If you worshipped with us last Sunday, the first part of today’s assigned Gospel reading will sound familiar. It is an almost identical description of what the “Son of Man” will experience as he lives faithfully God’s call. This repetition in two successive Sundays reminds us how Jesus honestly embraces the human reality that following God’s way is not always easy, but is always filled with meaning when we love others as God loves us. Hear Jesus’ good news from Mark 9:30-37.
30They went on from there and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33Then they came to Capernaum; and when Jesus was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.
35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them,37‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’
I want to remind you of a simple take home message from the sermon last week … “The tempter wants us to believe foolishly in the fantasy. But Jesus wants us to live faithfully with the reality.” This is not only true about the kind of Messiah Jesus is, and not only true concerning human suffering, but also true regarding the way of love we inherit as followers of Jesus. And apparently, this message of Jesus is difficult to understand and accept, so the disciples choose silence. At least, that’s what it indicates again in Mark’s narrative. And too often like the disciples, we also choose to believe in the fantasy of a saviour who will make everything perfect in our lives on our terms – perfect health, perfect relationships, perfect job, perfect life … if only we have enough faith, or learn how to pray more effectively, or can convince Jesus that we’re worthy. Which is pretty much where the disciples find themselves following this second teaching time.
As the story continues, Jesus’ closest friends are not only clueless about what he was teaching, but also afraid to admit it because (I don’t know) they didn’t want Jesus to think less of them. And as they continue on their faith journey with Jesus, they start arguing among themselves, defensive and arrogant, bragging about how wise they are, how close they are to Jesus, how strong their faith is … stuff like that. And evidently Jesus overhears it, or maybe just intuits it; after all, it’s pretty much the shadow of human nature at work here, something which we probably know all too well, so I’m sure Jesus does too. And when he asks them about it, they are silent … for the second time that day their silence convicts them.
So Jesus takes the opportunity to deepen and broaden what he himself is coming realize about living faithfully in this world – the reality that the true place of honour in life is not where our fantasy thinks it is … but rather, in the reality of serving others. “You want to be first?” Jesus asks, “Become the servant of all.” It’s kind of like that little morality play on reality TV recently, Undercover Boss. Take the lowest job in the company and discover where true faithfulness is lived out in the trenches. The curiosity here is that, as compelling as this ideal might be when we watch others do it, like an undercover boss, or Mother Theresa, or Ghandi, or Jesus, we seem less enthusiastic about actually experimenting with it ourselves. And maybe Jesus knows this too about human nature; because for a third time, the disciples are silent.
Jesus sees a child, and as another translation records it, “Then cradling the little one in his arms, he said, ‘Whoever embraces one of these little children as I do embraces me, and far more than me – God who sent me.’” I’m actually grateful that this reading was not assigned for baptism Sunday last week, because I might have been tempted to turn it into a “Jesus blesses the little children” kind of story – which actually is told in the very next chapter of Mark. But this story is different. Here Jesus is challenging us to compare the character of a child with his own character, and with God’s character. What is that quality Jesus is asking us to embrace? Perhaps it’s innocence … or maybe untarnished love … or possibly pure trust.
Something that might be helpful here is to realize that in Greek, which is the language that the Gospels were first written in, the word for ‘lowest servant in a household’ sounds very close to the word for ‘little child.’ And if you consider that in the earliest Christian churches the Gospel was more heard than read, you begin to realize that there’s a word-play going on here. These two similar words are heard one right after the other, in a way that could cause the hearers to make the connection between the two.
Also, unlike the way we place little children on pedestals here in 21st Century North America, in Jesus’ time little children were not so elevated; in fact they were considered quite lowly in most families’ strata. So, actually bringing a child into a circle of adults would have been shocking to many of Jesus’ contemporaries, almost as shocking as bringing in and hugging a servant.
What if the quality or character that Jesus was pointing to when embracing that child was the lowliness of her status, similar to the lowliness of a servant? What if Jesus was saying, “When you embrace someone like this, you embrace the kind of lowly, selfless, serving love that comes from the heart of God.”
The truth is that this kind of love is already in every one of us. It’s how we are created, in the image and glory of God. And it’s how our Messiah, our Christ, lived and served. The big question is whether we can clear out enough clutter within our already too messy lives to allow this sacred love to blossom and mature. Are we willing to break down those personal barriers that tempt us to withhold this sacred love from the least, the last, the lost – the lowliest among us. Are we willing to allow Christ’s love to tear down the walls that divide, so we might open our hearts to a serving love that sings with joy deep within? Are we able to trust the mystery, that the serving Christ lives in each of us, giving us hope in sharing God’s glory by serving others in Christ’s name?
(At this point a youtube video called Stethoscope (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bYI_aOyCn9Y) was shown concluding with this verse from Colossians 1:27 … “the mystery is that Christ lives in you and Christ is your hope of sharing in God’s glory.”) May it be so for you today.
Orleans United Church