Mark 9:38-40 38 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." 39 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. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us.
We take sides a lot. We’re on the side of a certain team. A particular political party. The guilt or innocence of someone we see in the news. And we even do it in our churches. What kind of music we have. Whether or not we have responsive readings. What method of baptism and what age to baptize. What actually happens at communion and who can take it. What it means to be a Christian. Sometimes when we come across someone doing something differently than we’ve always done it we get uncomfortable and perhaps even angry, and think that the other person—or church—must be wrong.
In this section of scripture, Jesus’ disciple John felt much the same way. He explains to Jesus that they’d seen someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Now, at this time, it was thought that demons caused many kinds of illnesses, both physical and mental. What we understand today as epilepsy, for example, was then thought to be caused by demons.
John’s problem was not that he didn’t want the people healed of their demons. His problem was that those casting out the demons were doing it in Jesus’ name, but were not following Jesus in the same way as John.
Let’s think about that again. They weren’t following Jesus in the same way that John was. Does that sound familiar at all today? We have churches who think the other is not following Jesus correctly if they do baptisms differently, or speak too much about being “born again” or don’t speak enough about it. We think a congregation that uses drums and guitars in their music only wants to be entertained or a congregation that will only sing hymns is out of touch. “It’s not worship,” both sides lament.
I once attended a church that sometimes took communion by passing the plates in the pews, and sometimes by walking forward. I had a friend who would leave church prior to communion if it was the walk-forward way, because, she said, “that’s not the right way to do it.”
I also attended a church for a time where my two baptisms as an infant wouldn’t count, so I’d have to be rebaptized in their church. Both of my baptisms were done in Jesus’ name, but didn’t count because I hadn’t chosen them.
Some churches are maligned because of what they believe about communion. What does it mean that the bread and wine are Jesus’ body and blood? Should wine or grape juice be used?
All of these churches believe in Jesus. All of these churches do things in his name. They just do them differently. John was pretty upset about people not doing things the way he thought they should be done, and we feel that way today. But what does Jesus tell him? That whoever isn’t against them is for them. Jesus doesn’t get too upset about it. I can just picture him shrugging his shoulders, saying to John, “so what? What is it to you if they are doing good things in my name? Why would that possibly be a problem?” Maybe he wants John to concentrate more on what John is doing in Jesus’ name.
And so shouldn’t we do the same? If the people we disagree with are not against Jesus, then they are for him; he says so himself. Sometimes, when someone does something different or believes something different, it can feel threatening to us. It can give us doubts or make us feel that maybe we are wrong, and it’s easier to condemn the other person than it is to face our insecurities. Maybe that’s something John felt too. William Barclay, a noted theologian, tells us that “It is necessary to remember that truth is always bigger than any man's grasp of it [and that] Intolerance is a sign both of arrogance and ignorance, for it is a sign that a man believes that there is no truth beyond the truth he sees.” (p.226).
So what are we to do when we notice other Christians acting differently from us? Maybe, instead of crying out that they aren’t “real” Christians, we sit down with them and ask them why they do something. And then we can also share our understanding. That way, we can have dialogue and understanding, if not agreement, and continue to both do acts in Jesus name, working together for him and not against him.