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“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

In our gospel reading this morning Jesus is on the way with his disciples and as they follow him and stay near to him he teaches them what it means to be great in the kingdom of God. And right away we are reminded of the posture of a disciple: with Jesus; on the move; open and teachable. And what does Jesus tell them but to reiterate the central fact of not only his own ministry but of human history: “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.”

And the disciples responded, “Ah, yes. That makes good sense! Carry on.” No, actually what Mark tells us is that the disciples did not understand what he was saying. Not only that, but they had questions that they were afraid to ask.

Maybe you’ve been following Jesus for weeks or maybe you’ve been following him for decades, have you ever had questions? Perhaps even questions that you weren’t quite confident to give voice to? Have you ever wondered? Doubted? Been curious? You are in very good company with Jesus and his band of followers. Indeed, the work of theology—a work that we are all called to, by the way—is to seek to understand that which we believe. The Christian life begins with faith but it does not stop there. It presses deeper, seeking to understand that which it affirms.

Why does Mark include this detail about their lack of understanding and what does he mean by it? I think what he wants us to know is that the life of faith is a process, a life-long process, of re-education. At this moment in the gospel narrative the disciples do not comprehend the fact that the one they have come to believe is the Messiah, the Redeemer of Israel, will have to suffer and die. That reality simply does not fit within the world as they know it.

We can press this point further and say that it wasn’t simply that the disciples failed to understand something that should have otherwise been intelligible to them. It was, rather, that they couldn’t understand that which their present reality gave them no capacity to understand. They knew as well as you and I that dead people, even a dead Messiah, do not simply live again.

But of course you and I know what happens. In fact, you and I are sitting here this morning because of what happened. Those very same disciples that lacked understanding became the Apostles through whom the gospel of Jesus Christ spread throughout the Ancient Roman world and continues to transform people today.

The ultimate fact of Jesus’ death and resurrection did not fit within their world so Jesus had to turn their world upside down. The great Canadian poet Leonard Cohen wrote that there is a crack in everything and that’s how the light gets in. That’s a bit like what Jesus does with his followers then and now. See, Jesus wants to break into your neatly arranged world with the light of God and show you that another way is possible. He wants to clear all of the junk that you’ve been hoarding out of your home and refurnish it, repaint everything so that the colours are deeper and more vibrant, and enliven it with new textures and fabrics.

OK, so the disciples as we have seen did not—could not—understand and naturally they had questions. And I love what Jesus does here. He knows that they are reluctant to question him so he questions them: “So, what were you guys arguing about back there?” It’s not as if Jesus doesn’t know but he is inviting them to bring their questions and arguments out into the open. Because a failure to understand is not cause for shame but rather cause for drawing even nearer to Jesus Christ. There is a sermon in here about the virtue of a good debate and learning to be a community that can disagree well with one another, but that’s a sermon for another day.

So, what were the disciples arguing about? Who was the greatest. They are with Jesus on the way to the Cross where he will lay down his life in love and humility and they are worried about who’s going to get the promotion. His eyes are fixed on his suffering and death for the life of the world while they are preoccupied with the question of status. How unlike you and I!

In our Epistle reading this morning we heard James ask us a question: “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?” Sounds a bit like Jesus’, “So, what were you guys arguing about back there?” We get the sense that James knows the answer. And indeed, he breaks it down for us.

There are two kinds of wisdom, says James. There is a wisdom that is, “earthly, unspiritual, devilish,” that is characterized by envy and selfish ambition and leads to disorder and wickedness. Then there is a wisdom that, “comes down from above.” This Godly wisdom is, “peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy,” and it leads to a harvest of righteousness says James.

Where do those conflicts and disputes come from? They come from that old wisdom that we are so protective of. But Jesus wants us to know this morning that even now the Holy Spirit is searching your heart and that he wants to root out every last scrap of envy and selfishness and disorder and wickedness and he wants to come in and take up residence in your heart and furnish it instead with the beauty of peace and gentleness and humility and love.

Only Jesus can do this. Only Jesus is gentle and yet loving enough to question us when we fear questioning him and to open us up to a new way of thinking and living in and with and through him.

