16th Sunday after Pentecost (Pr. 20) September 24, 2006 “Series B”
Grace be unto you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Let us pray: Dear Heavenly Father, we give you thanks for coming among us in the person of your Son, Jesus the Christ, who gave his life to restore us to a right relationship with you, our Creator. Through the power of your Holy Spirit, strengthen us in faith, that we might turn from our selfish ambitions and serve you by serving others, especially those in need. Let our lives be a mirror to others of your redeeming grace. This we ask, in Christ’s holy name. Amen.
As Christians, our Gospel lesson for this morning begs us to look at our lives, and examine our faith as disciples of Jesus. Mark tells us that Jesus and his disciples are traveling through the remote regions of Galilee, and that Jesus didn’t want the crowds to know where they were. At this point in his ministry, Jesus wanted to spend some private time with his closest disciples, to explain to them that he would soon be betrayed, killed, and, after three days, rise again.
It is as if Jesus says, “You are my closest friends, my best students. I need you to understand what I’m about to do to bring the grace of God to fruition. I need you to understand that the role of the Messiah is not to lead a revolt against Rome to establish an earthly kingdom, but to manifest to the world God’s redeeming and forgiving grace. I need you to understand that by giving my life in humble service, my Father will embrace you as members of his heavenly kingdom.” Mark then tells us that the disciples couldn’t understand what Jesus was trying to express to them, and they were afraid to ask him to explain what he meant.
But then comes the shocker! Even though those early disciples did not yet understand the significance of Christ’s death and resurrection, which we modern disciples can, knowing the end of the story, Mark still holds up a mirror for us examine our faith. And the reflection that we see of our humanity in Mark’s mirror is not a pretty one.
As Thomas Long points out in his commentary on our text, “Jesus has just announced his passion, that before there is to be any victory, before there can be resurrection, there must be death: ‘the Son of Man is to be betrayed…killed.’ Jesus has just proclaimed that his own life involves suffering and the supreme act of sacrifice, and the astounding response of the disciples is to spend the rest of day sauntering down the road to Capernaum discussing which one of them will turn out to be the ‘most valuable player.’”
Just think about it. “Jesus embodies sacrifice; they jockey for position. Jesus announces his own suffering; they argue over reserved parking spaces and who gets to ride first class. Jesus has called them to ‘deny themselves and take up their crosses,’ [with him] but they have instead affirmed themselves and taken up not a cross, but the old sandbox debate, ‘I’m better than you are.’
The disciples are so grotesquely out of line, so in violation of all that Jesus is calling them to do, that they need a shocking object lesson.” End quote. [Pulpit Resource, Year B, Vol. 28, 2000, Logos Productions Inc.]
So what does Jesus do? He says to them, “‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.’”
But what does this child represent? What is the object lesson that Jesus is placing before us to help us get the point of what he is trying to teach us? As Long and other Biblical scholars point out, the object lesson that Jesus puts before his disciples in Mark’s Gospel differs greatly from the idea that we should become humble like a child, which is the message that Matthew’s Gospel puts before us.
Of course, being humble is not a bad trait to emulate. It certainly would have been a lesson that those disciples who responded to hearing the news of their Lord’s impending death by arguing among themselves who was the greatest among them, could have learned.
And when I think of my grandchildren, especially the three youngest, I have learned a tremendous lesson about the need to think less of myself. When I was in seminary, Aarne Sirrala , my mentor and professor in systematic theology pointed out to me that as we progress through our lives and establish our careers, we often don’t take as much time to spend with our children, as we should. But our grandchildren begin to teach us how much we have missed in life. It is a sad and humbling awakening, for many of us.
This understanding may begin to get us closer to the meaning of the object lesson that Mark’s Gospel tells us that Jesus holds up for us to evaluate our faith. According to what I have read, a child in the time of Jesus was one of the most vulnerable of all members of society. Infant mortality rates were huge in number compared to today’s standards. More than half of all children born failed to reach the age of marriage, which occurred shortly after puberty.
As a result, children were not only totally dependent upon their parents for their very survival, they held little status within the community, until they reached adulthood. Only then did a child qualify as an heir to their family’s estate. A child was even considered to be less important than a slave. They held the lowest position in social status. Children were considered to be weak and powerless.
Thus, when Jesus took a child and placed him or her in the midst of the disciples – when he took the child in his arms and said to the disciples -“Whoever welcomes a such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me,” he was saying that one of the ways that our faith should reveal itself, is in care and compassion for even the weakest, most vulnerable member of our community.
Thus, the mirror that Mark’s Gospel holds in front of us, is not just that we should humble ourselves and become like an infant, totally dependent on the loving grace of God and the compassion of others. Here, Jesus calls upon us to stop thinking in terms of our selves and our stature and position within the social structure of our community, and begin to think in terms of the needs of others.
The mirror that Mark’s Gospel holds up for us this morning, even for those who have come to understand his teaching about his betrayal, his agonizing death on a Roman cross, and his victorious resurrection, is a an image to help us evaluate and reflect upon our life of faith. Mark wants us to realize what our second lesson for this morning makes clear.
Here, James tells us to “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom… For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness… But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”
In other words, if we truly understand the meaning of our Lord’s death and resurrection, then our own lives are to reflect his saving grace and compassion to those around us. Our lives are to be a mirror, not of our own wants and desires, but a reflection to others of what Jesus has done for us. A life lived in faith as a disciple of Christ is a life that welcomes and invites others to know and experience the kingdom of God, rather than the kingdom of this world.
It is not an easy task, this life of faith to which Jesus calls us. After all, we, like those early disciples, are all so human. And yet, through the gift of God’s Spirit, who has led us modern day Christians to understand the significance of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, that same Spirit also gives us the power to amend our lives and strive to more clearly reflect God’s redeeming grace to those around us.
So let us be led by God’s Spirit, to open our hearts and minds to embrace those in our present day society represented by the vulnerable child Jesus placed before his first disciples. Let us welcome in Christ’s name, those in our community who are in need of his redeeming grace, no matter their social position. For God’s Spirit can move us all, as individuals and as a congregation, to be a mirror that reflects our faith.