Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost
The Rev. Ryan Slifka
Today we continue our stint through the Good News according to Mark.
If you remember, last week Jesus was talking about the inevitability of his arrest and death. As well as his resurrection. Peter, his closest follower told him it was crazy talk. In response, Jesus said not only was he destined for death on his way to resurrection, that anyone who wanted to follow him had to expect the same. “Take up your cross,” he said. Gotta die, Jesus said, if you wanna rise again.
This week. Jesus and co. are passing through Galilee, where Jesus called them all to come and follow him in the first place. Jerusalem’s the end goal, where Jesus says the deed is gonna go down. And this week, it’s clear that the disciples still aren’t getting the message.
He turns to the disciples in a quiet, private moment, and he tells them again what he told them last week. “The Son of Man is to be betrayed,” he says. “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.” Second time Jesus’ has said this. But, it says, “the disciples didn’t understand what he was saying, and were afraid to ask him.” They still don’t get it.
And then they come to Capernaum, where Jesus began his ministry, and buckle down in a house for the night. The disciples must have been bickering for the last stretch, because Jesus asks them “what were you all arguing about on the way?” More silence, it says. Because, it says, because “for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. I imagine my children looking off to the wall, or the ceiling. They’re silent because somehow they know it’s something they shouldn’t be doing. Arguing about who’s the greatest. About who is the best, most honored disciple.
And so in response, Jesus does a little teaching. Folds his legs in the posture of a wise man. And he gathers all twelve of the disciples, the inner circle who’d been arguing about greatness together.
“Whoever wants to be first,” he says. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” I mean, I love the translation we use. But it takes the edge off of Jesus’ saying. Here Jesus says you wanna be great? To be great need to learn to be a doulos, a slave of the least.
He says this because what the disciples really are fighting over power. Who gets to share in Jesus’ power. Jesus is the Messiah after all. The King sent by God to restore God’s people and set the world right. Importance in the Roman world is about status. How much power you have over other people. How high you can climb the social ladder. How much money, how many slaves, how much influence. Jesus sounds pretty powerful. And power is a scarce resource—there’s only so much to go around. So they try to grab on to it while they can.
But Jesus, on the other hand, has shown them by his example a life of servanthood. Healing the sick. Feeding the poor. Showing the mercy of love and friendship to people who other people say are unclean, people who don’t have anybody else. And he says it all will come to it’s climax on the cross, where he will give away everything. Jesus’ whole life pattern and ministry is one of kenosis. Which is just a fancy Greek word for self-giving, self-emptying love. Embracing suffering, humiliation, and death. Giving up all power, status, and glory. All for the sake of the world.
So in fighting over who’s greatest, the disciples clearly don’t get it.
So Jesus decides an illustration is in order. So he plunks a child in their midst, takes it in his arms. “Whoever welcomes a child like this in my name not only welcomes the child. They welcome me. And they not only welcome me, they welcome the One who sent me.” Meaning God.
Now, it sounds pretty nice to us when we hear that Jesus welcomed a child. We generally think children are extremely important. Worthy of love, care and security. Not so much so in Jesus’ world. In the Roman world, children are essentially non-entities. Children are basically useless until they become adults. Weak, unproductive. They depend on other people for food, shelter, safety. You’re not going to attract anyone important if you’re spending all of your time hanging out with kids. Peter Marty puts it well when he says this: “Quite explicitly, children live in a receiving mode of existence.”[i] They aren’t useful. They can’t further the organizational cause, or provide the cash to do it. Like, they’re leeches on everybody else. The lowest of the low.
And most scholars believe that in pointing to children, Jesus doesn’t just mean children. In one sense he literally means children. But in another sense he’s speaking symbolically. The Bible scholar Lamar Williamson says it means “anyone in need of help.”[ii] The great 19th century evangelist says here child means “in years or in heart.” Anyone who lives in that “receiving mode” of existence. Children. Disabled people. The poor and the broke. Women who are husband-less so they have no way of making a living. Prostitutes, criminals, illegal immigrants and other miscreants. Basically he’s talking about anyone who—in their weakness and powerlessness—has to depend on other people. Jesus says if you receive anybody like this, and when you serve them like a slave. That’s when you are somehow mysteriously receiving me in your midst. And you are receiving the very presence of the Creator of the universe.
In the end, the disciples’ problem is that they think and act just like everybody else. That following Jesus is their ladder from powerlessness to power. Maybe they even wanted it so they could finally do some good. But Jesus says, “you wanna be great, get down in the mud and become a slave.” To be great, Jesus says, you’ve gotta follow in my footsteps. Jesus welcomes and embraces the least. So to be great in God’s kingdom, you’ve gotta become a slave to the least. Jesus’ Way is downwardly mobile. The path is less like an elevator to the penthouse suite, than it is like a cross that takes you six-feet under. Real close to the ground.
