Saturday, September 19, 2009

Summons to Service


It's been a very long time since I posted. I've been juggling sickness and classes, but I think I'm back now. Here is a sermon I preached for my Preaching Mark class based on tomorrow's gospel text.

The Holy Gospel according to Mark.

“What did you say? What were you talking about?” Many of us have heard the all too familiar answer, “Nothing.” Of course that’s because the children know they have been caught. The disciples’ responded to Jesus’ similar inquiry with silence, perhaps because they were ashamed, perhaps because Jesus had just been teaching them of his upcoming death and resurrection. And the topic of their conversation—who is the greatest?

The setting is Capernaum in Galilee, Jesus’ home base there, It is from this place he began his Galilean ministry according to Mark. This passage follows the Transfiguration and some healings. For the second time, Jesus teaches of his approaching death and resurrection.

In verse 33, “After Jesus was inside the house he asked them, ‘What were you discussing on the way?’” Ask, in this context can have a variety of meanings: inquire, interrogate, demand of. These other shades of meaning show us what a serious matter this was for Jesus. The disciples just kept getting it wrong, missing the point.

Verse 34 says, “But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.” This was not an abnormal thing for the time, to compare rank and dignity. The operative social system in Jesus’ time was based upon honor and shame. To increase one’s status and standing could be accomplished in a variety of ways, such as affiliating oneself with and serving one of higher status. Argue can also be translated contend or dispute. This is what they fought about—concerned themselves with… status. Doesn’t this sound like us today in the 21st century? Jesus’ told them repeatedly that he would embrace crucifixion, the ultimate act of sacrifice and shame. What irony.

Jesus’ teaching that follows this incident stands in sharp relief to the actions and attitudes of the disciples. In verse 35, Jesus sat down, in the typical posture for a rabbi, and called the disciples. This call of Jesus is laden with meaning. One commentary suggested this may indicate a renewed call to discipleship. He called them to himself. He summoned them.

The summons was, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be last of all and servant of all." What’s going on here? This was a call to a role reversal unlike any other. Here was a summons to service.

Service is good, but is that what most parents think of wanting for their children? We want them to go to school, get a good education, so they can get a good job. Yes, it’s important for them to be happy and to be good people. But to be last, to be servant of all is not the way we would imagine life for our children. It counters the nature of our social order. Jesus’ summons however is to service. It was the call Jesus challenged his disciples to then and it is the call for us as well.

Jesus’ comparing of first and last in this verse is the way one would compare a series of objects or events. (that’s first, second, third, and last…)

What kind of servants is Jesus asking for? This is not the word that is translated as slave in other parts of Scripture. The servant of all is diakonos. It’s the word from which deacon is derived. The servant of a king would be a diakonos. Figuratively speaking it concerns those who advance the interests of others even at the sacrifice of their own welfare. Let us make no mistake…the call, the summons of Jesus is to sacrificial service. In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer offers this perspective, “When Jesus calls us, he bids us come and die.” That is the sort of service to which Jesus calls.

He took a little child and had him stand among them.” Much as the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures did, Jesus acts out a parable. Some of us need to see, not just hear how to do something. Jesus did not have this child stand off at a distance, but among them, in their midst. Such a child was far more than a prop or visual aid, but belonged there, in the home where the teaching was taking place.

Children in Jesus’ culture were not given the type of consideration ours are today. This whole scene has nothing to do with the inherent innocence or faith of children. I can remember many times my own children were anything but innocent. Children were considered weak, insignificant, of low status, nuisances that did nothing useful. They were not considered, but were like non-entities until they grew enough to contribute to society.

Now Jesus takes this one step further, not only did the child stand with Jesus in the midst, but Jesus took the child into his arms. This person of little status and stature, a seeming non-person without rights was embraced by Jesus.

Jesus then proceeds to tell the disciples, 37 "Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me."

In this one statement, Jesus uses “welcome” four times. Just what does this mean? It goes beyond the confines of our words welcome, accept, or receive, but is like receiving a child into one’s family in order to bring up and educate. This is not mere toleration of such little ones, but making them part of your family—those who have nothing to give you in return, who cannot help you get ahead.

In the honor/shame world of Jesus and the disciples, a time when people sought connections to those who could help them achieve a higher station in life, Jesus connected himself with those who could do nothing for him and taught his disciples to do so as well.

There is also an implied hierarchy in this last verse: God with Jesus as representative, Jesus with the apostles as his representatives and so forth. If you receive Jesus, you receive the Father. If the children are welcomed, Jesus is welcomed. If that happens, then the Father is welcomed. If the children, those of low status are welcome, the Father is welcomed. Receiving and serving those the world discounts is welcoming God. Eugene puts it this way, “Alongside the ‘official’ apostles stand the weak and vulnerable, who also mediate the presence of Christ” (p. 281).

As God summons us for service, how will we respond? Will our concern be the pecking order? Are we jockeying for position on one committee as opposed to another to have greater leverage? Or will our concern be how we are to answer Jesus’ call to serve those no one wants any part of? Let us not miss the presence of Christ in all God brings our way. 37 "Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me."

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2 comments:

Jennifer said...

A story sermon, Ivy! How did it go?

Ivy said...

Quite well actually. My classmates were kind and had excellent suggestions.