What sort of Christian are you? Perhaps you’re the sort of Christian who gets up at five o’clock in the morning to pray and meditate for a couple of hours, the sort who is a bastion of Christlike calm and serenity in a world of chaos, and who radiates the love of Jesus to everyone you encounter. Or perhaps you’re the sort of Christian in whom the Spirit’s fire blazes, the sort who shares the gospel message with everyone you meet, and before whom thousands—nay, hundreds of thousands, even millions—repent in sackcloth and ashes because of your sharp critiques of the bankruptcy and moral failure of contemporary society. Or perhaps you’re the sort of Christian who . . . well, I needn’t go on. I’m sure we’re all aware of the sort of Christian we are.
I dare say the same was true of the first disciples, the Twelve: Peter, James, John, and the others. We have seen in earlier chapters of Mark’s Gospel that Jesus called the Twelve to be with him and to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. And we have seen that the Twelve did just this: they preached a message of repentance, carried out a number of exorcisms, and even healed sick people by anointing them with oil. Whatever sort of Christians they were—and let’s not forget that at this point, they weren’t really ‘Christians’ as such—whatever sort of Christians they were, they were proving to be fairly successful.
But not now. Now nine of them had come across a boy, a boy with symptoms, perhaps, of epilepsy but which were caused, it seems, not by misfiring electrical activity in the brain, but, in this case, by an evil spirit. And they couldn’t do anything about it. Whatever or whoever was behind the success of their earlier exorcisms and healings—well, that power had gone, or they weren’t doing it right. Perhaps they hadn’t mastered the technique as well as they thought they had. Or perhaps it’s because they weren’t good enough—after all, there must have been a reason why Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him up a mountain . . . and not them.
And what of Peter, James, and John? Just a week or so before, Peter spoke on behalf of them all and confessed that Jesus is the Messiah. And now he, along with James and John, were on a mountain with Jesus, watching Jesus shimmer and shine with the divine light, and listening to God himself confirm Peter’s belief: ‘This man Jesus is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!’
So what sort of Christians were the Twelve? Well, three of them were Jesus’s favourites; the other nine were also-rans, the runners-up, the sidekicks.
What were the group dynamics at play here, I wonder? Three of them had seen Jesus in his glory, speaking with Elijah and Moses—as well as confusion, did Peter, James, and John also feel a swell of pride on the way down from the mountain: ‘Jesus picked me to see this’? Did they feel that somehow the other nine disciples were not quite so deserving of such a vision? Had their attitudes and behaviour and abilities somehow persuaded Jesus that some of them were simply better than others? And of the nine who remained in the nearby villages—did they resent Jesus’s favourable treatment of Peter, James, and John? Did Andrew feel hard done by as his brother, Peter, climbed the ranks as well as the mountain? And did the others simply feel ignored and left out and not a little fed up as they found themselves having to deal with yet another demon-possessed person while the Big Three went on a camping trip with Jesus? It’s hard to say, of course, and I admit to a little speculation here on my part. But detecting attitudes like this would help to explain what Jesus goes on to say in today’s passage from Mark.
First of all, let’s remind ourselves that Jesus had commissioned the Twelve to preach and to cast out demons—not the Three, not the Nine, but the Twelve. And the authority the Twelve had was not their own authority but the authority of Jesus. The things they did, their message of repentance, their powers of healing and exorcisms—all these things could happen simply because Jesus had first given them the authority to do so.
But having authority isn’t enough, it seems. The story of the demon-possessed boy suggests that the disciples perhaps understood their authority in terms of magic or superhuman abilities. They’d had no problem driving out demons from people in the past; but for whatever reason now, the disciples couldn’t cast out this demon from this boy. What were they doing wrong? They couldn’t understand it—and neither, it seems, could the crowd or, indeed, the boy’s father. This is why the boy’s father sounds so weary when he speaks to Jesus: ‘If you can do anything, . . . help us.’
And what is Jesus’s response? ‘Everything—not anything, but everything—is possible for one who believes.’ And this is because the power to do miracles lies not in ourselves; the power does not lie in our ability to master a technique or to follow a step-by-step programme or to perform a sleight of hand; the power to heal, to cast out demons, to preach, to do anything for the kingdom of God, stems from the authority and power of the God in whom we trust. And so Jesus drives the demon from the boy . . .
