Sermon #3 (September 27) in our sermon series “The Way of the Cross: Our Journey with Jesus” at Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA.
Peter tried to dissuade Jesus from heading to the cross and got put in his place – told to set his mind not on human things, but divine things. The disciples argued about who was the greatest and found themselves looking at a child and being told to welcome the least of these. Now, the disciples run to tattle on someone who is performing deeds of power – driving out demons in Jesus’ name.
Out of breath, they run up to Jesus. “Teacher! We just saw this guy and he was casting out demons. In your name! We tried to stop him because he’s not one of us. We did well, didn’t we?!” And, much to their surprise, Jesus says, “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. Whoever is not against us is for us.” I can see the disciples stopping short and muttering, disappointedly, “Uh… ok. I guess we’ll just keep walking to Jerusalem then.”
In order to understand what’s going on here, it’s helpful to go back earlier in chapter 9. A man had brought his son to the disciples for healing. This boy was suffering from a demon that in modern terms seems to be epilepsy. But the disciples couldn’t drive out the demon. So Jesus casts it out and tells the disciples when they ask why they couldn’t cast it out, “‘This kind can come out only through prayer.’”
Now there is a man casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but he’s not even in Jesus’ group. In light of this previous failure to do deeds of power like their Teacher, the disciples seem jealous of the other exorcist. They are insecure, confused, struggling with their identity as followers of Jesus, and perhaps even afraid that Jesus will kick them out of the inner circle. After all, they are the handpicked twelve and they can’t even cast out a demon!
The refrain that is repeated throughout last week’s text as well as today’s is, “in Jesus’ name” or “in the name of Christ.” Children are to be welcomed in Jesus’ name. Demons are cast out and wholeness restored in Jesus’ name. People are to receive hospitality – a cup of water to drink – in Jesus’ name. And woe be unto those who cause anyone who would believe in Jesus’ name to stumble. In short, the name of Christ has tremendous power.
The disciples have heard Jesus predict his death twice already, and they’re trying to get a handle on what they are supposed to do and who they are supposed to be as followers. In this search for clarity about their identity, the disciples are eager – super eager in fact – to point out the faults and shortcomings of this man operating outside of their little group. Instead, Jesus uses this encounter to refocus their attention on themselves. Because they have been called to follow Jesus and bear his name, they shouldn’t stop this man from doing good just because he’s an outsider. Instead, they should be focused on the ways their actions are preventing healing and good news from flowing to people in Jesus’ name. Because it’s not about the disciples’ names, but about whose name they carry and how they represent that name. The actions of the outsider are welcomed while the insiders are warned to be mindful of their own actions.
In baptism, we are marked with the triune name of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – often with a cross traced upon our foreheads. It is this name we are to carry throughout our lives. It is the name in which we are called to live, to love and to serve others. It shapes and forms our identities. But as the Gospel points out, because we bear this holy name, we also bear a great deal of responsibility. Jesus’ words to his disciples ask us pointedly, “how are you getting in the way of the gospel? How are you a stumbling block to others?”
This week, we have been inundated by photos, videos, and news of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States. While I’ve enjoyed it, and I think the Pope has wonderful things to say, he’s kind of a tough act to follow. I mean, I can’t say that I’ve talked to Congress, washed the feet of prisoners, called for peace on a global scale, or even had a Fiat take me around DC! What on earth have I been doing with my life?! It is easy to look at his actions and feel like we cannot live up to them, but I really like how President Obama put it in his welcome speech to the Pope: “Your Holiness, in your words and deeds, you set a profound moral example. And in these gentle but firm reminders of our obligations to God and to one another, you are shaking us out of complacency. All of us may, at times, experience discomfort when we contemplate the distance between how we lead our daily lives and what we know to be true, what we know to be right. But I believe such discomfort is a blessing, for it points to something better.”
Each of us, washed in the waters of baptism and marked with Christ’s holy and precious name, has been given a beautiful gift. The gift of forgiveness and discipleship in Jesus’ name. We have been given the opportunity to serve God and the world in the name of Christ. Jesus issues a challenge, calling us to stop judging others and forcing us to look instead at how we may be keeping others from encountering the good news, the living God in their own lives. Are there things that we hold dear that might be stumbling blocks to others experiencing God’s grace? Maybe it’s as simple as not moving in our pews to make room for new folks. Or maybe it’s prioritizing television watching over spending time in prayer or devotions. Maybe it’s in the way we speak about others which cheapens our witness to Christ. This is the discomfort we experience when contemplating the distance between how we lead our daily lives and what we know to be true. It’s the discomfort the disciples experienced that day with Jesus and it’s the discomfort that can provoke thoughtful prayer, contemplation and change in our own lives. It’s the discomfort that can lead to asking for forgiveness and opening a space for the healing of our spirits. Because Christ has begun a good work in us and will bring it to completion.
We are all tempted to look at those outside of ourselves or our little groups and think that others are doing it wrong or shouldn’t be allowed to do it at all. Other denominations worshiping in the wrong style. Neighbors tending their yards in the wrong way. People praying differently than we do. But Jesus warns us that our time would be better spent searching our hearts and allowing those who bring about good in his name to continue. Instead of tearing down, how can we take the opportunity to build up and to point to God’s grace and love?
Recently, there was a story of a Turkish couple who took the money they could have spent on their wedding reception and instead spent it, and their wedding day, feeding thousands of Syrian refugees. This couple, who are Muslims and not Christians, caused me to pause and to reflect on how I was welcoming others – offering a cup of cold water to the thirsty, bread to the hungry, and shelter to the homeless. The “outsiders” helped this “insider” see and hear afresh the call of Christ.
Today you will have the opportunity to come forward to receive individual prayers for healing. As James wrote, “Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.” Soon, I will invite you to come forward to receive prayers in the name of the Lord for healing, forgiveness, strength, or whatever you may need this day. Come and be strengthened, remembering the name in which you live, move, and have your being. Come, and give thanks for the healing and wholeness that comes through life lived in Jesus’ name. Amen.
© 2015. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.