September 23, 2018

THE REV. ROBERTO DESANDOLI

Jeremiah 11: 18-20
Psalm 1
James 3: 13-4: 3, 7-8a
Mark 9: 30-37

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Warm Welcome

Mark 9:30-37

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 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.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. (James 3: 13-14)

“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: 35-37)

In the readings we have just heard this morning from the Epistle of James and the Gospel of Mark, we have heard two disciple-making lessons on what it means to work for Christ and what it means to welcome one another in Christ’s name.

In his letter, the Apostle James makes the point that it is not whether we work or how we work that matters but most-importantly for whom we work that shows we are doing our work in the world as Christians.  James instructs that we must work with gentleness born of the wisdom we have found (in Christ), rather than out of bitter envy or selfish ambition.

In our Gospel lesson this morning from Mark, Jesus teaches the disciples that in order to become the greatest they must put aside their competition for honour and welcome others freely in His name.

Between these two texts, we are invited to look within ourselves, into our motivations, into our faith; to find how WE are working and welcoming for Christ.

Now, lest we think Jesus came to offer us an easy Gospel or a light cross; lest we think Jesus came to reassure us that what we feel like doing anyway happens to fall in line with the Gospel, Mark makes it clear that this is not the case.  This is how the reading begins this morning:

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 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.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

When we meet Jesus and the disciples this morning, Jesus is (as usual for Mark’s Gospel), trying to teach the disciples who He is and not getting as far as He would like.

Jesus was attempting to give a preview of his death and resurrection:

The Son of man will be betrayed into human hands

            They will kill him

            and three days after being killed, he will rise again.

This is the Good News of Jesus Christ in maybe as few words as possible.

Christ is here. Christ will go to the cross for our sins. Christ will rise again at Easter. Christ invites us to follow him and join Him.

This is the Good News that unites us into Christ and Christ into us. It is the presence of God among us, the passion and salvation of the cross, and the glory of the resurrection.

This story, this Gospel, has saved countless lives, it has affected world history more than any other event, it has shaped nations and languages and art and music, this Gospel of salvation and resurrection is—to put it mildly—a big deal.

Mark tells us that in response to this Good News and this Gospel:

“The disciples did not understand and were afraid to ask him.”

How can it be that the disciples were willing to follow Jesus across the country and to spend time learning at His feet if they did not understand his good news and were afraid to ask him?

What had kept them going so far?

How had they given up the lives they knew, their livelihood, and their homes to follow Jesus and yet did not understand why they had been called?

This question is of course directed not only at the disciples but at us:

Is it possible to think of ourselves as followers of Jesus and to forget the Gospel?

If we aren’t following Jesus out of a conviction to become like Christ; to give of ourselves, to forgo selfish reasons, to support Christ’s mission of reconciliation with the world, what are we motivated by?

Why are we working so hard if we’re not working for the right reasons?

This is where we meet James this morning. James, in his letter to the twelve tribes, gives instruction on these same questions:

On examining our motivations

On tracking our development in becoming like Christ; “becoming last and servant of all” for the sake of the Gospel.

James tells us to exercise wisdom, and to forego selfish ambition and envy while practicing works.

One might say that between these two readings, James is focused on promoting right works and “works done in the right way for the right reasons” in order to avoid the wiles of the Devil while Jesus is interested in promoting Godly works of self-giving for God’s sake.

James asks us to control our sin.

Jesus asks us to be righteousness.

Now even though we are Presbyterian, even though we prefer Calvin’s insistence on the importance of Grace over Works, we would do well to remember James’ caution that faith without works is dead.

We are—at some level—required by our nature to participate in works, not just because we are Christians, not just because we are saved and redeemed, not just because we are loved by God, but also because we are human beings, we are alive;

Through simply being alive, being active, and being present in the world, we are required to participate in works; whether righteous or unrighteous, whether with and through Christ, or through selfish human ambition.

While James’ instruction to the twelve tribes in dispersia are specifically about God and about Christ and about avoiding the temptations of ambition and envy, he is broad in his wonderings on works:

-How does one practise works faithfully?

