TITLE: In Jesus' Name
SERMON IN A SENTENCE: The work of ordinary people -- people who do
their work and live their lives and pray their prayers in Jesus' name --
has great Jesus-given power.
SCRIPTURE: Mark 9:38-50
Remember when you were a small child, your mother had prayer with you at bedtime. Among other things, she told you that you should end your prayers with the words -- "in Jesus' name." I often wondered why people felt the need to do that, and found that the custom originates with a promise of Jesus. He said," If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it" (John 14:14).
It was hard for me to imagine that Jesus would fail to answer a good prayer just because I forgot to put that little tagline at the end – and it was equally difficult to imagine that he would answer a bad prayer just because I said, "in Jesus' name" -- but I always close my prayers with the words, "in Jesus' name" -- just in case.
But that little formula -- "in Jesus' name" -- does one thing for sure. It acknowledges that there is power in Jesus' name. That doesn't mean that we can say "in Jesus' name" and expect a genie to pop out of a bottle. We shouldn't imagine that saying "in Jesus' name" will somehow turn God into a cosmic vending machine to give us whatever we want.
But it does mean that a person who goes forth in Jesus' name -- who works in Jesus' name -- who prays in Jesus' name ---- can do great things. That has been true for two thousand years. We have seen famous Christians like Mother Teresa and Billy Graham go into all sorts of places -- serving in Jesus' name -- praying in Jesus' name -- making a difference in people's lives -- making the world a better place.
We have also seen it on a smaller scale -- at home -- in our own community. We have seen ordinary people working quietly in Jesus' name -- teaching a Sunday school class -- managing a food pantry -- ladling out food in a soup kitchen -- serving on the church board -- singing in the choir -- doing a thousand little tasks in Jesus' name.
We don't always see the results. We won't truly know all that the Lord has accomplished through these ordinary people until we see the Lord face to face. I am confident, though, that, on that day, we will be surprised -- stunned -- at the wonderful things that Christ has done through the small deeds of ordinary people -- deeds done in Jesus' name. I believe that we will be surprised at the power of our own witness -- surprised at what Jesus accomplished when we did some little thing in his name.
I believe that the Lord will remind us that we gave a cup of cold water to someone of no consequence -- and then he will show us how that small act of kindness changed a life. Sometimes the person who received the kindness will be changed. Sometimes an onlooker will be changed -- someone we didn't even know was watching -- someone that Christ put there to observe the act of kindness being rendered in his name. It is very
possible that the changed person might even go on to become a great mover and shaker for Christ -- all because of some small thing, long forgotten, that we did in Jesus' name.
I can remember people who were important in shaping my own life –I am sure you can remember people important in shaping your life-- your mother, a small town pastor -- a rural postman -- an elderly farm woman -- a man in a wheelchair -- a Sunday school teacher -- an Army doctor -- the pastor of a big city church and so on. Many of them were simple folk -- living their lives in Jesus' name. I doubt that they would think of themselves as making much of a difference -- but you can be sure that they did. Just ordinary people -- working, living and praying in Jesus' name!
In our Gospel lesson today, the apostle John came to Jesus with a complaint. The apostles had seen a man -- not an apostle -- not one of the twelve -- casting out demons in Jesus' name. The apostles tried to stop him, but without success.
When he reported this to Jesus, I can imagine John thinking, "Get him, Jesus!" John had seen Jesus stand up to some pretty tough characters, and he could just imagine what Jesus would do to this unauthorized exorcist -- the one using Jesus' name without permission.
But Jesus surprised John. He didn't put the exorcist in his place. Instead, he said to John, "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."
I can just imagine John's disappointment. After all, he and the other disciples had given up a lot to follow Jesus. Jesus had commissioned them to do his work. The disciples felt that they had earned exclusive rights to Jesus' power. Now, when they found a stranger trespassing on their turf, Jesus said, "Don't worry about it. Let him be! He's not hurting anyone!"
