Who's Following Whom?

Text: Mark 9:38-50
Date: Pentecost XVII (Proper 21) + 9/27/09
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

Today’s pericope helps us understand what has gone just before in Mark’s Gospel, and to better understand our own task of confessing Christ in our world today. I mean, didn’t you think it strange that the disciples suddenly started arguing about who is or will be the greatest among them? Where did that come from? Were they that petty? When’s the last time you got into an argument about who is greater than whom? I thought so. Probably the last time was when you were a child! Or when you were being childish! And then what about this oddity that suddenly Jesus’ disciples were unable to cast out a demon from a young boy, something that they had previously been fully authorized to do?

Chapter 8 of Mark is the center of his Gospel. Now Jesus begins telling His disciples about His coming Passion, His suffering, death and resurrection. And beginning now His disciples are described increasingly often as not “getting it.” They don’t understand. They seem to be getting “Dumb and Dumber.” His Transfiguration before Peter, James and John at the beginning of chapter 9 ends with the divine command, “Hear Him,” and the disciples look around and see—nobody but Jesus. AND THAT’S THE POINT! This, if nothing else, is the official “passing of the baton,” as we say, the transfer of all spiritual authority over from the prophets and Torah of the Old Testament now to their fulfillment in Jesus. From now on (if never before) He is the center of attention. Because of this He will make the exclusive claim, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Therefore His disciples—those original twelve, and now each of us as members of His body, the Church—are to be telling other people, not about ourselves, but about Jesus and inviting them to follow Him. As the Apostle Paul said, “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5).

But what do we hear in today’s reading? Peter has already embarrassed himself by his misdirected loyalty rejecting Jesus’ words about His coming death and resurrection (Mark 8:32-33). So he steps aside for a moment and John, of all people (!), dear, beloved John is next in line to humiliate himself. He actually takes the old “who’s greatest” argument from the personal to the corporate level. He turns Jesus’ invitation “follow Me” into “follow US.” “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” Following “us”? (This, by the way is the tie-in and parallel with today’s Old Testament reading where Eldad and Medad seemed to be violating their authority by preaching “in the camp.” Moses’ assistant, Joshua, says to Moses, “My lord, Moses, stop them!” But Moses counters their accusations, saying, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” [Num. 11:24-29]). “Do not stop him,” says Jesus. “For no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:39-40).

“He who is not against us is for us.” Now all of a sudden this sounds like it is contradicting Jesus’ otherwise exclusive claim, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” “He who is not against us” refers to this anonymous exorcist. The name of Jesus is not magic and if the man was not authorized as the twelve were to cast out demons, just saying the words, “I command you to come out in Jesus’ name” would be of no effect. Therefore we must say that in some way this man was a believer and that Jesus’ power was active in him. This means, at least, that the wide range of participation in the mission of Jesus is to go far beyond that of only the twelve. After all, it’s not the man or the Christian him or herself, or the minister himself but Jesus’ power and authority working through this man and men of faith. Wherever true faith in Jesus appears, it not only calls forth the approval of God, but ought also to call forth the approval of us, God’s people.

“He who is not against us is for us.” Let us ask, then, what about the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association? What about other denominations with whom we are not in fellowship, but who still have “enough” Gospel to produce true faith? While we stand, and must stand for purity of doctrine, this in no way is to deny that there are bone fide Christians in other Christian denominations that may have some confused or even false doctrine along side of the truth.

“He who is not against us is for us.” Most recently I was thinking about the decision of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (the ELCA) “to allow Lutherans in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve as ELCA…clergy.” On the one hand I was thinking, if this among other things has rendered the ELCA as an apostate church because it denies and contradicts God’s clear Word, in one sense it raises The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod from being the second-largest to the largest Lutheran fellowship in the U.S. Of course, such smugness would also tend to identify us with John’s misdirected complaint of over-emphasizing “follow US.” But let us, at the same time, acknowledge that there are and remain true Christians in those congregations of the ELCA as well as other Christian denominations who do not agree or maybe even remain ignorant of much of the false doctrine there. Do we in the LCMS not have our own, on-going challenge of speaking the truth amid the occasional or even habitual intrusion of false or at least mangled teaching? Of course!

This tension seems to be described by the Apostle Paul when he wrote to the Philippians, saying, “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will…. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (Philippians 1:15, 18). Likewise I have rejoiced in much that I’ve heard preached both by Billy Graham and by Pope John Paul II! But how much false teaching should be allowed before it contradicts and wipes out any truth that happens to be included? When St. Paul was in Ephesus, there were some itinerant Jewish exorcists that began to use the name of Jesus, presuming to say to demons, “I adjure you by the Jesus, whom Paul proclaims.” St. Luke writes,

Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded (Acts 19:13-16).

Again, the name of Jesus is not magic. But our spiritual battles are very real.

Jesus’ rebuke, “He who is not against us is for us,” is also in no way to be interpreted as a blanket acceptance of “everyone do your own thing.” The self-same Apostle John would later write in his First Epistle, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1-3). On the one hand, it is the Holy Spirit who works faith in the heart, where and when it pleases God, in those who hear the Gospel (Augsburg Confession V). On the other hand, that faith has a definite and definable content that can be tested against the revealed Word of God, the Bible, centering in the one and only Jesus Christ. True faith in Christ will show up, many times, in surprising places. Yet we must also always be on guard that not everyone using the name of Jesus or the Bible necessarily has the true faith.

In this section of Mark’s Gospel, the Evangelist is saying that even the most privileged of Jesus’ disciples had failed to understand what His coming death and resurrection signifies either for Him to be the Messiah or for their life and mission as His followers. In the same way we should not be overly surprised when even pastors or high elected officials or slim majorities of voting delegates to a convention in outward church structures are misled under the influence of misguided enthusiasms or even ignorance. There remains an objective, knowable accuracy of the Gospel against which anyone’s faith and confession must be compared, not only for that individual’s spiritual health but also for all whom the Holy Spirit would call through their preaching and witness.

Jesus’ rebuke of John here is just as strong as His rebuke of Peter, earlier, naming him Satan. “Whosoever shall cause one of these little ones that believe on me to stumble, it were better for him if a great millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea.” The warning here is not to reject or cause to stumble one who is simple or weak in faith, but to welcome and to seek to strengthen that gift of faith. The strengthening of faith means to stay focused always on the real issue of faith, namely, the forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God and the new, eternal life. And all this happens always and only with Jesus at the center.

Jesus seeks to refocus his disciples’ attention on the main issue, calling to the concrete obedience of faith. By His deliberate over-statement, the imagery of cutting off the offending hand or foot or eye, He means to emphasize the importance of avoiding or removing anything that stands in the way or seeks to steal you away from faith.

So, on the one hand, Jesus’ approval of the anonymous exorcist teaches the disciples of unexpected grace. On the other hand, Jesus calls forth the strengthening of faith as a fortress against everything that would attempt to steal us away from our place in the kingdom. The one thing that ties both together is keeping your eyes and your focus on Jesus. We tell each other and invite the world, “Hear Him,” “Follow Him.”

Let us ever walk with Jesus….
Onward in His footsteps treading,
Pilgrims here, our home above,
Full of faith and hope and love,
Let us do the Father’s bidding.
Faithful Lord, with me abide;
I shall follow where You guide. (LSB 685:1)