The disciples are arguing about who is the greatest and they probably think that they know what that means. But again, here Jesus upends their notions of success and greatness. Does he reprimand them for their folly? No, rather, he sat down and invited them to come near and he said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

What makes someone successful or great? Is it the ability to bombastically assert oneself over another and humiliate or steamroll those that disagree with you, as the recent surge of populist politics might suggest? Or, maybe greatness has to do with conspicuous displays of one’s wealth, prestige, and sex appeal like we see in celebrity culture. Or, if you are active on social media platforms, maybe greatness and success is found in living a perfectly curated life or the number of ‘likes’ you receive? Or, depending on what stage of life you are at you might think that greatness is getting into the right school, or having the perfect family, or traveling the world in retirement.

Does becoming the servant of all constitute greatness or success in your world? Of course not. But those who commit to following Jesus Christ are going to have their world turned upside down. If you’re going to be a follower of Jesus you’re going to experience a life-time of re-education. And Jesus Christ demonstrates in word and deed what greatness in the kingdom of God is all about—becoming a servant. Of. All.

Jesus Christ demonstrates his greatness not by making much of himself but by making little of himself. Not by gathering worldly wealth but by living generously in love. Not by clinging to power as the world understands it but by spending his life for the sake of others. He shows us what greatness in the kingdom of God is like by going to the Cross and by bringing us there with him. And Jesus wants you to know this morning that if you want to be great in God’s eyes then you have to give yourself away in love. Because in the kingdom of God greatness is measured by lowly service and indiscriminate love.

So if you want to be a student of Jesus Christ that’s how you’re going to grow, first by a downward, lowly motion. The seed of a tree first goes down, fastening its roots low in the ground, in order then to reach skyward. Do you want to be great in the kingdom of heaven? Become a servant of all.

However. Lest the disciples think that their greatness in God’s kingdom, like their greatness in the world, is a result of their own doing Jesus does one more thing. He takes a little child and places it among them and taking it in his arms he says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Being great in the kingdom of God is not the result of our effort but of faith in Jesus Christ who comes to us and gives himself to us as a helpless child. Because what sinners need is not motivation but resurrection. That’s why the invitation of Jesus to follow him is not, “Come and try harder,” or, “Come and do better,” but rather, “Come and die that you might live.”

If you devoted the rest of your life to contemplating this great mystery you would never want for anything again. God Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, has come among us in the weakness of a human infant. As Christians have been singing for seventeen centuries in the Te Deum, “Thou are the King of Glory, O Christ. Thou are the everlasting Son of the Father. When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man, thou didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb.” The King of Glory! The everlasting Son of the Father! In the weakness and vulnerability of a human child that we might welcome him yesterday, today, and forever.

Do you want to be great? Do you want your life to be a success in the only way that will matter in the end? Receive Jesus Christ in faith and allow him to transform you from the inside out so that you might go and transform the world by your witness of love and service. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

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Feast Day: The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23; James 1:17-27

“Welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.”

In our gospel reading this morning we are listening in on a debate between Jesus and the religious leaders that concerns cleanliness. The religious leaders are concerned with clean hands, not to mention pots and pans as well. But Jesus, knowing what is truly at stake invites us to press deeper. The problem isn’t unclean hands, the problem is unclean hearts. Friends, Jesus knows your heart. He knows it better than you do. And he, and only he, can clean it out if you will welcome him to.

Our reading begins with the Pharisees and the scribes who have come to see Jesus. Some of them, in fact, have come from as far away as Jerusalem and here they are now “gathered around” Jesus. However, noticing that some of his disciples were not observing the traditional purity codes they accuse Jesus of going soft on the tradition of the elders, that is, the complex web of oral traditions and teachings that had built up around the Law of God: “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”

A fair question. What is going on here? Does Jesus think the Law is unimportant? Is he disregarding tradition in favour of innovation? No. In fact, Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees seems to be that their more recent traditions have undermined the eternal and foundational Word of God. The same challenge could be put to us today: does everything we do and teach grow out of Scripture?

How does Jesus respond to the question? “Boy was Isaiah ever right about you guys.” He accuses them of hypocrisy, of play-acting, of honouring God with their lips even while their hearts are far from him. Recall, for example, how our reading began. Here are men that have come from afar to see Jesus. Here they are presently gathered around him. Yet they notice others. They are in the presence of Jesus Christ but their heart is elsewhere. They have come to Jesus and yet they have not really come to him at all.

