Sermon for 19th September 2021.
Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
Wisdom 1: 16 – 2:1, 12-22; Mark 9: 30-37
Last week in the gospel, we heard Jesus say, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.” And in today’s gospel the message of future sacrifice and suffering is reinforced when Jesus tells his disciples that he is to be betrayed into human hands and killed, and is to rise again.
Mark goes on to tell us that the disciples didn’t understand what he meant, and were afraid to ask. We thought a bit last week about children being afraid to ask things in class because they might be wrong or made to look silly with their answer. It happens with adults, too.
In fact the discourse in today’s gospel is all about adult and child. There’s the lovely incident of Jesus placing a child amongst the twelve, and saying ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.’ But what led to him doing that was the infantile behaviour of the disciples beforehand.
In the light of gathering opposition, Jesus had just told them that he is about to be mocked, betrayed and killed. Then he catches them arguing about who is the greatest among them. Immaturity indeed, we might think. To change well-known metaphors, it’s could be a bit like officers on the Titanic discussing which of them will be the next captain when the ship is already two-thirds under water. The disciples haven’t grasped the severity of the moment, or what the implications are of being a follower of Jesus.
But it seems no accident that Jesus used a child in his teaching, because he did so on another occasion. Then he said that if one is to enter the kingdom of heaven, one must do so as a child. Not meaning that if you don’t embrace the Christian faith when you are very young you won’t be accepted. No: he is talking about the child-like qualities necessary to be able to receive the message of the gospel.
We need to take up the innocence of a child; to come to our Lord with the same trust with which a child approaches an adult. Many people approach their faith on an intellectual level – and I would count myself as one of those. I love a good discussion about the existence of God, or a passage of scripture or an ethical issue. Of course there is an element of ‘thinking’ in faith, and I often worry about people who don’t seem to do any thinking but accept everything without question. But the intellectual side of faith isn’t the most important.
Jesus wanted his disciples to come to him with their hearts open – with that same level of trust, love and expectation with which a child approaches an adult. The epistle to the Hebrews says that ‘faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.’
A child going to an adult for warmth and affection might well leave the conscious side of self behind. Sometimes you see older children quite happy to be embraced by parents and grandparents, so long as their friends aren’t watching. Such behaviour is not considered to be ‘well cool.’
In the same way, Jesus is saying that when we make the decision to come to him in faith, we have to leave the calculating, self-conscious, holding-back parts of our nature, and take a risk with the humility, innocence and trust of a child. No place, then, for the disciples to be discussing who might be the greatest. Following Jesus will involve a cost – should involve a cost to us, if we take seriously the teaching that whoever wants to be first must be last and the servant of all. As the saying goes – ‘Grace is free, but it’s not cheap.’
What about that chilling passage from the Book of Wisdom - first reading today. All about the wicked who resolve to persecute the just man because his life and words are a reproach to them. It doesn’t seem that the passage was specific about any particular person or situation, but it just describes things as they are. And it’s horrifyingly true to life. We can think of so many good people who were done away with because their lives and deeds were good and were an affront to others. I immediately think of Archbishop Janani Luwum, killed on the orders of General Amin in Uganda in 1977 for daring to criticise things that were going on in the country then. I’m sure you can think of others. “Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions…His manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange….He boasts that God is his father…Let us test him with insult and torture so that we may find out how gentle he is….Let us condemn him to a shameful death.”
The speaker in the passage sees life as chance, its fortunes being measured by what happens here and now, and where might is right. Everybody out for themselves, making pleasure and trying to gain the greatest material profit from life. There are many people who make that their philosophy today. You and I, as Christians, in our own small way, challenge that life view.
The reading from the Sunday sheet, we didn’t use today, from the Epistle of James, talks about the wisdom from above being first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” I hope my own life reflects that.
That little phrase ‘willing to yield’ is surely what Jesus was trying to urge the disciples to do, when he caught them discussing who was the greatest among them. We have to be ‘willing to yield’ so that our Lord can draw near to us; so that he can give us those good things he wishes to.
Notice in the gospel that Jesus took the child in his arms; and in the other gospel account we find him putting his arms around children. If we can forget our modern-day obsession with child protection for a moment, we see a gesture of pure love – where body language speaks loud and clear. It is surprising what wonders can be brought about by gestures of the heart. The writer Dostoevsky once came across a beggar in the street. Dostoevsky had no money with him, and instead embraced the man. To his surprise, the beggar told him that in that self-giving action he had been given more than any money could have given him.
We must learn, like children, to value what cannot be priced, and with the true wisdom that comes from above, to know what is important enough to take risks for, in the name of him who risked everything for us, even life itself.
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