But the disciples know they’re not the only ones performing exorcisms in the name of Jesus. John in particular seems especially bothered that there are others doing what they should be doing—and possibly doing it better. ‘Teacher,’ he says, ‘we told him to stop, because he wasn’t one of us.’ What insecurities is John showing here? He has gone from seeing the glory of Jesus on the mountain to seeing the failure of his colleagues in the villages in a short period of time. Is he now seeing that he and the others aren’t quite as good or as special as perhaps they thought they were, that they don’t have as much a claim on Jesus as they’d presumed? And is this why the Twelve as a whole have been arguing about who’s the greatest? Jesus’s teachings in this part of today’s Gospel reading imply as much:
You won’t be the greatest if you want to be the greatest. Be like a child—there’s nothing they can do to improve their status. If you treat each other as your equals, you’ll be doing well. And so don’t try to stop other groups or people who claim me as their Messiah from doing what they’re doing, because they can’t do or say anything against me if they really are for me—they are your equals. If you do try to stop them, you might cause them to lose whatever faith in me is beginning to blossom in them. Be more concerned about yourself: What makes you stumble? Where do you struggle? What will make you give up and abandon your faith in me? And what are you doing about it? Focus on your own areas of weakness and where you can be more like me. If you’re going to be my disciples, you need to make sure you act and think and speak like my disciples, in the same way you can tell something is salt because it’s salty. But you’re not going to do any of this if all you’re doing is arguing among yourselves and being outraged by what others are doing. It won’t be easy, but do what you can to aim for peace.
If this is the heart of what Jesus is saying here, then I think this is very challenging. I know from ongoing experience that low self-esteem and an uncertainty about one’s purpose in life leads us to form groups and cliques that help us feel good about ourselves while at the same time putting down others who see things differently. That’s what life’s like in a fallen world; that’s what life’s like in a sinful church. But in our Gospel reading today, Jesus gives us hope and strength to rise above this and to seek good, Christlike relations with one another. How so?
First, we have Jesus’s authority. In the same way that Jesus conferred his authority on the Twelve to preach and to cast out demons, so, too, each of us has the authority of Jesus to do whatever God calls us to do. God in Christ is the one who sends us; in this respect, we don’t need to answer to anyone for being the sort of Christian we are.
Secondly, we must always have belief—or, to put it another way, we must always trust God, or we must always have faith in God. Being a Christian isn’t like joining the Magic Circle or about developing superhuman powers. If Jesus has given each of us authority to act and speak in his name, then he must also give each of us the faith we need to stay true to God, even when things aren’t working out in the ways we want them to. Notice, too, the connection Jesus seems to make in verses 23 and 29 between belief or faith and prayer. Having faith in God isn’t an ability; it is a daily commitment to follow the Holy Spirit as the Spirit leads us to the Father as we pray in the name of Jesus. Thus to believe is to pray; to pray is to believe; and when we pray, we recognise our dependence on God and admit that however much we believe and trust in God, we must continually need God’s help for us to overcome our persistent unbelief.
And finally, because we have Jesus’s authority, and because our faith is in God, we can have confidence in God, and confidence that God will use us. God in Christ has given gifts to each and every one of us so that we can work out the kingdom in our lives, in our neighbourhoods, at work, and in school. And by remaining faithful to God as we pray for the needs of the world, we might find we don’t need to be too bothered about what God is doing through other Christians in other places. We should have no delusions: God will use other people to further the kingdom, including Christians we disagree with, and Christians we perceive to be better than us. But have confidence: God will use you and me to further the kingdom as well. The real challenge is for all of us to walk the self-denying way of the cross as we all follow Jesus.
As we come to the table, as we eat Christ’s body and drink his blood, let’s remember that each and every one of us, in all of our uniqueness and difference, is called to be a follower of Christ: a Christian. And what sort of Christian? One with the authority of Christ, one whose belief is in the God who created all things and who raised Jesus from the dead, and one whose confidence lies in knowing that the Holy Spirit can and will act in and through us, using our strengths, in spite of our weaknesses.