Hard Sayings: 23 September 2018

The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Proverbs 31: 10 – 31

Psalm 1

James 2: 3: 1 – 12

Mark 9: 30 – 37

Twenty years ago New Testament Scholar FF Bruce published a book entitled “The Hard Sayings of Jesus.” It was an attempt to acknowledge that some of what Jesus said in the Gospels is not easy to understand, and some of what is easy to understand is extremely difficult to put into practice. We have an example of each in today’s Gospel reading from Mark 9: 30 – 37.

A whole chapter has passed since Peter’s declaration that Jesus was the Messiah and his utter incomprehension when told that Jesus must undergo suffering, rejection and execution – and then, on the third day, be raised from the dead.

The lectionary skips out the account of the Transfiguration (that is dealt with on the Sunday before Lent, or on its own special day of August 6th). We’ve not read of Peter’s suggestion that they build three temples on the mountain, capturing the experience in concrete. Nor of the way in which Jesus drags the three favoured disciples who witnessed the Transfiguration away from that mystical experience and down the mountain. There they discover the rest of the disciples are in trouble. In Jesus’s absence they have tried their hand at healing a young boy, and failed miserably.

Today’s passage from Mark finds Jesus leading his disciples through Galilee to their home base at Capernaum. It is an opportunity for more teaching. Here is one of those ‘hard sayings’, it again involved betrayal, execution and resurrection. With our two thousand years of hindsight it’s impossible for us to know what the disciples made of this, or indeed, what the early church really made of it. But we confess it every time we say the Creeds or participate in a baptism: We believe Jesus was betrayed, crucified and raised from the dead. Like Peter a chapter earlier, but in a more gentle way, Mark the Gospel writer points out that the disciples ‘did not understand’. It was simply too difficult for them to grasp.

And then, in one of those typical Marcan ironies, the Gospel passage gives us some insight into what was actually going on with the disciples. They were not puzzling over what Jesus meant abot dying and rising, or how they might be able to prevent him being killed, but arguing over which of them was the greatest! It all sounds so contemporary; worthy perhaps of the party-room in Canberra. Jesus’s response to this argument is a very long way from the jockeying for power and position of contemporary politics (and, I dare say, contemporary life in general).

If the language Jesus used about his betrayal, death and resurrection was hard to comprehend, the very simple illustration he used to demonstrate the pecking order in the Kingdom of God is profoundly simple – and decidedly difficult to implement. “Then he took a little child and put it among them…” (Mark 9: 36)

We live in a world where the rights of children are pretty much taken for granted now. It is a world in which UNICEF and Save the Children continue to champion the rights of children. We belong to a church which insists that any in leadership positions, both clergy and lay people, and any who have even the remotest chance of contact with children, must adhere to strict Safer Ministry protocols. On the whole we cherish our children and lavish large amounts of time, money and effort on their health, education and well-being. But it has not always been thus.

In Jesus’s day a child had no rights at all. The Greek word used for child was gender neutral. Not until the industrial revolution with the continued breakdown of traditional peasant farming life-style did anyone seriously consider a child might have the right to be fed, educated, cared for. It is less than a hundred years ago that the western world began thinking seriously of putting children ahead of adults. There is no way that either the Jews or the Romans of Jesus’s day would have envisioned the scenario of young people expressing their views eloquently and intelligently in the way we saw on Q & A just a week or two ago.

Yet to make his point about servant leadership, about those wishing to be first needing to be last, Jesus placed a child in the midst of his disciples. This child, he says, this one who has no rights at all, no pretensions to greatness, this child is the key to understanding who is most important in God’s eyes. Surprising indeed!

It’s a powerful metaphor for a powerful concept which completely upends the way the disciples, and I daresay, most of us, think of power and importance. If you want to be first you need to be last. If you want to be important, you need to know how to serve. You need to know the way of humility. These are not comfortable ideas to think about.

But that is the way of Jesus. That is the way of the Kingdom of God.

Somewhat strangely we continue to have the vestiges of this thinking in our political life. One of the Latin words for servant was ‘minister’ – a waiter, attendant, assistant, one who is inferior to others. We still use it in politics – but now of those who are most important. So we have a “prime minister” – the first minister, and cabinet ministers. The original understanding of service is still there, and most people who end up in high office do serve their constituencies – often at great cost to themselves and their families. It just seems to get lost in the hurly burly cut throat winner-takes-all way of life of our day.

Pope Gregory the Great is thought to have been the first pope to use the title “Servant of the Servants of God” back in the early 7th century. He apparently used it of himself in a letter to the Archbishop of Constantinople who had just claimed the title Ecumenical Patriarch – patriarch of the whole world!

A vivid example of humble servant leadership which I hold dear was the sight of my bishop, sleeves rolled up and mop in hand, swabbing out filthy toilets at a conference in Pretoria of some five thousand people. As a young newly ordained deacon that had a profound impact on me.

So which is the harder – to accept the teaching of Jesus that he is to be betrayed, crucified and raised from the dead, or that to be first one must in fact be last and servant of all?

This morning young James will be presented by his parents and god parents to be baptized. Every baptism is a reminder to us that the way of Jesus is not always easy. That it involves a turning to God, and a turning away from what is not of God. Baptism, however, is not something we do alone but in community, together. The newly baptized is immediately welcomed into the worshipping community as a disciple, a member of the Body of Christ, a child of the one heavenly Father, and even, yes even, an inheritor of the kingdom of God.

The newly baptized person, be they infant, young person or adult, will look to the faith community of Christians for their example. What will they find? Will it be the humble, but oh so difficult, model of leadership and service advocated by Jesus when he placed a child in their midst? Or the bickering argumentative model suggested by the disciples in today’s Gospel passage?

The child in our midst. Food for thought.