Sermon for Proper 21b
Scripture: Mark 9:38-48
Theme: You don’t have to be perfect, just follow Jesus.
The Disciples are an interesting bunch. We can see that all through the New Testament… there must have been something about them that prompted Jesus to choose them as his closest followers and students. We get a glimpse of just how unique they are at the beginning of Mark’s gospel when he recounts how it was that Jesus called the first disciples to follow him.
Let me set the stage for you.
Mark opens strongly but differently than Matthew and Luke—he has no birth story… instead, like John the Evangelist, he opens with John the Baptist “baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4).
Mark provides us little background information about John—in the Gospel of John he is referred to as a “man sent from God.” In Mark, John simply “appears” as if from nowhere, “baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4).
In Mark’s Gospel, everything has a purpose, there are no extraneous details and you get the sense that we are going somewhere… toward a destination, with no false endings, no time to wait around and talk about unimportant things, about anything that doesn’t take you closer to the center of the whole story…
So when Mark takes the time to tell us how Jesus called the first disciples we know there is something important going on, something we’re supposed to learn… not only the sort of importance we might think of from the simple fact that these were Jesus’ first and closest disciples, but something in particular is important in the way they were called—in the way they reacted.
You could tell from their reactions… instead of asking Jesus a hundred questions about what he meant and who he was when he said to them: “Follow me,” they laid down their nets and followed.
So there was something that Jesus saw in each of his disciples, particularly the 12, his inner circle, that inspired him to choose them as his closest followers. And yet, they weren’t really that special, were they? I mean, no more special than anyone else… they were fishermen, and tax collectors…political dissidents and people working with the Roman establishment.
They were every-day people… and Jesus called them…
And they followed.
They followed him through his ministry, through the towns and villages, into the Synagogues and out into the desolate places where he prayed. They followed him when he healed, taught, prayed. They were faithful disciples of Jesus.
But they weren’t perfect.
To tell the truth, they weren’t that impressive. Think about it…they were average Joes…
Yes they were able to cast out demons and heal the sick… after Jesus told them what to do and gave them the authority to do it (Mark 6:7-13).
Yes they understood what Jesus was teaching them about God, about what was going to happen…err… they understood part of what Jesus was teaching them about God, about what was going to happen to him… ummm…. They understood a little of what Jesus was saying about God and about what was going to happen… after he explained it multiple times…
Ok… it’s fair to say they didn’t really get it.
But when he called them, they followed.
They put down their nets… and followed him…
It may be true that they didn’t give up all ambition when they started following him…they weren’t perfect… sometimes while they were following him they argued amongst themselves… like last week when they were arguing about who was the greatest among them.
After that argument Jesus taught them two lessons, one about welcoming people, the other about status. While they were standing around too embarrassed to tell Jesus what they’d been doing, Jesus teaches them a lesson:
“And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me” (Mark 9:35-37).
Jesus is teaching them a lesson about humility…they’ve been arguing amongst themselves about who’s the greatest… probably trying to compare achievements—“You should’ve seen the demon I ran out of that house… man it was *THIS BIG*.” Or… “You know Jesus likes me best, he called me first…”
“Well maybe he called you first but realized he needed better help so he called us…”
Jesus is showing them that in his world, in the world they chose to enter when they followed him… in the Kingdom he proclaims—their status is worthless, its their service to others that counts…
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says to his disciples “let the little children come unto me…”, here he goes one further, telling them that in welcoming a little child they have in fact welcomed him… more than that, they’ve welcomed the one who sent him… in the person of a little child, they welcome God.
So the Disciples were taken down a few notches. They weren’t as special as they thought… or maybe others were more special than they had thought… either way, Jesus is talking to them about being a servant, not having worldly authority, not being the “greatest.”
One would think that after a lesson like this, after being brought up short because of their assumptions, they would understand a little more about humility and about welcoming people in God’s name.
