Scripture: Mark 9:30-37
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” ~ Mark 9:37
While we all want to find comfort and soothing words at the feet of Jesus, the reality there are times that he could make his disciples uncomfortable, and us along with them. Over the last two weeks, we have heard from the Gospel of Mark and Jesus’ frequent announcements of his impending torture, humiliation and death. Last week Peter had found it so difficult to manage that he rebuked Jesus and in turn was chastised by him for his misunderstanding.
In today’s reading, perhaps still smarting from that rebuke, the disciples’ response to Jesus’ words was only silence and fear, Mark tells us they didn’t understand what Jesus was saying and that they were afraid to ask him what he meant. And so instead of striking up the courage and gain a deeper understanding of the Gospel and Jesus’ mission of salvation, they did what idle minds often do – argue over something ultimately irrelevant.
Since they couldn’t wrap their heads around Jesus’ message they instead argued amongst themselves about who was the greatest – having been a young man in university and other circles, I can just imagine the jostling and arguments happening between these twelve men – perhaps it was jovial, or perhaps it was more adversarial – but whatever the spirit of the conversation it went completely against what Jesus had just been preaching to them.
And when Jesus asked them what they had been discussing on the way, the silence returned. They were caught embarrassed and unable to answer Jesus – though it seems that he had probably heard them all along and knew what they were saying.
While we don’t always like to admit it I think there is a healthy dose of fear in the church, our church included, even if it lingers below the surface of our congregations. There is certainly much going on in the world to instill fear – the pandemic which continues to cause death and illness, the degradation of society which sees people falling through the cracks and suffering, gun violence appears to be at an all-time high, natural disaster and war across the world, not to mention the decades of church decline and recession of our place and prominence in society at large.
Out of that fear the church has argued about some pretty irrelevant things over the past decades and likely all of its existence when you consider that Paul and the other epistle writers often exhorted their readers against such trivial arguments. Whether it is the content of our prayer books and how we order worship, or whether to build a fence around the church or not or what music we sing, fights over leadership and theology or what events to host and so on.
While these various topics aren’t irrelevant in and of themselves, the arguments over them are because they force our gaze inward and divide our communities to the point where we lose sight of what matters and just like the disciples in our gospel story Jesus’ words don’t make sense. While the church has argued about these various things over the centuries, the poor have often gone uncared for, the Gospel of love and reconciliation has gone un-preached, churches have been caught navel-gazing and worrying about themselves while terrible things have gone on around them and in their midst.
One need only to look at the way many churches, ours included at times, don’t welcome or love people that are different or rough around the edges, to see this situation playing out. Or on a larger and more destructive scale, the dismissal of many churches and Canadian society at large of their historic relationship to Indian residential schools – we cling to the narrative that either the church and white Canadians had good intentions or that we weren’t personally involved so the work of reconciliation is not ours to participate in. In both cases, we have lost sight of the Gospel, more concerned over our own comfort or status quo and we need to hear Jesus’ words just as the disciples did that day.
In the second half of our passage, Jesus offers what has become one of the trademark Gospel catchphrases “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And then Jesus took a little child into the midst of the disciples and said “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”
While this passage has often been used to have fulsome discussions about children’s ministry – the reality is that our view of children in society is vastly more positive and places a much higher value on them than anytime prior to the 19th century. In first-century Palestine, children had no legal status, no rights and no ability to have self-determination. Unless they were a child of nobility or wealth they were of the lowest status in society they would have been part of the ‘least’ which Jesus often spoke about. So while Jesus is making a comment about welcoming children, he is doing more than that, he is bringing into the centre of the community of the disciples, someone who represents a complete reordering and revaluing of their world view. Not only does Jesus bring this child, this representative of the “least”, into their midst, focusing all his attention upon the child, but Mark tells us that he embraces them, he takes time to acknowledge the child, to include them and value them – embodying the kind of welcome that he expects and hopes the disciples to engage in.
The disciples tried to ignore their fear and thought it would go away if they could feel more secure about their status. Jesus, on the other hand, shows them another way through: by giving up their status and welcoming those who have been left off the edge, they will know the welcoming presence of God in their midst. The presence of God is the best antidote to fear. Instead of clinging to things of this world, Jesus, as God, is inviting them to enter into his way by becoming like God and welcoming others through service and sacrifice. Which, it bears repeating, is the literal work of Christ in his life and death, and is also the thing that makes the disciples the most afraid.
It is important to remember who Jesus is giving this message to. He is not speaking to an individual, he is speaking to the disciples, a community of believers. As we saw last week, we can each take up our crosses as individuals to follow Jesus, but there is also a calling on the collective body of Christ to reckon with our fear, to not stay silent and to truly welcome all in the name and love of Jesus.
As a community, I have seen us take great strides over my time worshipping and serving with you here at Grace in how we welcome outsiders – whether it was welcoming the young men and women from the youth shelter years ago who came en masse at the end of our service and were welcomed and cared for, or more recently other street-involved people, refugees and strangers off the street we have the potential for spacious love and welcome – but that welcome has not come without moments of intolerance, moments of snide or deeming comments about “those people” and the like.
As we follow Jesus, as we gather in His name to worship God, we must continue to repent in the ways that we as a church do not welcome those who are different from us, or those who perhaps offend our sensibilities a little more than we would like, or those who disagree with us even vehemently on positions that we hold dear. Our calling as a church is to truly welcome and serve the least of our world, those that our society has let fall through the cracks, those who are shunned or humiliated for who they are, those who get on our nerves, those who disrupt our status quo. And we do so not to make ourselves feel better, nor to earn brownie points with God and certainly not out of a sense of superiority but out of genuine love; genuine love that is born out of the same love that Jesus has shown us on the cross and in His resurrection.
In the first letter of John, the apostle writes “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” (1 John 4:18) Only in Jesus and through the power of the Holy Spirit will we ever reach that perfection in love, but as we strive to be shaped by God’s love, as we share it unconditionally with the world – especially with the “least” of the world – our fear will diminish, all which causes the church anxiety will slowly fade away so that only God’s presence remains; only God’s peace, God’s love, God’s mercy will be the centre of our life together.
Let us pray