Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, 2015 – Jeremiah 11:18-20; Psalm 54; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37
Yeah, yeah. I know this technically goes with another passage but you get the idea.
“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,” (9:36-37).
Brothers and sisters, it is hard to believe that I’m standing here before you this morning preaching my last sermon at St. Cuthbert’s. Five months hardly seems like a sufficient amount of time to be together. And yet, I am deeply thankful. I know not why, but God in His providence saw fit to have our paths cross if only for a short time. You all, all of you, have been a gift to me, and to my family, and I can only hope and pray that I have been the same to you. And so I thank the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ for the gift of your friendship. In his letter to the Ephesians the Apostle Paul writes: “There is one body and one Spirit…one hope of your calling…one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all,” (4:4-6). Indeed, we are one in Christ if we hold firm to him. Be assured that I will remember you in my prayers and I ask that you would pray for me as well.
I’ve heard it said that every preacher really only has one sermon and for the most part that’s probably true. Reflecting back on my time with you, I think that today’s gospel reading from Mark nicely sums up the one sermon that I think I have been given to share with you 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,” (9:36-37). Christians pride themselves on being a welcoming bunch. If you don’t believe me just pay a visit to most any church website and I’ll bet that one of the first words you come across is “welcome”. And what would a Sunday morning be without coffee hour? This is good, we should practice hospitality and welcome both friend and stranger. But where does this welcome come from? And into what are we welcoming others?
Last week we looked at a passage from earlier in Mark’s gospel and discovered that we find life, not when we try to secure it for ourselves, but when we lose our life for the sake of Jesus Christ and the gospel. This week we have a similar scene a little bit later in Mark. Jesus foretells of his death for the second time, in response to which the disciples grow increasingly confused and fearful.
They then come to rest in the home of a friend and Jesus sits down and begins to teach them, fully aware of what it was they were discussing on the way: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” (9:35). Last of all? Servant of all? Perhaps we, like the disciples, feel that this is a hard teaching. Perhaps we are likewise confused and fearful—if we are honest with Jesus about our questions along the way, will his response fit nicely into our life, or will he turn our life on its head?
In the next chapter we witness a similar scene, only the disciples are more brazen this time: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you…Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” (10:35-37). We then hear Jesus’ refrain again: “whoever wishes to be first among you must be a slave of all,” (10:44). “For,” he continues, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many,” (10:45).
Last week we heard the command, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This week we hear, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” The lives we are called into as apprentices of Jesus are lives that are conformed to our master.
But how does any of this happen? How do we become a people so marked by humility and charity? Well, we have the gospel accounts of Jesus’ earthly ministry. We could, perhaps study them, see what Jesus is like, and try our best to do what he does. Or, we could look to Paul’s letters and try to practice all of the virtues he talks about and avoid all of the vices. But if living in God’s new world were as simple as following Jesus’ example then the crucifixion would seem a bit over-the-top, no? “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,” (9:31). Our problem isn’t that we don’t try hard enough, it is that apart from Christ we are dead in our sin. And what sinful human creatures need is not motivation but resurrection.
“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,” (9:36-37). In this picture, we are confronted with a great mystery, that God has given Himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ. As the very fullness of God with us, Jesus Christ is our life.
There’s something significant about Jesus’ identification of himself with the child. Children, at this time, were of low esteem, the lowest order in the social scale, oftentimes abandoned to the elements and whatever else may come. Into this context, God gives himself to us in the form of an infant. As it is put so beautifully in a 4th century Christian hymn: “Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ. Thou art the everlasting Son of the Father. When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man, thou didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb,” (Te Deum). God with us, in the very weakness of human flesh; in the lowly infant born in a stable, in the lowly man hung on a cross. “And whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
As the child is placed in the midst of the disciples so too we receive the crucified Christ into our midst in many ways, concrete and yet surprising. In baptism, where the Spirit joins us to him and his mystical Body, and we enter into the way. In the Eucharist, where we feed on his flesh and blood, nourishment for the journey. In Holy Scripture, where we hear and see the story of our salvation which culminates in Christ, where we have come from and where God is leading us. In the presence of one another, fellow pilgrims along the way, that we might together grow up into the full stature of Christ. And in all of these ways, God opens our eyes to behold the beauty of the risen Christ.
This is the beginning of the whole of the Christian life—not our own effort or ingenuity, but our reception of the God who took on flesh in the form of an infant and entered into the midst of us, giving himself wholly over to us in Jesus Christ. And I thank you for your gracious welcome of me into this faithful community. We have walked along the way some distance now, and together I pray that our eyes have been opened to see, and our hearts open to daily receive Christ into the midst of our common life. What a gift. It is said that Martin Luther’s dying words were, “We are beggars; this is true.” A fitting image of what it means to be an apprentice of Jesus—hands outstretched, seeking, open to receive that which only God can give in the form of his Son, His very self, our very life. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Sermon was preached by the Rev’d Jonathan R. Turtle at St. Cuthbert’s Leaside on the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 20th, 2015.