But they didn’t get it… but they kept following Jesus…
But even their pride keeps getting in their way… they’re with Jesus as he brings in the Kingdom, but they can’t break out of their way of thinking about achievement, and respect, and greatness—enough to understand. We think of pride as Judas’ sin, but all the disciples showed they had their share… as we all do…
They were, after all, regular guys…
Like you or me…
They get distracted sometimes… they are so focused on what they want, or the way they think things ought to be, that they can’t see the way Jesus is telling them things really are…They are so concerned with their own position that they are willing to stop someone from casting our demons in Jesus’ name…
“We tried to stop him because he was not following us…”
Who is this person to claim the name of Jesus, to do mighty works in his name when they haven’t been with us… they haven’t studied under him, walked with him, eaten with him…so we tried to stop him…
Why would they do this…?
“We tried to stop him because he was not following us…” John says to Jesus. They didn’t say “He’s not following you Lord..” he said “he was not following….us…”
Now maybe they meant that he wasn’t following Jesus, but the man was casting out Demons in Jesus’ name—something the disciples had been unable to do themselves just a few days before—do you remember, when they encounter the demon that Jesus says can only be driven out by fasting and prayer?
Maybe they were expressing their concern about Jesus’ good name… after all, shouldn’t a person be certified to speak or act in Jesus’ name, if only so they don’t sully his reputation?
And yet, this person was effectively casting out demons in Jesus’ name, where his closest disciples had been unable to not long before.
I wonder if the disciples were confused…
I wonder if they forgot who was really in charge…
I wonder if, in traveling with Jesus and being with him when he worked his miracles had made them take a higher view of themselves… “we’re special because Jesus chose us..” “We have more knowledge because Jesus has taught us…” “We have a direct line to the man and don’t you forget it!”
But Jesus puts them in their place again:
What? But, they haven’t walked all this way with you…
Whoever is not against us is for us….
How do we do this today?
We want to guard our own position… we want to declare the rightness of our own opinions and we use God to justify ourselves in our arrogance…
Once there was an ecumenical crusade that was being held in a large city. Every imaginable denomination was in attendance for this unprecedented spiritual event. During one very well-attended event a secretary suddenly rushed in shouting, “The building is on fire! The building is on fire!” At which point:
The METHODISTS gathered in the corner and prayed.
The BAPTISTS cried, “Where is the water?”
The QUAKERS quietly praised God for the blessings that fire brings.
The LUTHERANS posted a notice on the door declaring that the fire was evil.
The ROMAN CATHOLICS passed a plate to cover the damages.
The [messianic] JEWS posted symbols on the doors hoping that the fire would pass.
The CONGREGATIONALISTS shouted, “Every man for himself!”
The FUNDAMENTALISTS proclaimed, “It’s the vengeance of God.”
The EPISCOPALIANS formed a procession and marched out.
The CHRISTIAN SCIENTISTS concluded that there was no fire.
The PRESBYTERIANS appointed a chairperson to appoint a committee to look into the matter and make a written report.
And the secretary grabbed a fire extinguisher and put the fire out.
We do this a lot don’t we… both in the church and in everyday life….
We need to learn the lesson the disciples had to learn—it’s not about us… it’s not about how long we have or haven’t spent following Jesus… it’s not about our status…
The disciples weren’t great people that Jesus called… they were average people that by calling, Jesus made great… And whenever they forgot that… whenever they tried to make themselves the focus of their lives or ministry, they failed, they didn’t understand, they made fools of themselves….
A lot like we do, when we take the focus off of Jesus and serving him, when we start to believe that the only way someone can truly follow Jesus is by first following us—how arrogant is that?—we demonstrate our sinfulness.. the fact that we aren’t perfect, that we aren’t great, at least not when we do things on our own…
We’re just average, sinful people… but if we listen… if we put down our nets and follow Jesus when he calls, we will do great things… not because of what we can do, but because of what He can do in and with us.
So… Jesus still calls us… “follow me” he says… Follow him and see what amazing things happen.