Are we so different ourselves? Are we not much quicker to notice the sins of others than we are to notice our own sin? Is it not easier to justify ourselves than it is to confess? Do we not prefer to judge others rather than serve them? We fall into these hypocritical patterns when we do not see ourselves as lowly and needy and requiring God’s mercy. You see, it is much easier to ignore my own defiled heart when I am busy looking at someone else’s defiled hands.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer asks a question that we are inclined to resist: can you consider yourself to be the greatest of sinners? Surely I cannot be the greatest of sinners! This must be an exaggeration! It cannot be true! Yet even Saint Paul says this of himself. Shortly after Bonhoeffer poses this question comes my favourite passage in all of his works, at once haunting and hopeful: “There can be no genuine acknowledgement of sin that does not lead to this extremity. If my sinfulness appears to me to be in any way smaller or less detestable in comparison with the sins of others, I am still not recognizing my sinfulness at all.”[1] If my sinfulness appears to me to be in any way smaller or less detestable in comparison with the sins of others, I am still not recognizing my sinfulness at all.

Perhaps that is why the Pharisees and scribes were scanning the room rather than gazing at the one they had come to see? Perhaps they knew that if they fixed their gaze on Jesus Christ then the divine light that comes from him would search their own hearts and reveal what lies therein. And yet this very fear is what prevented them from knowing the mercy of Christ. For when we contemplate the mystery of Christ’s passion yes we are confronted with the reality of our sin but we are confronted even more so with the reality of God’s love that covers our sin. It is only when I personally experience Christ’s mercy for me, the greatest of sinners, that I can let go of judging others and aspire to serve them instead. Because that is what Christ has done for us.

This brings us to the crux of the matter—what Christ has done for us. You see, the religious leaders presume that they can keep themselves pure before God by observing a set of ritual laws. They think that the cleanliness that is required of them is something that they can manipulate and control. But what does Jesus say? “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

What prevents us from being made clean is not out there but rather in here. It’s not that unclean things defile an otherwise good human heart, it’s that the unclean human heart defiles otherwise good things. Christian teaching affirms that the world and everything in it is good because God is good and he made all things. Therefore, there are no bad things only bad uses of things. “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile,” says Jesus.

Consider the list of vices that Jesus mentions at the end of our reading. Are not all these things a consequence of the bad use of good things? Take sex, for example (and everyone sat up in their pews). Sex is good but when you use it badly what do you get? Fornication and adultery, among other things, not to mention more nefarious consequences such as abuse and assault. Likewise, material wealth is a good but when you use it badly what do you get? Things like greed, envy, and pride. “Understand this,” says Jesus. “The rot starts from within not from without.” What we need, therefore, is an internal cleansing of the heart not simply an external cleansing of our hands.

Precisely this is what Jesus Christ has come to do. He has come to cleanse our stained hearts by his blood shed on the Cross and to dwell in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Is that not what James says in the second reading we heard this morning? The perfect gift from above that has come down from the Father is Jesus Christ, God’s word of truth. And this word of truth has been planted in our hearts by faith making us new creatures.

What then can you do? What does James say? “Welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” God has already planted his word in your heart by faith, welcome it. Get out of the way and let the word of God go to work on your heart. Welcome it with meekness. Not with pride. Be teachable, be patient, submit yourself.

The absolute best thing that you can do for you today—and for your families and neighbours by the way—is to learn to love the Word of God. Husbands and wives, what is the best thing you can do for your spouse? Love God’s Word. Fathers and mothers, what is the best thing you can do for your children? Love God’s Word. Single people, what is the best thing that you can do for your friends, your family, your community, and your self? Love God’s Word.

“But the Bible is so boring.” So what? “But I have a hard time understanding it.” Buy a commentary to help you read. Attend a Bible study and read along with others. “But I’m so busy I just can’t find the time.” Really? How much time have you spent just staring at a screen this week? How many hours this week have you just wasted doing things that are of zero eternal benefit? Never mind the time that we spend on things that are actually harmful for our souls.

So if you don’t already, learn to love the Bible because when you learn to love the Bible you learn to love Jesus. It may be a tough go at first but remember this: reading the Bible has to be a discipline before it can become a desire or even a delight.

Friends, the risen and living Jesus Christ is in our midst this morning and through him God is able to cure the deep-seated impurity in our hearts. Today if you would hear his voice, harden not your hearts but rather welcome him with meekness and allow him to do what only he can do. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

 

Endnotes.
[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 96.