John must have thought, "You are wrong, Jesus -- he is hurting me! I am your disciple! I am the one who left hearth and home to follow you! You commissioned me to use your name! Now I need you to stop this guy – this fly-by-night exorcist -- because, if you don't, the authority that you gave me is nothing special any more -- I am nobody special anymore! So I need you to stop him, Jesus! Stop him, please!"
But Jesus said, "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. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward."
John must have been crushed!
Of course, if you know "The Rest of the Story," as Paul Harvey would put it, you won't have much sympathy for John. John and his brother, James, were selfish men. All they really wanted was a seat at the head of the table, and Jesus knew that. He wasn't about to stop the uninvited exorcist just to shield their big egos.
As I thought about this odd little story this week, it seemed to me that it speaks to us -- to our situation -- in several ways:
-- First, of course, it reminds us that there is power in Jesus' name -- power in the most ordinary life lived in Jesus' name -- power in the smallest act of kindness rendered in Jesus' name. That power comes not from our lives or from our kindness -- but from Jesus. When we act in Jesus' name, Jesus blesses our actions -- multiplies their effects --
makes them into something more wonderful than we could have hoped.
And then this story reminds us that Jesus often does his work through the most unlikely people -- people with no seminary education – no credentials -- no special talents. All that they have is Jesus – and Jesus is all that they need.
-- And then this story reminds us that Jesus often does his work through the lives of people whom we don't even like. Conservatives find it difficult to imagine that Jesus might take delight in the work of a social-activist liberal. Liberals find it difficult to imagine that Jesus might take delight in the work of a Bible-toting fundamentalist. The
Protestants among whom many of us grew up found it difficult to imagine that Jesus could love Catholics -- and the Catholics of that day found it difficult to believe that Jesus could love us. This little story of Jesus and the unauthorized exorcist calls us to a broader vision -- calls us to be less judgmental about people who do their work in Jesus' name -- even if they look different -- or act differently -- or believe differently.
Does that mean that we should ignore obvious abuses -- serious error? Of course not! But it does mean that we should be a little less quick to criticize when someone is doing something differently than we would -- doing it in Jesus' name.
-- And, finally, this story of Ambitious John and The Unauthorized Exorcist warns us not to be overly proud of our status in the church. It speaks most pointedly, perhaps, to clergy -- we mustn't think of ourselves more highly than we ought. But it also speaks to every layperson who thinks he or she knows how the church ought to be run. It reminds us that Jesus calls us -- not to privilege -- but to service. It reminds us to do our work in the name of Jesus -- and not to criticize others who are trying to do the same.
While preparing this sermon, I came across an article in The Christian Century by Carol Zaleski, a professor of religion at Smith College in Massachusetts. The Christian Century is fairly liberal, and I suspect that Smith College is the same -- but Carol's article is about a group of Mennonites who came to her town during Carnival this summer.
The streets were full of teens and Harleys when Carol saw "two pretty but plain young women walking past the motorcycles in white bonnets, pastel blue dresses and black stockings." They were part of a group of Mennonites who came to Carnival to sing and witness in Jesus' name. They stood on the steps of the city hall, and sang, "My hope is built on nothing less/ than Jesus blood and righteousness" -- a surprise to a lot of people, for sure. They weren't pushy or judgmental. When a young woman -- Carol calls her Miss Dreadlock -- came to talk with one of the men -- Carol calls him Mr. Blueshirt -- he responded with true grace.
Carol, who obviously comes from a different place theologically than Mr. Blueshirt, says:
"I thought of debating some points of scripture and ecclesiology with him, but I kept silent. I could only rejoice that Mr. Blueshirt had found a way that leads to
life, emboldening him to proclaim Christ from the steps of city hall and to adorn the doctrine with works of mercy and peace."
I thought that story captured beautifully the spirit with which Christ would have us respond to Christians who are different from ourselves -- Christians with whom we disagree -- Christians whom we might even dislike. Let us rejoice that Christ has shown them a way that leads to life – and that he has also shown us a way that leads to life. And let us rejoice that Christ has room in his kingdom for all sorts of odd ducks.
If not, what hope would there be for any of us?