18th Sunday After Pentecost ~ Proper 21B

TEXT: Mark 9:38-50

John said to [Jesus], “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us” (Mark 9:38).

“No one else can offer this service!”

“We have the real thing! Everything else is an imitation!”

“Only use our brand of batteries in this product!”

Sound familiar? It’s advertising, of course. Companies love to have the one and only, true-blue, “you can only get it here,” exclusive on the things they sell. And all the more so if the product is really popular.

You might think the church would be free from this kind of boasting. After all, humility and a gentle spirit are highly valued here. Jostling for position or berating the competition hardly seems fitting for people who claim to follow Jesus Christ. But think about it for a moment. Do you ever hear words like these from people in one church or another?

“We’re the real thing! All other churches are false!”

“Christ is only truly present at our Communion table!”

“We worship best here in this place!”

Now think about the gospel lesson for today. It contains a stunning insight into the source of much conflict within the Christian community. Listen again to what John—who was apparently speaking for all the disciples—said to Jesus: “Rabbi, we saw a man casting out demons in your name. But he wasn’t one of us, so we told him to cease and desist.”

Now, I ask you: why would Jesus’ followers want to stop someone from working in his name? Consider that—immediately before John blurts out this report, Jesus has said to them: “Whoever welcomes [a] child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37).

Got that? Whoever works in Jesus’ name is working for Jesus!

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me …” Jesus says this, and right away John is moved to ‘fess up. It’s as if Jesus’ comment prompted John’s response—as if the disciple had a sudden flash of insight, and realized how far off-base they had been (“Uh-oh! We really blew it with that exorcist dude …”).

We often hear it said that Jesus’ disciples had difficulty understanding him—but maybe this is an example of his meaning becoming crystal-clear. If we can gain insight into what happened here, perhaps we can begin to understand why Christian relationships are so often troubled and strained.

Let’s take a look at the exorcist in this story—the man who was casting out demons. The first thing we know about him is this: he obviously believed in the power of Jesus’ name, and he was doing his work under Jesus’ authority.

The second thing we know about the man is that he was not one of the inner circle of twelve—and, apparently, he was not one of the seventy followers we hear about in chapter 10 of Luke.*  This is a nameless, unknown disciple.

The third thing we know about this anonymous disciple is that he was successful at what he was doing in Jesus’ name. And this might be precisely why the Twelve were so upset.

Let’s look at their motives. Earlier in this ninth chapter of Mark, there is an incident that would have been quite fresh in the disciples’ minds. Jesus had been on the Mount of Transfiguration with Peter, James and John. The other nine disciples remained behind.

When Jesus and the three came down from the mountain, there was a flurry of activity going on with the disciples and a crowd of people. A group of scribes was arguing with the disciples. Here’s how Mark tells the story:

[Jesus] asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so” (9:16-18).

A few verses later, when the crowd is gone and the disciples are alone with Jesus, they ask him about their failure (“Why could we not cast it out?”) and Jesus gives them an answer: “This kind can come out only through prayer” (9:28-29).

Now, it’s difficult enough to be unsuccessful in front of your teacher—but to be unsuccessful when someone who isn’t even “following us” is successful … Well, that’s a bitter pill to swallow. Not only that, but it looks like the unknown disciple is more skilled with prayer than they are!

Apparently, when the disciples told the man to stop what he was doing, it was because they thought they had “exclusive rights” to the gospel. In other words, it was a territorial thing—a “copyright issue.” They figured this exorcist was encroaching on their rights.

Not only that, but—just to put their noses further out of joint—it sounds like the disciples were not even successful in guarding their turf! (“We tried to stop him,” John said.) The work of God went on in spite of them.

Now, let’s look at Jesus’ response to the disciples. The first thing he does is enjoin them not to stop this man, and he gives them two reasons—or two insights into those who do the work of God without necessarily being attached to our particular community of faith.

First, he says: “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me.” In other words, people who are successfully accomplishing the work of the Master in the Master’s name and under his authority are unlikely to turn away from their commitment. Doing the deeds of good news under the power of Christ implies dedication to the Source of good news.

