). Nor is it suggesting that people of such widely conflicting views can, in integrity, pray and worship together (because they can’t).

It is simply to recognise that wherever we look in our world today we may find men and women of good will – yes, even in places where our prejudices might have led us to regard it as extremely unlikely. And we should thank God for them, and pray for them.

Who can say for sure how another human being stands in the sight of God? Not me, for one! I have known seemingly rock-solid Christians turn out to be – well, anything but. And I have known people who probably wouldn’t describe themselves as full-blown Christians acting in such a way as to suggest that they are well on the way to faith in Jesus.

Some years ago I spent a few weeks in the predominantly Hindu country of Nepal. I worked with a beautiful little team of Christian people who were heavily involved in both evangelism and social action.

I noticed that there was a member of the team who, by her dress, and other indications, seemed to be, nominally at least, a Hindu. How come she was working with this Christian group?

The answer I was given was that – perhaps rather like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea (John 3:1-2 and 19:38-42) – she had yet to “come out” fully as a follower of Jesus. But she was in full sympathy with the missionary team, and served loyally in carrying out various practical responsibilities.

Here’s another story – I don’t know every detail, but I think I’ve got the basics right.

I used to live in London, in the massively multi-religious borough of Brent, which is also the home of Wembley stadium.

The government of the day had plans to establish large “super-casinos” in various centres around the country, and the Wembley stadium complex was one.

There was a lot of unhappiness in the area, among people of various religious allegiances and of none. And, cutting the story short, local protests led to the scheme being abandoned, to the great relief of the vast majority.

How had this happened? Well, I’m sure there were various factors I’m not aware of, but one such was a coming together of various faith communities – including, I think, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish and Zoroastrian. No one, so far as I am aware, felt any need to compromise their faith or dilute their convictions. But it’s hard to feel that that act of co-operation was anything but a positive thing.

Again, this is by no means a precise parallel with Jesus and the rogue exorcist. But, again, it is a parallel, and it reminds us that in our muddled, messy world of competing religious faiths we should let nothing surprise us.

Back to that village in Punjab. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if some of those generous Muslim people were to be found, in years to come, inside that church they’re helping to build, worshipping Jesus as their Lord and Saviour?

Will you offer a prayer to that end?

Lord Jesus, I never want to be anything but loyal to you. But help me, please, to see the good will in others, and to recognise that they may very well be on the road to faith in you. Amen.

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