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Preaching Mark 9:38-50


“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” He was not following us. He was not under our authority. He was not doing ministry under our control. He was not acting with our permission. We tried to stop him because even though he was spreading our message, even though he was doing our deeds, he wasn’t playing by our rules. The disciples are threatened by the deeds of a healer who isn’t following the disciples.

The way Mark tells the story, even in these early, pre-church days; there are already issues of authority and control. Disciples are already fighting over who has the right to speak Jesus’ name and enact healing in his name.

Jesus doesn’t care who uses his name when healing and wholeness are the outcome. He doesn’t care who controls the healing, only that it is enacted. Is someone casting out demons without your permission? Do not stop him. “Whoever is not against us is for us.” It is the healing that Jesus offers to the world that is important, not who gets credit for it.

As the church continues in its contemporary Reformation, I find Jesus’ perspective reassuring, perhaps even prescriptive. The shape of the modern-day church and all of its structures are secondary to the work at hand. The healing and the hospitality are what’s primary. No doubt, this kind of permissive culture of ministry is unnerving to many, primarily those of us who are fully invested in those very structures. We’d like to find ways for Jesus to defend our fancy titles (or at least our pensions).

It was certainly unnerving to the disciples, and they were a lot less invested in formal structures than many of us today. Jesus tries to teach them about the cross, and they argue who is the greatest. Jesus brings a little child before them to show them that those whom the world counts the least, God counts the greatest and the disciples try to stop a healer because he isn’t following them. Jesus may not want credit for his healings, but the disciples certainly do. They want the credit, the accolades, and the power that they believe disciples of Jesus are entitled to.

So our preaching most likely needs to start with confession—confession for the petty squabbles that take place in whatever adjudicatory we are a part of; confession for the arguments that take place in our congregations over what type of music to sing or where to put the furniture when Jesus has called us into the work of healing; our arguments over “process” that are often more about our own idolatry; our battles over “doctrine” that are often as much about our attempts to maintain control; our debates over the “purity of the church” that are as much about are attempts to enforce others to conform to our interpretations of the Gospel as they are about Christ’s ministry of healing the world.

Out of that confession we are reminded that the church’s one foundation is not the wealth it may have amassed from previous generations. It is not the buildings that we may have to relinquish as the going gets tough. It is not the ways of being church that may have to give way to the challenges posed by the new culture of new generations. The church’s one foundation is Jesus and his ministry, the one who is constantly bringing us back to the focus of God’s mission in the world.

The good news on the other side of that relinquishment is that the church doesn’t need all that much to be faithful to God’s ministry in the world. It just needs a group of people who are attentive to Christ and his calling.

Wilbert R. Shenk, in his landmark essay, “Recasting Theology of Mission” makes the point that “when God wanted to do a new thing, God sent the Messiah to Galilee—the periphery of Jewish life.”1 Shenk argues that it was from that marginal vantage point that God chose to announce the kingdom of God.

The preacher will recognize that in the disestablishment of the church, God is at work, challenging disciples to put our trust in Christ and the work he assigns to us, rather than in the structures we set up to accomplish that work, structures that must change (or even die) over time, in order to give way to Christ’s leading. It is Christ’s healing work that we are invited to celebrate every time, whether that work is enacted by the church we’ve been called to, or beyond.

Andrew Foster Connors    

 1. Wilbert R. Shenk, “Recasting Theology of Mission,” Landmark Essays in Mission and World Christianity, Robert L. Gallagher and Paul Hertig, editors, (New York:  Orbis Books, 2009), 130.


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See Tom Steagald's Preaching Journal! Tom is the Pastor at Lafayette Street United Methodist Church in Shelby, NC, and adjunct professor at Hood Theological Seminary (AME, Zion) in Salisbury, NC. Tom has just published Shadows, Darkness and Dawn: A Lenten Journey with Jesus (Upper Room). Previous titles include Praying for Dear Life and Every Disciple's Journey, both from NavPress. He is a frequent contributor to Feasting on the Word, The Abingdon Preaching Annual, and other preaching resources. Tom's journal will detail each week's work to "discover" the sermon to be preached at Lafayette Street. Follow FestHomiletics on Twitter 

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