Nothing more, nothing less!
A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by Andrew McKearney on 23 September 2018
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus tries on 3 occasions to teach his disciples about the centrality of the cross and how he is going to be rejected in Jerusalem, flogged, spat on and killed.
The first time Peter rebukes Jesus only for Jesus to reply:
‘Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not
on divine things but on human things.’
Today we’ve heard what happened the second time Jesus tries to teach the disciples about the cross. Mark writes:
‘They did not understand what he was saying and were
afraid to ask him.’
Perhaps they were fearful that they too might end up rebuked.
Keep your head down!
Then when Jesus spells it out for the third time, James and John the sons of Zebedee come forward to ask Jesus a favour:
‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your
left in your glory.’
Dear oh dear!
Its interesting that after both the second and the third attempts by Jesus to teach the disciples about what lay ahead for him, both these times the disciples start talking about status and honour. It seems extraordinary to us!
Why do they do it?
An important event in Jesus’ ministry has taken place after the first mention of the cross and before these next two occasions. Jesus has taken Peter, James and John up a high mountain apart, by themselves where he is transfigured before them. In this vision that is granted only to these three disciples, they catch a glimpse of Christ in glory – what we call the Transfiguration. And this may help explain their subsequent preoccupations that appear to us so crass.
The vision was granted to only Peter, James and John. Perhaps there is a pecking order in Christ’s kingdom?
If there is a kingdom coming then there are important positions to be allocated. How is that going to be decided?
And at the very least, if Jesus is soon to die, as he keeps saying he is, then someone’s going to have to take over from him. Perhaps it will be him, or her, or me?
Mmmm….which one of us is the greatest?
This may perhaps help us understand the mindset of the disciples and their, to us, offensive preoccupation with status and honour!
Its important also to remember that their society was much more hierarchical than ours now is. Indeed a modern, western, liberal, democratic society has come on a long journey from a previous society that has been much more structured and hierarchical, concerned with status and honour. Think of Jane Austen.
Not that these things aren’t still important to us – what is our celebrity culture about if not about status and honour.
So while the society that Jesus lived in was a more overtly hierarchical society than our own, we know that he’s touching something deep within all of us when he says:
‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant
Words clearly fail to convey the full importance of what Jesus is getting at when he talks about being a servant, so he resorts to symbolic actions.
He might take off his outer robe, tie a towel around himself and wash his disciples’ feet. He might take a little child and put it among them and then take it in his arms. That’s what we heard him do this time and on a number of other occasions too – Jesus turns to a child – and to understand why he does this we have to remember how children were viewed in his society.
They lacked all social status – there was nothing to be gained socially or materially from kindness to a child.
They lacked all legal status – a child was a non-person in an adult world.
And Jesus turns this world upside down, placing a non-person in the midst of his disciples to teach them about the kingdom he’s bringing to them. These non-persons are not just his representatives, he says, but even more astonishingly representatives of God:
‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever welcome me welcomes not
me but the one who sent me.’
And do you remember when people were trying to get past the disciples to bring these non-persons to be blessed by Jesus and he says to the disciples:
‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them;
for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven
And do you remember also when Jesus prayed:
‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because
you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent
and have revealed them to infants.’
And then finally there’s the time when Jesus says:
‘Whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little
child, will never enter it.’
Before God we are little children without any claim to status or honour – God’s belovèd children!
Nothing more, nothing less!