The shortest distance between two points is the length of the line segment connecting them. Here the distance from heaven to earth is measured in the meaning of ‘welcome’. Power in the power of invitation is good news for the community of faith, for you.
Synoptic Gospel passages, like this one, have usually a quadraphonic complexion. Like a fine hymn, lifted to the praise of God, Mark 9: 30 welcomes us in four part harmony. There is a soprano voice, that of Jesus of Nazareth. The alto, arguably the most important voice, wells up from the diaphragm of the earliest church, which formed and fashioned these passages for its own needs. Mark himself is the tenor voice, the author, the evangelist, weaving past memory into the fabric of present need. You and I complete the baritone line, stretching across two thousand years of clefs and scales and chords.
We want to be sure to honor each voice, as we listen for the divine word. Admittedly, though the musicology of the gospels is well known, few pulpits regularly enjoy the full range of the music in the Gospel. The one dimensional culture around, the drive to black and white distinctions, the need for certainty in a fear driven society, the unwillingness to admit that there is much gray, and that ‘now we see in a mirror dimly’—in short, our flat screen view of life mitigates against a textured hearing. What a loss! The Bible has as story too!
Although the Gospels were not written as histories, they surely rest upon an historical base. The Gospel of Mark proclaims Jesus as the Christ, crucified. Yet, underneath, or behind this proclamation, there looms some shadowy recollection of Jesus, and his words and his deeds. Now, I must confess that, as your current preacher and pastor, I bring a minimalist perspective to the question of what we can know, for sure, about Jesus, and his words and his deeds. Let me take you around this once more, to be clear. Some history of Jesus is contained here in Mark 9. It comes, though, in a certain package, namely the memory of Jesus which the early church needed, and needed to use. The higher pitched duet of soprano and alto, Jesus and early church, lovely it is, is also very difficult to distinguish, voice by voice.
A few years ago, we had a nationwide flattening of the Scripture in the phrase ‘what would Jesus do?’ The gospels are written around another question, raised by the early church, a much more nuanced and careful question; ‘what would Jesus have us do?’
Still, the soprano voice of the historical Jesus sounds forth. Here, one might posit, Jesus is remembered, as elsewhere, to have acclaimed service and to have loved children. We sing together of both. The greatness of those who would serve, and the divine preference for the least and the littlest have ample visibility in the gospel records. Jesus taught the value of service, as many teachers, ancient and modern, have also done. Jesus celebrated the life of children, as many teachers, ancient and modern, have also done.
Though primary, this voice is regularly the weakest in the gospel harmony. Our own tradition of interpretation, the ringing voice of the gospel author, and especially the formative influence of the fixing of memory by the earliest church, all conspire to muffle, mute and almost quiet the originary voice of the Nazarene.
When in our worship this is forgotten, danger and even disaster follow. Go and buy an exemplary book by one of our Boston University colleagues, Stephen Prothero, American Jesus, which provides a devastating review, highly readable, of American religious conjectures and fictional portraits of Jesus. Jesus the pioneer. Jesus the businessman. Jesus the androgyne. Jesus the muscleman. Jesus the Mormon. Jesus the revolutionary. Jesus, as in Salman’s head of Christ, the long haired European. More than a careful, minimal assessment of what Jesus said, and did, opens a religious Pandora’s box. We do not know what Jesus would do, in part because we do not know what he did.
One hundred years ago, Albert Schweitzer did show this in his Quest of the Historical Jesus. He looked back at 19th century historical study of the life of Jesus and found that scholars found what they wanted to find. So the churchman found Jesus to be an ecclesiastical leader. The bohemian saw in Jesus a free spirit. The Marxist painted him as proletarian. The conservative, as a conservative. The liberal as a liberal. Beware an overly carefully drawn portrait of the Man who stilled the waters. Schweitzer left the New Testament for Africa. He left the reading of theology for the living of theology. He went to heal children and to serve. ‘He comes to us as one unknown…’
The passage that begins at 9:33 was probably a list of instructions that Mark had inherited from the early church. This in itself, for those of us listening for good news in century 21, carries thrill. We are listening in upon a conversation from the middle of the first century! The language of the passage, a regular reminder here helps, is common Greek, the language of bills of lading, of general commerce, of death certificates, of letters, of news and announcements. Jesus spoke no Greek. Another generation, another society, communicating in a different setting and especially in a different language, has shaped the passages that came into Mark’s hands.
The needs of the church, not unlike our needs today, pressed upon the community of those who had committed themselves to the Crucified. Now it is not very hard to identify what these issues were. Power and weakness, authority and authenticity, internal leadership and external care. Anyone who has been around religious life, or life, will testify to the endless contention and intractable difference lurking in every budding congregation committed to love. In the struggles of the early church—over leadership and welcome—this collection of sayings and instructions found its birth. There are clues that set off these passages as later constructions, significantly later than the walks along the roads of Galilee that Jesus and his disciples surely took. Capernaum, in Galilee, was a reminder to the many Greeks that Jesus took interest in the land of the non-Jews, Galilee of the Gentiles. Also, when Jesus is portrayed as advancing toward the disciples (as he is here, questioning rather than responding), the interests of the early church are being carried forward with his question.
The two issues here, practically speaking, future preachers of America take note, are the hallmarks of pain in pastoral ministry. Who has authority? Who is in and who is out? Leadership and welcome. Every church issue since King David slew Uriah the Hittite can be traced roughly to authority and inauguration, power and welcome. In trying, probably with limited success, to address these issues, unknown memories and unseen voices recalled and applied memories to needs.
