God’s freedom

Algonquin Trail underneath Hwy 417 at Arnprior, Ontario – photo by Martin Malina
audio version of sermon, “God’s Freedom”, by Martin Malina

Jesus’ disciples think they are doing a good thing. They try to stop someone who is doing a good thing. But, there’s a problem. For the disciples that problem outweighs the good thing that person is doing. John, the disciple who speaks, says, “We saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”[1]

The problem is, this person is not a card-carrying member. They’re “not following us”; they weren’t part of the club. And no matter the good they do, it doesn’t count in the religious mind-set of the disciples.

Are we much different? The debates continue today about whether it counts if non-believers do good, whether it counts if those who do not belong in a formal way to the church or to our congregation do good – things that we are called to do. Does that count?

You could say that, at least, they were casting out the demon “in Jesus’ name”. And that may be why Jesus said, “Do not stop him.” 

I’ve found at least a couple very good commentaries on what “In Jesus’ name” means: One approach suggests the name of Jesus itself is powerful. Here, the exorcist seems to be using Jesus’ name explicitly as a powerful tool for casting out demons. 

Therefore, according to this interpretation, the story in the end may be less about the power of demons and more about the power of language itself, to change the speaker and to shape the identity of the community.[2] “No one who does a deed of power in my name,” says Jesus, “will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.”[3] Using the name of Jesus is a powerful act that cannot leave the performer unaffected. 

Another good approach suggests that to act in Jesus’ name is simply “to act in a manner consistent with his character”.[4] By this interpretation, some people may behave in a Christlike manner without realizing it, consciously. Such is the case in Matthew 25:31-46, where the action itself is the focus – visiting the sick and imprisoned, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry. The action itself determines the Christian way regardless of who is doing it. Some have called this ‘anonymous Christianity.’

Nevertheless, I still wonder: If this person was doing good in Jesus’ name, why weren’t they already following Jesus? Why was this person apart from the community that surrounded and followed Jesus throughout Galilee? The action in the text pivots from excluding someone who does not belong, to Jesus authorizing their inclusion. “Do not stop him.” The action in the text hinges on what Jesus says here.

So, in the end, for me this passage points to the freedom of God. When we begin with God’s freedom, we also affirm that we are not in control nor do we judge who’s in and who’s out when it comes to the work of the Holy Spirit, the work of God, in the world. 

Richard Rohr asserts that it is a very hard task indeed to keep God free for people, “because what religion tends to do is tell God whom God can love and whom God is not allowed to love …”[5]

Gus, the main character in the novel, The River Why,[6] is on a journey to find God. And Gus believes the only way to do that is to find God in a certain place that Gus determines. In the novel, this place is the source of the river on whose banks Gus lives, farther downstream. It’s a long and arduous journey. When he finally arrives at his destination, Gus fails to experience what he intended by all his hard work and labour to find God and truth. 

Slumping at the source of the river he confesses: “It’s a damn tough business sitting around trying to force youself to force God to forcefeed you …”

By the end of the novel, Gus does find God. But it’s in the least expected turn of events and experiences of his life. He concludes, “Thank God I failed. It would have been a hell of a note to have to hike fifty miles up[river]… every time I wanted a word with … [God].” 

Gus discovers that God and God’s truth are not experienced according to his anticipated and sought-after outcomes. Gus discovers that God’s ways are not his ways, that he can’t force God’s hand, or be driven spiritually by his own notions of where it must happen, when it must happen, or with whom it must happen.

The example of Jesus in the Gospel today pushes us to consider God’s prerogative, to consider others as God’s hands and feet in the world. Consequently I believe the Word calls us to examine the barriers we may be tempted to put up in order to exclude those who are not like us, or who differ from us in ways that make us uncomfortable, or those who do not follow us.[7]

Someone we know who prays. But is not Lutheran.

Someone who cares for the earth. But you doubt whether they go to church.

Someone who volunteers in drop-in centres for women, someone else who volunteers at the local food bank, someone else who gives their time writing letters to members of parliament to ensure safe drinking water for northern, indigenous communities. But they aren’t professing Christians.

A family member or friend who is honest about their doubts yet still practices compassion and listens well to people who come to them with their problems offering their gift of healing. But doesn’t use the right, familiar God-language.

While we will not control their behaviour nor their beliefs, we can trust that God has this in hand. We don’t need to put up any roadblocks when the Holy Spirit works in the lives of those who nonetheless are doing good, in Jesus’ name. Because our task is not to be gatekeepers or guardians of God’s truth, but rather faithful followers and trusting servants of God, who is love.

Amen.


[1] Mark 9:38-41

[2] Martha L. Moore-Keish, “Mark 9:38-50 Theological Perspective” in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.118

[3] Mark 9:39

[4] Martha L. Moore-Keish, ibid.

[5] Richard Rohr, “A Journey Towards Greater Love” Living Inside God’s Great Story (Daily Meditations, www.cac.org, 29 August 2021)

[6] David James Duncan, The River Why (New York: Back Bay Books, 2016), p.340-341

[7] Br. David Vryhof, “Inclusion” Brother, Give Us A Word (www.sje.org, 10 September 2021)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s