Preached at Bethany UMC on World Communion Sunday
Mark 9:38-41 (NRSV)
38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
The disciples were complaining to Jesus about a person who was not in the card-carrying club of the Disciples, Inc. casting out demons in Jesus name. The Message puts it this way: “We stopped him because he wasn’t in our group.“
The disciples clearly had already developed an “us versus them” mentality. Perhaps we’re no different. When you’re a member of an exclusive club, whether somebody is “one of us” or not is terribly important. One thing any of the ultra-elite clubs has in common is elitism. John wanted to make sure that non-disciples weren’t casting out demons. Most people might think that getting rid of a demon is a good thing. But apparently not John.
What’s even more comical, or disturbing, is that this incident comes on the heel of the “Who is the greatest?” argument that the disciples had been having. They didn’t get it then, and it is clear that in today’s text, they still don’t get it.
John’s confusion could have been well-intended. He had already witnessed and participated in things with Jesus that nobody had ever seen before. It would have been easy to understand the God-given power behind miracles as something reserved for Jesus alone and those sent by him. Jesus doesn’t have the same reaction. Jesus takes on a decidedly inclusive and unthreatened response to privilege. He realizes that the work of God isn’t for the few elitist members of Disciples, Inc. — after all, he chose teenagers, fishermen, and tax collectors as his Twelve in the first place. Jesus has a larger cosmic perspective, an all-encompassing world view and when the fields are ready for harvest, it’s all hands on deck.
What can we learn from Jesus’ response to John? Surely there aren’t any parallels in our churches today, right? Is the church the most elite club in the world? Is there a dress code? Like Mike’s first time at the country club where they made him wear a suit jacket? Are we guilty if giving the side eye, if people are sitting in our pew? What if people genuinely want to connect with God and be used by God in a meaningful way, but we are accidentally standing in the way? That’s something to think about.
We don’t get details about the “someone” of verse 38, but John said that he was not ekolouthei — literally meaning “not following us” or “not a disciple.” Somehow someone not yet known as a follower of Christ had gotten wind that demons could be cast out in the name of Christ. We don’t know anything else about the story of “someone,” but isn’t it possible that serving God — even with potentially impure motive (and we don’t know that was the case here) — caused him to believe in the power of Christ as the Messiah? If you cast a demon out of a person using the name of Jesus, wouldn’t that have an affect on you?
Jesus was concerned with something so much larger than just one demon’s being cast out. He wanted to ensure that his future church would never feel like an elite club. Instead of being exclusivist, he wanted her to be as inclusive as possible.
So how do we turn our churches into the least elitest places of our culture? When we do this, we will truly “bear the name of Christ” (v. 41), and neither church insider nor outsider will need to feel that he is “not one of us.” The church is a place where all are welcome. Both Clemson fans or South Carolina fans. Both Ohio State fans and Penn State fans.
We are ALL on the same team.
That may be hard for some of us to hear and understand. We in our self-righteous anger thinking that we’re the only RIGHT way. ALL “sides” are guilty of this. I know many faithful Christians who are Republicans and I know many faithful Christians who are Democrats. Jesus calls us to be united under his leading, his direction, as HIS FOLLOWERS. When we’re getting ready to demonize the other, we need to check ourselves in the Spirit. We may get rebuked by Jesus as the disciples did. The harvest is ripe and the laborers are few. So what if they don’t look like us or speak like us or dress like us if they’re preaching Jesus and it brings about Christ’s transformation that only he can do…great. I can’t busy myself policing other people’s behavior if I’m to do what Christ is calling me to do.
In the 1996 movie Phenomenon, John Travolta plays George Malley, an ordinary man who sees a bright light descend from the sky and discovers he now has super-intelligence and telekinesis. I’ve always loved what he says about the apple. “You know, if we were to put this apple down, and leave it, it would be spoiled and gone in a few days. But, if we were to take a bite of it like this,” he then takes a bite of the apple as he continues, “it would become part of us, and we could take it with us, forever.” I’ve always wanted us to treat communion that way. With only a bite of bread and a dip of juice, we can be changed people. And we can take that with us, forever. If we take the words seriously, we can be changed with this meal. Even us judgmental disciples. As I said last week, Jesus is always working on us, pruning us, shaping us, molding us. If we think of this like we are ingesting Jesus and his likeness will pour out of us, what would that be like for us personally and in our communities, and by very extension, our worlds?
While he was President, Lincoln attended church almost every Sunday at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, where Dr. Phineas Gurley was the pastor. Lincoln’s presence caused such a commotion that Dr. Gurley gave Lincoln a key to his private study just off the platform, and Lincoln would often slip in and listen to the message in the Pastor’s study. After one particularly eloquent, moving sermon, Lincoln was leaving and his assistant, John Hay remarked, “Mr. President, wasn’t that a great sermon?” Lincoln thought for a moment and said, “It was a good sermon, but it was not a great sermon.” His assistant asked, “Why do you say that, Mr. President?” Lincoln said, “Well, the speaker was eloquent and the content was excellent, but it wasn’t a great sermon, because Dr. Gurley forgot one important matter. He did not ask us to do something great for God.”
I’m going to ask you to do something great for God today. I want you to take this meal and live like changed people, a living testimony for all the world to see. In an increasing non-church culture, you may be the only witness the world ever sees of the grace and love of Jesus. Live it. Rest in God. Show people Jesus.