Sometimes questions are more important than answers. But sometimes we ask a question with the answer already firmly lodged in our heads. And sometimes we may answer a question right, but then head off in the wrong direction with it.
The second half of Mark’s Gospel is filled with many important questions. Last week, the question was one Jesus asked: “Who do you say I am?” Peter had the right answer: “You are the Christ.”
But Peter had no idea that when he said that Jesus was the Christ, he and Jesus were thinking of two different things. Peter thought that the Christ was the victorious military conqueror, the avenger of God who would restore Israel to power.
But Jesus knew that the Christ, the one chosen by God to lead God’s people into a new way of living, was no military victor, no powerful avenger, but a suffering servant who would have to suffer humiliation and pain and death out of his integrity to God’s calling. And Jesus told the disciples that, and they didn’t understand.
A couple of weeks later, another question arose between the disciples. It was based on the firm answer given before, that Jesus was the Christ. And the discussion they had this day was a wonderful example of how we may answer a question right, and then go off in the wrong direction with it!
Jesus had noticed that there was a heated discussion among the disciples as they were walking to Capernaum. He asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” Now, the question the disciples had been discussing was, “Who among us is the greatest?” I’m imagining Muhammad Ali, pumping his fists: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee!” Who among the in-crowd was the most-favored, most-liked, most-powerful, most-blessed. This argument was right in line with their understanding of what the Christ was: The Christ- the Anointed of God- was the most powerful, the most favored, the victorious Son of God. And the best disciple, in this understanding, is the disciple most like the Master: the one who was the most powerful, successful, victorious.
They hadn’t understood Jesus’ teaching on Messiahs…“The (Messiah) will be delivered into the hands of the authorities, and they will kill Him, and in three days He will rise” (Mk 9:32)
They didn’t understand that. They were still under the illusion that somehow being associated with the Christ would bring them honor and power and glory in this world. They were willing to follow the Master, oh yes! And they thought it would lead them to greatness. But Jesus responded to their discussion of “Who among us is the greatest?” with this answer:
“If anyone would be first, the one must be last of all, and servant of all.” And Jesus took a child, and put the child in the midst of the disciples; And taking this little one in His arms, Jesus said to them: “Whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me, receives not Me but the One who sent Me.” (Mark 9:35-37)
Do you know what? They didn’t get it then, either. They couldn’t grasp that if you were a disciple of Jesus, you were a servant of God for all people. And like a good shepherd, they were to make sure that everyone got to God’s home safe and sound.
And they didn’t get that a disciple is to be as honored as a child. That is to say, not honored at all. Children were the least important members of society, because the death rate among children was huge. The chance of your child dying before reaching adulthood was between 30%-50%. Children were barely considered- and Jesus said, Whoever receives a child receives Me. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says that we must become like children (Matthew 18:2-4). We must become that humble, that unimportant.
This doesn’t accommodate well with a notion that we are to become the most powerful, most honored, most victorious among the disciples if we are to follow Christ.
The depth of the disciples’ misunderstanding shines forth in the next verses: “John said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, we saw a man casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he wasn’t following us.” (Mark 9:38)
John the Beloved Disciple makes a flat statement which showed that he wasn’t in the least interested in being last, in making sure that all of God’s flock made it safely home. “We forbade him, because he was not following us.”
The real issue, the real question which the disciples raise is, Who is the in-group? Who gets picked for the winning team? Who belongs? Not just anyone, we hope Jesus! Not just anyone should get to use the power of Your Name! Really, it should only be… Us. Right?
If they didn’t get to be the greatest within the group, at least they could be EXCLUSIVE as to who gets to be in the group. But Jesus doesn’t say that. In Mark 9:39ff, Jesus gives just a hint as to who is welcome to use the Holy Name, and be counted as part of God’s Realm. Jesus says, “Do not forbid him; for no one who does a mighty work in My Name will be able soon after to speak evil of Me. For the one that is not against us is for us.
It’s not based on the exclusion of being part of the in-group. It’s not based on power, popularity or success. The disciples had taken the ‘right’ answer: that Jesus was the Christ; but they head off in the wrong direction with it because they presumed they knew what God meant by being ‘Chosen.’
Jesus’ Realm is composed of those who trust in Jesus. It is composed of those whose lives reflect the kindness and compassion of that Name. The man who had exorcized demons in the Name of Jesus had liberated a suffering person from torment- had used the Name in compassion… and so that man was welcome by God.
