Summary: Today’s Gospel tells us that we are responsible for how we live, and we are warned not to be a stumbling block. Some don’t want to be bothered by any responsibility for anyone else. To become great is to become the servant of all.
In his early years, American landscape photographer Ansel Adams studied piano and showed some talent. At one party, however, as Adams played Chopin’s F Major Nocturne, he recalled that "In some strange way my right had started off in F-sharp major while my left had behaved well in F-major. I could not bring them together. I went through the entire nocturne with the hands separated by a half-step."
The next day a fellow guest gave Adams a no-nonsense review of his performance: "You never missed a wrong note!"(1)
Sometimes, it seems like we are like that. We sit in the church over a period of years. We are not ignorant of the teachings of Christ, and yet our lives are not in harmony at all with all that we profess and believe. Some days and weeks we do better than others, but all the while, as we try to juggle responsibilities and roles, it feels like we are playing in two different keys. Things don’t always mesh up neatly. There is too much dissonance and not enough harmony.
As we begin to look at our text for this week, I want us to see that this story about Jesus’ disciples shushing someone who was doing ministry in Jesus’ name immediately follows Jesus dealing with the disciples as they were getting their feathers up over who was going to be the greatest disciple.
Jesus had to be frustrated with them. I can see His body posture shift as His shoulders droop forward and His head lowers. Jesus is thinking, "I just got through telling them that to be first, they must be last of all and servant of all." Then, Jesus picked up a child. Children were valued just one notch up from slaves. And he says, "Whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."
My, Jesus had dealt with that problem of being the greatest, hadn’t he? He had challenged their thoughts and actions. He had taught them, and He had let them know that, through their attitudes and behavior, that’s how they were treating God. As you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to Me.
Then Mark inserts this story. On His way to Jerusalem, with death looming in the coming weeks, Jesus continues to teach His disciples. 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." How could they call Him Teacher when they seemed not to learn and understand what He was telling them? We still do that today. We call Him Teacher, but our attention span is short and our discipline is spotty. He is like a coach who gives us the play book, and week after week, we chaffe at the expectation that we learn the plays.
And so, John, after being taught that to be great we must be the last and be the servant of all and that we minister to Christ as we minister to people without power and influence, like children. John says to Jesus, "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us." Jesus surprises John, who cannot connect one teaching time with the next, by saying, "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."
John probably wasn’t ready for that. This idea of unity under the name of Christ is a very important one for our church, the Disciples of Christ. We frequently use an expression of Barton Stone, one of our founders, which says, "Unity is our Polar Star." We believe strongly that we are brothers and sisters with all Christians who confess Jesus as their Savior. We do not criticize other denominations or religious groups, but we seek to work together for Christ and for the community.
Will Willimon observes "In verse 9:42 Jesus tells them that whoever causes one of the mikroi "little ones" in the church to stumble would be better off to be thrown into the sea! Then follows a list by Jesus of horrible consequences that result from bad behavior.
In the Gospel, two different but complementary gospel tendencies appear to be at work. On the one hand, Jesus commends an inclusive and as open as possible approach to judging who is in and who is out. All those who confess his name, who do what they do in response to his name, are to be commended and welcomed by his disciples. The test for the in and the out, at least in this passage, is neither doctrinal nor theological. It is ethical. Those who are kind to disciples (9:40) shall have a just reward because, "whoever is not against us is for us."