This might sound a bit obscure, but let me begin today by talking about ‘Bounded Sets’ and ‘Centred Sets’. What are those, you may be thinking? A bounded set defines clearly who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. A certain set of beliefs or behaviour draws a clear line around the set to determine who gets to be ‘in’. Fans of a sports team would be a great example of a bounded set: you have to prove your devotion to be counted as ‘in’, and only these true fans have the right, for example, to criticise the team – which most fans then do, endlessly!
A centred set is different. There is no line which marks who’s in and who’s out, the only measurement is how near or far you are from the centre. So, everybody is welcome, and the ‘set’ remains open and fluid.
So, what sort of ‘set’ is a church community? Is it a bounded one or a centred one? Are people ‘in’ or ‘out’, and if so, who gets to decide? Questions like this have dominated much church thinking over the centuries, in one shape or another. Sadly, many churches have created whole systems to define who is ‘in’ or ‘out’. It might be conformity to a set of extra beliefs (beyond the creed), or more likely of behaviours – attendance this often, actively doing this thing or actively avoiding that thing, and so on.
Bounded sets do give us a sense of security, of who is ‘one of us’. We humans generally like them: but the problem is that this is not how Jesus sees it. Jesus worked with a ‘centred set’ mentality – in other words, his only concern is how close you are to him. You can move closer, or further away, but this side of the grave you’re never ‘out’, never beyond his love and grace.
So, when the disciples tell him about someone doing work in his name, whom they stopped because ‘he was not one of us’, Jesus challenges them. Let it go, he tells them, because ‘whoever is not against us is for us.’ The kingdom of God is always bigger than we think: God is always at work in surprising ways, and in even more surprising individuals. Sometimes people we didn’t expect become great allies for the Christian community – what are often called ‘people of peace’.
Today, let’s pray for God to continue that work in surprising places and people. Perhaps you know one or two you might especially commend to God. And let’s give thanks that the kingdom of God is always bigger than we think!