Jesus and his disciples went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “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.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of 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.”
– Mark 9:30-37
First in our Gospel we hear Jesus speaking further with his disciples about his own suffering to come. That he will be betrayed. And as if that is not bad enough, that he will be killed. But then he adds something: he will rise again. This whole speech seems so odd to them that they don’t understand. They are even too afraid to ask what it all really means.
I always used to think that the disciples were most confused by the third part of the message: that Jesus would rise again. Because that is an odd thought, rising from the dead. But for many Jews in Jesus’ day that was not such an outlandish idea.
But now when I read this, I hear something else. I think what really troubled them was that Jesus said he would have to suffer and be killed. How could it be that their friend, their wise rabbi, this gentle healer and wonder worker, how could this story end that way? This is madness. The disciples have already had a hard time hearing Jesus talk about his own suffering and torture yet to come.
So here, look what happens: the first thing they do is to start arguing among themselves over who is the most important. It seems they were they trying to one-up each other. Or even worse, were they jockeying for power over who would be head honcho after Jesus died?
And they are ashamed even to tell him what they had been talking about. He already knows, of course. And they know that he already knows, and that makes them all the more ashamed. This is not at all like last week’s Gospel reading where Jesus chewed Peter out for refusing to accept Jesus’ foretelling his own death. Last week Jesus told Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” But here in this week’s lesson Jesus specifically does NOT chew them out.
Notice what Jesus does instead. He gently shows them who they are to be. Not power-hungry or self-centered. The opposite: caring, embracing, protecting. He picks up a little child, holds her in his arms, and says: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” We, like those disciples, are to gather the little ones into our arms.
Clearly Jesus is telling us that the kind of greatness he calls us to embody does not rest on competition or coercion. The disciple of Jesus must show greatness through welcoming the weak. The cross of Jesus makes a flip-flop of weakness and strength, and Paul says “When I am weak, then I am strong.” We in Christ are called to embrace those who have no power, those who are vulnerable. The little ones.
But who are those little ones? Today when Jesus tells us to welcome little ones he means more than just children. In our day we might hear this as a call to welcome those with no voice, those with no home, those with no country, those with no next meal. We might think of the little ones as those who suffer because of others who have more than they need. And so our thoughts go to our work earlier today at Chapel on the Green: feeding the souls of the little ones n worship, and feeding their bodies with lunch afterward.
To say that this is crucial for Christian witness is an understatement. Or we wouldn’t have done what we did earlier today at Chapel on the Green. There is a but, though. I have also heard especially from young people how focusing on other’s poverty can lead to our despair. Surely we are those who have more than we need. Surely we are those who oppress the poor, simply by our privilege. Surely we fail to embrace the little ones as Christ would have us. And there is nothing we can do about that.
Here’s the thing, though. When Jesus says “little ones” he is referring to his own disciples as well. His own little ones, his own dear ones. So he means all of us as well, you and me. The disciples can’t jockey for power precisely because they are little ones themselves. And we too are included among those whom we are to welcome. An odd thought.
What would that mean for privileged folk like us? Here is an idea. I have been thinking a lot about the beginning of Genesis, how things were created to be so amazing at the beginning. And then in the following chapters we get a string of stories that show a deterioration in the quality of our relationship with God, and with each other.
The story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 is one of these stories. Cain gets jealous of Abel and murders him. God notices Abel is missing. “Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground.” And God asks Cain where his brother Abel is, and Cain’s response is: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” In other words: “Leave me alone.” But the implicit answer to Cain’s question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is, of course, yes. Yes, you are your brother’s and sister’s keeper. [The word here for keeper is also the biblical word for shepherd, and that was Abel’s profession, keeping sheep. The false prophets of Israel are described as shepherds who lead astray the sheep. The true prophets guard them in the path. Jesus says he is the Good Shepherd. In Ps 23, God is our shepherd, and we shall not want.] Shepherding, then, is not possessing, not controlling, but guarding and guiding and protecting.
Am I my brother’s and sister’s keeper? Yes, of course. And so with Chapel on the Green, we are their keeper, and they are ours. And so with ECY. This is what we are to be to each other in the Body of Christ, his little ones. Guarding, guiding, protecting each other. Because love of neighbor includes love of self (we forget this too easily), this means that we each must guard, guide, and protect ourselves, so that we can welcome each other.
Welcoming the little ones means welcoming all. And welcoming includes sharing. Notice I say sharing, not giving. When we give alms or charity or relief aid it is precisely NOT giving. It is sharing. It is welcoming. It is seeing in the other our own vulnerability, our own humanity, our own little one-ness in the Lord. But this can be hard. Seeringly hard. We often would prefer to be like the disciples in today’s Gospel lesson, grasping at control over the other, each of us in our own isolated sphere of independence.
I leave you with an example of how truly difficult it can be to welcome the little ones of Jesus. I rec’d on Friday an email from Grant LeMarquand. He is an Anglican Bishop in the Horn of Africa, an area which includes Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and Djibouti. This area is part of the Anglican Diocese of Egypt, which itself is part of the Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East.
Bishop Grant’s flock have been having an exceedingly hard time this week welcoming each other as Jesus’ little ones. And true welcome of course involves reconciliation. Reconciliation is very easy to talk about but very hard to embrace in a meaningful way. And in their context reconciliation presents difficulties we can only imagine. Here is Bishop Grant’s email:
Although the Gambella Region of Ethiopia has been relatively free of violence since the war in South Sudan began in December 2013, the presence of hundreds of thousands of new refugees in an already underdeveloped area is bound to have some repercussions. We have seen a rise in theft and we have certainly seen shortages in everything from water and electricity to diesel fuel and cement. But little violence.
Last night (Sept 17, 2015), however, fighting broke out between two rival Nuer clans over a disputed local election. Sadly, the families of two of our students at St Frumentius Anglican Theological College were involved, the relatives of one student killing two relatives of another student. To complicate matters, the two students are roommates. Quite a number of people were also injured in fighting. Order has been restored and the town is now calm.
This took place in the midst of a 5-day workshop on ‘Healing from Trauma’ being held at the Gambella Anglican Centre. One of the professors wrote: “the pain in our classroom this morning as one man prayed for the other and each other’s families has shaken us all. Weeping in this culture among men is not at all common, but there were tears shed this morning.”
Please pray that our church here can be a place of healing, reconciliation and peace.
We, too, my brothers and sisters, are called to healing, reconciliation, and peace. In every corner of our lives, throughout our days, this is who we are to be: agents of healing, reconciliation, and peace among the little ones in the name of Jesus, our Good Shepherd. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me…”. AMEN.