Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (B)
23 September 2018
Mark the Gospel artist continues working with his palette this week.
He has crafted two powerful scenes, neither of which we have heard as we follow the cycle of readings set for us in the weekly lectionary.
In the first scene, we have Mark’s account of the Transfiguration, when Jesus lets those closest to him catch a glimpse of his divine glory.
It is an evocative episode, with echoes of a famous scene in the Old Testament where Moses spends so much time up the mountain with God that his face shines, and people are freaked out. In keeping with Mark’s theme that Jesus is not simply like Moses but greater than Moses, in this example the glory of God shines forth from Jesus himself. Indeed, in the story as Mark tells it, both Moses and Elijah appear alongside Jesus on top of a mountain.
Mark could hardly make it any clearer.
The God who was at work in Moses and Elijah is also at work in Jesus. Maybe even more so.
Then we have a second scene that seems designed almost to make us cringe. As they come back down from the mountain Jesus and the inner set of his followers find that the rest of the disciples have been trying—without success—to heal a sick boy. The failure of the disciples stands in marked contrast with the success, the power and the glory of Jesus. With one word from Jesus, the boy is made well and they move off before too big a crowd gathers.
Again, Mark could hardly it any clearer.
There is no stopping Jesus, but his disciples are lacklustre. Underwhelming.
Then we come to today’s Gospel passage.
We have three character sets as Mark develops his narrative.
First of all, there is Jesus.
Jesus is in a class of his own. We might describe him as “eyes wide open”, telling anyone who will listen—and even those who will not—that this project will cost him his life, but even death will not be the end of him.
He senses where his own faithfulness to God’s call on him will lead, and he does not flinch. At least that is how Mark portrays Jesus. One imagines it may have been a bit more complex than that, but we are listening to Mark’s way of telling the story.
Then we have the Twelve.
As the group has circled back to Capernaum, the Twelve have been keeping their distance from Jesus, it seems. They have been engaged in arguments with each other. No, they were not seeking to understand the significance of the Transfiguration nor to improve their clinical skills at casting out demons! Nor had they asked Jesus to explain what he meant by talking about his mission coming only at the cost of his own life. According to Mark, they were afraid to ask him!
As they reach the little stone house in Capernaum that Jesus has made his home base, Jesus is waiting for them. ‘So, guys, what were you arguing about back there on the road?’
An awkward shuffling of the feet.
They had been haggling over their personal status, which of them was more important and what was the pecking order within the band of disciples.
Maybe it started with the Nine wanting to know why the Three (Peter, James and John) had been invited up the mountain with Jesus? We can almost imagine the conversation: So why are you three guys so special? Who do you think you are anyway? Don’t forget how much each of us has given up to follow Jesus!
Jesus sat down and called them over to him.
“Listen up, guys! Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
Enter the third character set: a child.
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 …
There was a child in the house where Jesus was staying.
There is a child in the story that Mark is telling.
The child has no name and we do not even know its gender. It was just a child.
That is exactly the point Mark is seeking to make.
Children were not highly regarded in the ancient world. Most of them died before reaching adulthood in any case, and they rarely feature in the stories about Jesus. Yet here Jesus takes a child and tells his followers to stop obsessing about themselves and to focus on the child.
It is always about the child, about the ‘little ones’ …
Sometimes the child is indeed an infant or a toddler. Sometimes the child is a school student. Sometimes the child is a vulnerable adult, unemployed perhaps, or homeless. Sometimes the child is a frail older person.
But the mission of God is always about the little ones, youth who are at risk, older folks who are being overlooked.
The mission of God is never about the status or the privilege of the church leaders, the clergy, members of Parish Council or the Dean of the Cathedral. It is always about the child. The little one.
Jesus saw past his own survival but his disciples could not see past their own privilege.
He takes a little child and places her in our midst. It is all about the children, he says. It is never about us.
We have seen what happens when the church overlooks that simple truth.
May we never forget the child who Jesus places on our midst.
As we treat the child, so we have treated Jesus.