Who is to lead? Did not Jesus acclaim service? Did Jesus not live a life of servant suffering? This will be our way, too.
Who is welcome? Did not Jesus embrace children? Did not children, the weakest and least and least powerful become for him the sign of the divine? This will be our way, too. The church opens to all, particularly the least, last and lost. ‘As you have done it to the littlest (gk) of these, you have done it to me…’ (MT25).
This morning you see the stoles worn here, signs of yokes, of humble service. I asked my mentor what was the single hardest thing about ministry? He said, ‘remembering that ministry is service’.
This morning you see the windows and doors of an open church, open especially and pointedly to those who differ, those who are fewer, those who are weaker and littler in every regard. I asked my dad once what hope our church had. He said, ‘well, we have tried to remember the poor.’ Anyone who has ever had issues with authority has good company here. Anyone who has ever struggled with inclusion has good company here. Hail Alto, full of grace, the Lord is with thee…
Mark has taken the tradition before him into a new fight. Yes, he with us will affirm the bedrock yes to service and love of children, with our Lord Jesus. Yes, Mark with us will slake our communal thirst on the record that others too struggle over leadership and inclusion. But Mark has other fish to fry, too. He composes a short introduction to this passage, that places all that came before in a new light. He makes these stories to serve his larger war against the disciples.
In Mark, the disciples are ‘reprobates’ (Weeden). They just do not ever get it. They misunderstand. They misinterpret. They willfully disagree and disregard Jesus and his teaching. Jesus must regularly condemn them, often in terms harsher than those used against the Pharisees. The disciples are McHale’s Navy, the crew of the Titanic, the captain of the Minnow headed for Gilligan’s island. You miss the Mark in Mark if you miss this. He hates the disciples, and attacks them at every point. Why?
The disciples represent for Mark those in his own church who are interested in glory. Jesus here is Mark’s voice, reminding his own people of the way of the cross. The disciples are those miracle loving, glory seeking, happy and easy living, strong and handsome and beautiful emerging ‘leaders’ in the church at Rome. After all, Rome was the center, and used to the best. Why not in the church as well?
Mark’s opponents want ease. Jesus speaks of suffering. Mark’s ‘disciples’ garner power. Jesus speaks of weakness. Mark’s foils and foiled disciples expect that faith will ever and always empower, heal, help, enrich, enhance, embolden. Jesus says again: ‘here comes betrayal, here comes struggle, here comes suffering, here comes the cross.’ “The evangelist, here and elsewhere, is intentionally attacking the disciples (they want power, they refuse humility, they do not suffer children, they do not welcome)” (Weeden, Traditions in Conflict).
How you lead your life is directly dependent upon how you view the Christ of God. Christology forms discipleship. A Christ of great fame, fortune, future—this Christ will create a certain kind of discipleship, a discipleship of glory. To this, elsewhere and similarly, Paul, Apostle said, ‘suffering produces endurance, endurance character, character hope, and hope does not disappoint’. Just remember Ecclesiastes 9:11.
Bring us home bass section.
The echo of Jesus’ faint voice in acclaim of service and children gives us courage to acclaim service and children. The early church’s ready attention to power and weakness, insiders and outsiders, leadership and welcome gives us courage this week to give ready attention to the ways we use power and include others. Most especially, Mark’s savage attack upon the characters he constructs as the Twelve for their theology of glory gives us courage this week to sacrifice authority for authenticity, to measure our worth as individuals, churches, societies by how we treat the littlest and weakest among us.
In other words, we have responsibility imaginatively to interpret and apply the gospel to our very lives. Here is a fine definition of pastoral imagination: “In a pastoral, priestly, or rabbinic imagination, this is the capacity to see a biblical text the form of a sermon, or in the depths of a fractured relationship clues to reconciliation; to hear in an ancient prayer the voices of those who have prayed it through the centuries; in the act of a child’s generosity a vision for the stewardship of the earth”. (Foster, Educating Clergy, 323.
The measure of university success, on this model, is measured in the freshman dorm first, and at the alumni weekend last. The measure of church success, on this model, is measured by just how much welcome we extend to those who can do nothing for us, at least until they grow up.
The line segment of life is from God’s heaven to a child’s earth, from cloud to cheek, passing through Christ. This means change, toward service and toward hospitality. 150 years after Mark, an ancient document called the Acts of Philip said it this way: ‘unless you change your down to up and up to down and left to right and right to left you shall not enter my kingdom of heaven’.
We may some encouragement here. Those who are wrestling with just how to use the measures of power afforded them may contemplate 35, “whoever wants to be first must be last and servant of all”. Those pondering just how wide to cast the net for that next invitation may contemplate 37, “whoever welcomes a child welcomes God”.
Welcome, Mark 9
What did Jesus say and when did he say it? Bultmann….
Two sayings, authority and welcome coupled. Why? Why was this good news for the community? Power and weakness…polemic against a conservative Jewish Christian group…
How does this fit into the role envisioned by Mark for the disciples? Weeden
Core: the first shall be last, and the last first…”In Mark, Galilee is a theological-geographical sphere…” Disciples monopolize Mark’s attention…Disciples gray, with mass white and establishment black…
How did the rest of the NT, and the Fathers, handle this? How about the other texts?
AND SO WHAT FOR US?
How shall we think about the ruins of the church, and about Marsh as not the biggest but the best (music, liturgy, preaching).
What about children, then and now? What does the symbol mean?