Here is a draft of a sermon that will be published later in the year.
38″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.”
39″Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, 40 for whoever is not against us is for us. 41I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward.
42″And if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck. 43If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out.[a] 45And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. 47And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, 48where
” ‘their worm does not die,
and the fire is not quenched.’
Alex McManus, speaker and missional leader, says, “The Gospel comes to us on its way to someone else.” This captures succinctly the mission of Jesus. Jesus came to unleash a movement that would announce to the nations the favor and goodwill of God. But a movement only expands when it retains an outward orientation to “outsiders” and remains committed to expanding its influence.
The greatest threat to an outward orientation is the desire to command and control others. This temptation confronts us constantly. Among Jesus’ first followers, there was the temptation to elevate self over the mission. In the preceding verses of Mark 9, the disciples see Jesus transfigured in his full glory at the top of a high mountain. In this state, they hear God the Father testifying, “This is my beloved son. Listen to him.” Jesus includes two separate teaching times where he predicts his own death and resurrection from the grave. In the middle of the predictions of his resurrection is a long passage where the disciples were unable to heal a demon-possessed boy. When Jesus arrived on the seen, he quickly dispatched the demon. Taken together, these stories verify that Jesus is indeed God’s agent to usher in the kingdom and demonstrate further Jesus’ authority and power. They also show that the disciples have much to learn.
Provocatively, the disciples respond to these lessons by arguing among themselves over who was the greatest. Jesus immediately sat down and taught them that the essence of kingdom greatest is the willingness to serve and welcome others regardless of their standing in the world. Jesus invites a little child into the group as an object lesson. This is a powerful teaching. In the ancient world, children occupied a low rung on the ladder of social status. In other words, Jesus teaches that the essence of discipleship and leadership involves an openness and enthusiastic embrace of persons of low status.
Yet in our Gospel text, we find the disciples embroiled in a controversy over the actions of an outsider to the group. The disciples are upset because a man was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. They reported to Jesus that they had attempted to stop him “because he was not following us” (italics added).
Who follows whom?
There is great irony in verses 9:38-41. The disciples had just shown themselves unable to cast out a demon and now they were agitated by the successful acts of exorcism by another. The unnamed exorcist accomplished his work in the name of Jesus. This suggests that the exorcist was in fact a disciple of Jesus, but one that existed outside of the original twelve.
The disciples however have misunderstood their standing as part of Jesus’ chosen Twelve. Their position is not one of power and privilege but of service and grace. Their role is not to control the expansion of the Gospel message but to facilitate and unleash it. Notice the language that they deploy: he was not following us. Disciples don’t follow disciples; they follow Jesus. The distinction may sound subtle, but its implications are critical. Jesus’ disciples have equated their membership in Jesus’ band of followers with the power to draw boundaries between insider and outsider and to exclude others. They mistakenly think that God’s kingdom is their kingdom to rule and control.
In the climactic battle scene of Star Wars Episode Three: The Revenge of the Sith, Obi-Wan Kenobi confronts Anakin Skywalker. Obi-Wan had been sent by Yoda to destroy the fallen Anakin, but hopes that his former apprentice and friend might be able to turn back from the dark side of the force.
Anakin boasts that he has restored peace and justice to his empire. Obi-Wan is incredulous and reminds Anakin that a Jedi’s allegiance is to the Republic,
Anakin replies, “You are either with me or you are my enemy.”
This is the final sign to Obi-Wan that his friend is lost. “Only a Sith lord deals in absolutes Anakin. Now I will do what I must.”
Anakin’s mind had distorted the essence of the servant leadership that resided at the core of the Jedi Order. He substituted self-ambition and a lust for power for core mission of serving to keep the peace and preserve freedom for the Intergalactic Republic.
Jesus’ words in verse 40 affirm the opposite of Anakin’s: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” There is a profound difference between Jesus’ statement and that of Anakin’s. Jesus assumes friendship and goodwill for those who are not acting against him whereas Anakin’s formulation assumes enmity unless there is an explicit affirmation of allegiance to him personally. This is the height of arrogance and self-centeredness. Both of these traits are community killers and stifle the forward movement of the Gospel. In his letter to the Christ followers in Rome, Paul began a section on living as the body of Christ with this warning: “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”
For Jesus, there is no problem. The unnamed exorcist was acting in his name. This made the person a friend and ally. Thus, Jesus challenges each of us to be open to movements of God’s spirit that operate outside of our control.
The 18th century evangelist, John Wesley, in his sermon “Catholic Spirit” famously stated, “If thine heart is as my heart,” if thou lovest God and all mankind, I ask no more: “give me thine hand.” Wesley was not affirming an anything goes ethos, but instead affirming that it was essential for Christ followers to overlook small differences between gropus for the sake of God’s mission in the world. Wesley did not expect everyone to become a Methodist and was generous in his acceptance of all who loved God and humanity and were seeking to advance the Gospel in his day. Wesley understood that the Gospel was bigger than he was and that he needed to step aside lest he thwart God’s work in the world. He wanted his generous acceptance of non-Methodists to become engrained in his followers.
It’s not about control; it is about following Christ.
Insider or Outsider?
Jesus expands his teaching in the second half of our text. A commitment to embracing the outsider is a kingdom mandate. Every Christ follower is responsible to every other Christ follower let a stumbling block cause another to trip and fall. In particular, Jesus uses the language “little ones who believe in me.” This line is critical. “Little ones” likely picks up the theme of welcoming children from 9:36-37. It reminds us who seek to follow Jesus that we must be vigilant in our openness to persons outside of our group, particularly those of lesser social status, who desire to follow Jesus.
The force of Jesus’ message places the responsibility on the existing community to embrace and diversify to receive the new rather than calling for the newcomer to conform to the existing body. The severity of Jesus words demonstrates the crucial necessity of this posture for the sake of the expansion of the Gospel in our day.
It’s not about control; it is about following Christ.
Unleashed for Mission
A simple illustration of the danger of imposing a conform and control ethos involves inviting individuals in a large assembly into groups of 5-8 people. Once the larger gathering is divided into smaller groups ask each group to poll its members for their favorite color. The majority color becomes the color of the group. The inevitable result is that a majority of the small groups will be blue. Why is this so? The answer is simple. Blue consistently polls as the favorite color of both women and men. But the lesson comes not in the presenter’s ability to guess that blue will be the color for the assembly, but by then inviting everyone in the room who liked a color other than blue to stand up. Astonishingly, close to half of the room will rise from their seats. In other words, by enforcing a conform and control ethos on a group, we run the risk of losing an individual’s creativity and uniqueness. By making everyone “blue”, we elevate conformity to the standard of the majority over the unique contribution that otherwise would be made by each member.
It is vital for the Christ following movement to move away from power games. It’s not about control; it is about following Christ into the world in fulfillment of God’s mission.
Imagine what our community of faith might become if we embraced every newcomer in such a way that his or her God-given gifts, talents, and passions are affirmed and unleashed for service in God’s mission.