The Queen Mary Psalter, 14th century
18th Sunday after Pentecost
September 23rd, 2018
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
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We’ve come over a sort of hill in our reading of the gospel of Mark. We’re in the ninth chapter now, and we’ve made a sort of turn. In the beginning of Mark’s gospel, Jesus is teaching and he is working miracles. And there’s this latent question: who is this guy? Who is this Jesus who does all these wonderful signs, and who is this man who teaches with such authority? And last week this question came to a head, and we heard the answer (Jesus is the Messiah), even if the disciples didn’t understand fully what that might mean.
And now here in the ninth chapter, things are a little different; they’re going to be different, all the way until Jesus’s final days. He’ll still be teaching, he’ll still be working miracles, but something about Jesus’s ministry has changed. He talks more and more about his own death (which is something the disciples just don’t want to hear about), and he talks more and more about discipleship. What does it mean to follow Jesus? What does it mean to live a life to God?
Last week, we heard Jesus answering these questions in a sort of paradox: whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; and whoever will lose their life for my sake – for Jesus’s sake – and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. This week, we heard something else: whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me. Hmm. Now we might, along with the disciples, want to press Jesus and ask, “Well, which is it?” Is following Jesus about losing your life, or is it about welcoming little children? Is being a disciple – a real disciple – all about giving up ourselves, or is it about treating little kids well? Which is it, and how to do we do it?
If Jesus were to hear this question, he might, characteristically, not just give us a simple answer, but instead he might tell us another parable. For although God is one, and our relationship to God is singular, discipleship can be explained in many, many different ways. This is why Jesus uses parables instead of bullet points. We can’t wrap our heads around what the kingdom is, or who God is, or the perfect way to be disciples with just one story. Otherwise the Bible would be really, really short, and it wouldn’t lift our hearts as it does.
For an example, think about how the Bible describes God. In the gospels, Jesus describes God’s relationship with us as a father to his children; Isaiah describes this same relationship as a potter to his clay. God is the shepherd of the sheep, a mother bear, the light of the world, a rock and a fortress. The prophets even describe God as a woman in labor. And all of these images, even though they seem so different, all point to one, true reality: that God loves us, and loves us so much that he would come down and sacrifice himself for our sake.
Discipleship is not just one, single act. It’s not just one thing we do; it’s a whole life lived to God, and so we need many different images of it and many different ways of thinking about it. And here, Jesus gives us one such image: welcoming little children is welcoming Jesus himself, and welcoming Jesus means welcoming the one who sent him: God the Father. And what is a child? Well, for the ancient world, not much. Children in the Greco-Roman world were “little adults”, people who were not fully people just yet. They needed to be trained, educated, and brought up so they could help out on the farm, or with trading, or in some way help their community. They received tradition and learning, until they could work on their own. They were like empty cups, ready to be filled.
Children in the ancient world did not have the freedom that our children know today. They didn’t know Saturday morning cartoons and lazy days along the river, and they certainly did not know the freedom of summer vacation. And yet, even so, they knew a certain freedom that is, often, foreign to us: they knew the freedom of giving without expectation. Now, we adults give for many reasons: we take someone to lunch because he took us to lunch; we give to those in need because we ourselves have been given so much; and when we’re not really following God enough, we give because we really want to look good, or to get a gift in return. But children in the ancient world had nothing to give, and so when they did give, there’s a pureness to the gift. And when we welcome a child who has nothing to give, when we receive a gift from someone who has literally nothing, then we may catch a glimpse of the gift of grace that God gives to us.
For Jesus gave a gift when he had nothing else to give. Jesus hung on a cross, was nailed to a piece of wood and left there until he died, and people looked on and said, “He promised so much and look, he gave us nothing but his own body hanging from a tree.” His life was useless, they said, a dead-end, a false hope. But in that sacrifice, in that death of a man stripped of everything, in that body hung from the cross we have received the greatest gift: our salvation and the love of God. Whoever saves his life, will lose it; and whoever loses his life for Jesus’s sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
How, then, are we to be disciples? What are we to do if we want to live a life to God? Well, here, I think Jesus is saying that the first step isn’t to do, to act in some way, but to receive. Discipleship is certainly about doing, about going out into the world and spreading the love of God – eventually; it’s certainly about giving of ourselves in the way Christ gave of himself – but not first, not initially. First we are to welcome, first we are to live with open hearts, to love without any thought of return. For that is how God loves us, and how Christ loved us up on the cross. And is from such love, such selfless love, that all good discipleship flows.