Jesus lays it on the disciples pretty hard in verse 42, saying, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”
Don’t mess with My sheep! Don’t be a stumbling block to those who follow Me, even if they’re not part of your group!”
Any way He can, Jesus trying to tell the disciples that the Kingdom of God is open: to the stranger, to the marginal, to those who can’t vote, to the children. “God’s People” are not an exclusive group, but a profoundly inclusive group. The only definition for the question, “Is this person one of ‘our kind’ of people” is: “Does Jesus love them?” And I have to ask you: Who DOESN’T Jesus love?
And rather than being the Jesus Screening Board, we are to be the Lord’s harvesters. In Mark 1:17, one of the very first things Jesus tells the disciples is that they are to be fishers of people. When you drop your net into the sea, you pull up everything that swims in- including turtles and tires!
The people who swim into Emmanuel, or who swim into our lives at work, at home- God wants them included in the Kingdom! In us- through us, Christ works to bring all people into that holy relationship of acceptance, compassion, justice and love which we call “The Kingdom of God.”
When I was studying for this sermon, I came across something I had never realized before. I was reading Exodus 23. This is the context: God is making a special covenant with Israel, to mold a chosen people. And just before God says how the people were to bring in the first fruits of the harvest in thanksgiving for the Abundance of their lives…. just before this, God says, “Do not oppress the stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Ex 23:9)
“Remember the stranger,” What is that doing in the midst of God’s commandments for the harvest,
in the midst of God’s commandments concerning how we are to be grateful for our life and all the good things God gives us? The connection is made in the following verses, Exodus 23:10-13:
“For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild beasts may eat. Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your slave, and the alien may be refreshed. Take heed to all that I have said to you; and make no mention of the names of other gods, nor let such be heard out of your mouth.”
Well, what does allowing a poor person or stranger to eat out of your field; what does making sure they can rest with enough to eat at least one day out of the week: what does that have to do with bringing an offering of harvest thanksgiving to God?
When I read this, it struck me: God doesn’t just want apples and squash on the holy altar. God wants justice on the altar. God wants compassion- the compassion which allows the poor to eat and the stranger to be cared for: God wants compassion on the altar.
And those lives which we touch by our unselfishness and our kindness and our justice- God wants those lives, those people on the altar. We are to be fishers of the human soul, and to reap in the precious bounty of human life to present at the altar of God.
And it doesn’t matter if we’re not successful, or powerful, or strong like the disciples thought they had to be. In Exodus, God told the people, “I want the stranger, the poor, the hurting people. Bring them to Me with your compassion.”
In the Gospels, Jesus tells the disciples, I want the people who have no more power than a child; I want the people who don’t belong, like Mary Magdalene, the prostitute; like Zacchaeus, the tax collector; like those frightening people who are possessed by evil spirits. Bring them to Me.”
But the Israelites didn’t understand, and neither did the disciples. That’s why the disciples headed off in the wrong direction with the right answer. “You are the Christ, Jesus”- but those vagrants who use your name without our permission- they need to be stopped. Large portions of the early Church did the same thing. They confessed Jesus as Christ, but when we read 1 Corinthians 1:26ff, Paul is bawling out the Corinthian believers because they had started to take on airs, starts to make special rules for church membership. Listen to this from 1 Corinthians:
“For consider your call. Not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Cor 1:26-31)
God doesn’t care if we’re rich and powerful. God doesn’t care if we have it all together. God just wants us here, bringing other people with us.
The question is, “Who do you say I am”, and the answer is, “You are the Christ.”
The question is, “Who gets to belong?”, and the answer is “All people.”
The question us, “Who is the greatest?”, and the answer is “The one who is willing to be last, the least, so that at Great Harvest, God’s harvest will be complete, and no one is left behind.”
In the Name of the One who will never let us go; even Jesus the Christ. Amen
Scripture for Sept. 23, 2018 MARK 9:30-42
Jesus and His disciples passed through Galilee. He didn’t want anyone to know it, for He was teaching His disciples, saying: “The (Messiah) is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, (the Messiah) will rise again.” But the disciples didn’t understand what Jesus was saying, and was afraid to ask Him. Then they came to Capernaum, and when they went into their house, Jesus asked them, “What were you all arguing about on the way here?” But the disciples were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. Jesus sat down and called all twelve of them over, and said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all, and a servant to all.” Then Jesus took a little child… and taking it in his arms, Jesus said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in My name welcomes Me, and whoever welcomes Me welcomes the One who sent Me.”
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.