Greatness is not defined by power. It’s defined by how you receive the most powerless. If you entertain the powerless in your midst you are receiving the power at the heart of all things. And that’s what the disciples still didn’t get.
And the truth is that it’s easy for us to stand here with the foresight of 2000 years of history and shake our heads at the disciples for not getting Jesus. But the reason why it’s in the Bible isn’t to tell us about what happened 2000 years ago. It’s there because we, too, are just as likely to misunderstand Jesus or fall short. Whether we stand in the disciples’ shoes, or the shoes of those whom Jesus welcomes with open arms. We’re just as likely to need a reminder. Because we’re just as likely to act like everyone else. Just as likely not to get it.
Now, for us today, the good news in this passage points us in two directions.
The first direction that grace comes at us in this text is for those of us who are literally children, or figuratively children. Those of us who live in that receiving mode of existence. Or at least do most of the time. Too old to do much or carry more than ten pounds. Too sick or not mentally stable enough to hold down a job. Too depressed to get off drugs. Too poor to put much in the plate. The good news is this: Christ’s arms are open wide for you. What do I mean by that? Where everybody else sees you as unproductive, not useful, as opposed to all those law-abiding, good tax-paying citizens. Where everybody else sees you as a nuisance. Where everybody else looks at you with a sideways glance, and won’t give you the time of day. It means that God, the love at the heart of all things, this God sees you for who you are, and loves you as you are, and receives you as you are. Without pre-condition.
And not only does God see you, love you, and receive you, God is with you and for you. Jesus is the servant Lord. The greatest One “proves his greatness by stooping down to place himself in the lowest place as a slave.”[iii] God not only is with you in your struggles. God has taken common cause with you to bring you out of the depths.
And this community of faith exists to receive you as Christ has receives you. And to, like Christ, take up the cross to help to ease your burdens. Without condition. Though we may fall short, even most of the time. Here, God is giving you what you truly need.
Which brings us to the second direction that grace comes at us in this text. It comes for those of us who are not normally in the receiving mode. Those of us who consider ourselves self-sufficient. Those of us who have achieved what the world considers great. Those of us who have been blessed in coming to faith and having our lives changed.
For us—like Jesus’ disciples—It’s a reminder that our life together isn’t just about ourselves. It isn’t about climbing the ladder of spiritual growth. Or about what we achieve to gain something from God. it’s a reminder that we are created in the image of Christ to minister to each other, to serve each other. True greatness for a church is found in how the little ones are received. True greatness for a church comes only in the imitation of Jesus, the One who became a slave. The servant Lord.
The invitation is to no longer to see ourselves as givers, but to also see ourselves, too, as receivers. To adjust ourselves in to the receiving mode. In receiving those who are new. Those who are strangers, those whose lives are a mess, those who don’t have much and don’t have much to give. Those who we find difficult, Jesus offers us a promise. He promises that in receiving children and others in the receiving mode, we are actually receiving the Risen Christ himself in our midst. Because God is bringing us a gift. And that if we trust, if we stick it out, by the power of the Holy Spirit we’ll be blessed as individuals and as a church community.
And really if you look out you can see this blessing bearing fruit. Richard Topping, the Principal of Vancouver School of Theology told me when he visited as a guest preacher this past year that one way he saw God’s kingdom coming together is the fact that we aren’t all the same. We aren’t all the same class people of the same age, sexual orientation, interest or background. Or even theological leaning or background. Givers and receivers both.
This is what Jesus says this is what greatness for a church looks like. Something we, like the disciples so often forget. Not money. Not influence over the community. Not even numbers. It’s the weak and the strong, bound together in a common life. Where the strong kneel in service, and the weak are lifted up in love to be strengthened to serve in their own way. Where givers become receivers. And receivers are given what it takes to become givers. And on, and on, and on. A common life given to us, gifted to us by grace. By the unconditional love of God.
So, whether you see yourself as someone who has it all together. A self-sufficient giver. Or of you see yourself at the bottom of the pile, perpetually in need, always in the receiving mode. Either way, today Christ is giving each of us exactly what we need: each other.
Because that’s how the Spirit settles in to a church. Where the greatest of all is the servant of all. Where we all see ourselves and each other as brothers and sisters to our holy brother Jesus, all on the receiving end of the love as children of one divine parent. We’re already seeing it.
May each of us, givers and receivers alike, continue to open ourselves to receiving this precious gift. And may we let it change us. Let it change you.
[i] Peter W. Marty, “Mark 9:30-37,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, Vol. III: The Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 24.
[ii] Lamar Williamson, Jr. Mark: A Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, 2nd ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 170.
[iii] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time,” in Light of the World: Brief Reflections on the Sunday Readings (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1993), 238.