Whoever is not against us is for us

Pentecost 17

Mark 9:38-50

Marian Free

In the name of God whose generosity and power extend beyond anything we can imagine.  Amen.

There is an old movie, “Leap of Faith”, which tells the tale of a man, Jonas Nightingale who makes an income leading “revivals” and who takes his Miracles and Wonders show on the road around the United States. It’s a great show – there is a full gospel choir, an impassioned message, the frenzy of “Amens” and “Hallelujahs” and of course there are the miracles. We, the movie watchers, know the secrets. The miracles are not really miracles, but are a carefully staged show. Jonas’ staff eavesdrop on the conversations of the audience as they enter the tent. They relay the information to Jonas who can then “miraculously” identify their concerns. When an elderly woman enters, the staff ask if she is local. When she responds that she is from 30 miles away they offer her a place in the front row and a wheelchair to make her more comfortable. Later the same woman is brought to the stage so that she can be assisted from the wheelchair to miraculously walk again! The whole thing happens so quickly and the dynamic is so electric, that no one in the audience realize that they have been had.

In the story, a vehicle breaks down, forcing an unexpected stop in a drought stricken town. It is not an ideal place to set up business and the crew could use a rest. Nightingale sees it as a challenge – his motto is $10000 a day and he doesn’t like the idea of losing four days pay. So despite initial resistance and pleas from the town’s sheriff, up go the tents and out goes the promotion. That night desperate farmers and townsfolk flock to the show and when the buckets are passed around the money pours in.

Nightingale is completely unscrupulous – he is able to turn everything to his advantage – even the exposure of his seedy past! However, this town h as a particular challenge. A teenage boy Boyd has been crippled in the car accident which killed his parents and despite a previous – failed – attempt at a miracle cure, he continues to believe that God’s hand is on his life. During one of the shows, Boyd makes his way to the front and Nightingale, knowing that he can do nothing to help, leaves the stage claiming that he is worn out the miracles. However, the crowd has seen the boy and it rises to its feet calling “one more miracle” until Jonas reappears.

Jonas is stuck, but he falls back on his “insurance policy” – healing is dependent on faith. He tells the crowd that if there is even one doubter in the tent the boy’s healing will be in jeopardy. Boyd is undeterred. Ignoring Nightingale and the crowd he struggles to the life size crucifix at the back of the tent and reaches out to clutch the feet of Jesus. As he steps away his damaged leg is strengthened until, yes, he walks unaided – he is healed! Jonas is stunned, he doesn’t believe in miracles. He doesn’t believe in God. He knows himself to be a conman, yet the evidence is before his eyes – Boyd can walk.

“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.’ 39But Jesus said, ‘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. 40Whoever is not against us is for us.”

Today’s gospel is filled with complexities which cannot easily be understood out of context. It belongs to a larger sub-section of Mark’s gospel which began at verse 30 when Jesus for a second time announced his death and resurrection. The immediate response is fear, followed by an argument among themselves as to which of them is the greatest. Then John, who is given a voice only here in Mark’s gospel, reports that he and the other disciples stopped someone who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Apparently an exorcist is using Jesus’ name as some sort of magical formula – and achieving some success as a result. The concern of the disciples is that he is not one of them. Their criticism of the stranger is even more damning when one remembers that in the days immediately before, they had demonstrated an inability to cast out a demon which caused a young boy to cast himself into the fire.

John is probably expecting Jesus to praise the disciples for their action, but if this is so, they would have been disappointed to receive instead his censure. “Do not stop him.” In this brief interaction, the arrogance and self-absorption of the disciples has been exposed, as has their failure to understand. They have obviously thought that because Jesus has chosen them and empowered them to act in his name that this power has become their exclusive right. Worse than that, they seem to be claiming some sort of equality with Jesus. John doesn’t say, “we stopped him because he was not following you”. Instead he reveals the self-centredness of himself and the disciples when he says: “he was not following us”. Instead of giving credit to Jesus for the gifts that they have received, he is claiming leadership, influence and power for the disciples.

The disciples have failed to understand the nature of the power given to them. It is not theirs, but God’s. They exercise their healing ministry and the ministry of exorcism not by any quality of their own, but only by virtue of the power of God acting through them. They argue about who is the greatest, they try to prevent someone doing something good in Jesus’ name, and they assume they have a ministry all their own, rather than one that has been entrusted to them by Jesus.

Today’s gospel is a corrective against any sort of arrogance that assumes that we as disciples can manipulate or direct God. It is a salutary reminder that we are not members of an exclusive club which has a patent on goodness or good deeds. It reinforces the knowledge that miracles are always the work of God, and never the result of our own ability or power. We are always dependent on God, not God on us. Even the cynical Jonas Nightingale who uses the name of Jesus to achieve his own materialistic end, ultimately cannot stop or control the power of God working through him for good. Having experienced Jesus’ power for himself, he cannot help but speak well of him.

“For no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us”.

We cannot stop God working through or with anyone, we can only rejoice that God’s work is done and that we, at times have the privilege to share in it.

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