Then, Jesus says: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” This needs to be seen in context. Jesus is not giving a general blessing to anything and everything that’s not actively opposing his mission. 

This is not a “live and let live” type of comment. In context, Jesus is saying, “Anyone who is accomplishing the work of God—whether a member of our particular group or not—is in partnership with what we are doing.” I think there are several lessons here which apply directly to us—and to the work of our church. 

Lesson number one: The first allegiance of every Christian—and every Christian community—is to the Lord Jesus Christ. Not to a denomination, or to a particular doctrine, or to a liturgical practice—but, to Christ. Bearing that in mind, the disciples’ words to Jesus show us one way Christian leaders and churches can get sidetracked. “We tried to stop him because he was not following us.”

To be sure, we err when we follow someone other than Christ—even when that person tells us that to follow him is to follow Christ. However, we also err when we assume that all who follow Christ will follow Christ the way we do. The apostle Paul addresses this in First Corinthians when he writes:

… it has been reported to me … that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Cor. 1:11-13).

Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life …” (John 14:6).  You may have to unpack this a bit, but most division in the church arises when people have the attitude, “My way is the only way to the Way.”

Lesson number two from our text is, I think, extremely good news for us. The man who was combating evil in the name of Christ was successful in ministry even though he was an “unknown.” He was not one of the twelve, or even one of the seventy—or any other named person in the New Testament. Yet, there he is—following Christ and working for Christ in the power of Christ.

What a great example for you and me! We may not be well-known. We may not be what some would call “pillars of the church.” We may not have published any great theological works. We may not be able to read the original New Testament Greek.

But, in the eyes of Christ, there is no such thing as an insignificant disciple. In spite of the fact that Jesus’ closest followers told the man to stop, his ministry continued.

This is a really important lesson for us: if we are to avoid making serious mistakes in deciding who is and who is not an authentic Christ-follower, we will need to have the “Gamalian” attitude. You remember Gamaliel, don’t you? If you’ve read the Book of Acts, you should remember this guy.

Gamaliel was a Pharisee, and a celebrated scholar of the Mosaic Law. In Acts, chapter five, he was the one who rose up to defend the apostles when the Sanhedrin wanted to kill them. Reminding the court of how many self-proclaimed messiahs had led movements that quickly fell apart, Gamaliel said this:

“… keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (Acts 5:38-39).

According to Acts, Gamaliel’s authority with his contemporaries was so great that they accepted his advice, regardless of how unwelcome it was.

So, to recap: there is more than one way to follow Christ, who is the way; and the proof of discipleship is in the work that is being done. Now, I want to talk about another crucial issue.

Here’s lesson number three: One of the strong themes in the gospel story is the fact of human sinfulness. As uncomfortable as it was for the disciples to have to admit it, the fact was that an unfamiliar disciple was able to do something in the name of Christ that they were unable to do. There’s more than a hint of envy between the lines of our text.

Sometimes, we just plain don’t like it that someone else succeeds where we fail. That’s human nature—or, more correctly, sinful human nature. It takes a good measure of spiritual maturity to be able to recognize this envious streak in ourselves and in our institutions.

Some years ago, I attended a denominational workshop on church growth. At that gathering, much of the discussion revolved around naming what was wrong with fast-growing churches (evangelical churches, in other words); how they were compromising the gospel with too much emphasis on personal faith … and too many guitars and drum sets! To me, most of what was said there seemed to spring from envy or defensiveness, rather than from honest evaluation.

It is through prayer, Jesus told his disciples, that the tough battles of faith are won. Through prayer, our envy and prejudice are exposed. Through prayer, our jealousy can be examined and discarded in favour of zeal for the success of the gospel—no matter who is preaching it, in word or in deed.

Friends, let us rejoice that the power of Christ is able to overcome evil; and let us always support that power—that work—wherever and whenever we see it in action. For none of us has exclusive rights to the gospel!


* Or—in some manuscripts—“seventy-two” (see Luke 10:1-20)


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