-How does one know whether or not one is seeking to honour God or merely honour oneself through their works?

-How does one check one’s own envy and ambition at the door when seeking to practice faith and how can one know if he or she is successful in doing this?

James taught that in order to avoid the temptations of the devil, we must draw close to God, we must ensure that we do our works of faith not for honour but for God’s Glory.

James teaches us that it is not necessarily about what we work at but about why and for whom we do the work.

What is most interesting, most wonderful, and most Christ-like in James’ teaching on works is that the apostle does not assume we will immediately be able to become like Christ.  There is some good Presbyterian-style Grace in his preaching:

Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. (James 3: 13-14)

Show by your good life, by the freedom given you by God that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.  Show by the life you have been given by Grace that your good works are a faithful response to your Lord!

James taught that in order to avoid the temptations of the devil, we must draw close to God, we must ensure that we do our works of faith not for honour but for God’s Glory alone.

James teaches us that it is not necessarily about what we work at but about why and for whom we do the work.

But…

But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts do not be boastful.

James does NOT say that those with bitter envy and selfish ambition, those with human tendencies and human sins are not welcome to participate in Christ’s mission.

Christ understands our limitation, God can still do great things with flawed, imperfect people (I’m fond of saying that that is God’s favorite medium to work in); these things exist within us and we are redeemed by Christ.

Returning to Mark’s text, as Jesus and the disciples were travelling to Capernaum, the disciples spoke to one another in a way that proved how much they needed to learn this lesson and how much they needed this redemption.

Mark tells us that as the disciples were travelling (as they were literally walking in Jesus footsteps) they were further proving that they did not understand the Gospel.

33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.

If nothing else, the disciples are consistent this morning by answering Jesus with loud silence.  First in His teachings about the Son of Man, and now in their refusal to admit what they were arguing about.

Now immediately we see a problem:

On this day, none of the disciples have shown that they understand the Gospel

Not only have they shown their lacking in understanding but they have also been arguing amongst themselves.

If their master were anyone but Jesus they would have received a strong rebuke:

“How do you all fail to know me and yet boast of yourselves as my disciples!”

“How do you all fail the test and then argue about who gets the A+?”

Anyone but Jesus would not have responded with such mercy.  But—of course—it was Jesus.

35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

In this gentle teaching, Jesus shows not only his mercy but his grace.

I recently heard a clever definition of these two words:

“Mercy is not getting what we deserve”

“Grace is getting what we do not deserve” (x2)

If Jesus were not Grace itself and Mercy itself, the disciples would have gotten what they deserved.  They would have been rebuked for this lack of understanding, for their lack of ability to ask, and their boastful and envious ambitions about who among them was greatest.

And so would we.

That is, if Jesus were not Grace and Mercy themselves. But of course, he is.

And this is Good News not only for the disciples but for all people.

The terms Good News and Gospel are oftentimes difficult to grasp. We hear preachers and evangelists talk about “The Good News of Jesus Christ” or the “The Gospel of Jesus,” often without defining them or helping us to learn more about them.

On these days we probably feel a bit like the disciples: lacking in understanding and afraid to ask. And if we do not understand, what faith can we have that we will do right works or live in right ways?

As it turns out, the faith we find to do this belongs to Christ himself.

In showing mercy and grace and guidance to the disciples, Christ shows the same to us.

35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

All of us, as imperfect people, as modern-day disciples, live with the temptation to insist on ourselves.  We are tempted to make our lives all about us, we are tempted to work, not for the Gospel, but for selfish ambition and out of bitter envy, we are tempted to argue amongst one another about who is greatest among us.

 

And even when we are—at last—given Jesus’ graceful and merciful answer to our misguided questions, we are tempted to believe that when Jesus was talking about “a child” he wasn’t talking about us.

[pause]

Friends, this is the Good News for us this morning.  This is the Gospel we can have faith in.

That even though there is always one more sin or temptation to trip us up on the way to understanding the Gospel, there is also always one more opportunity to turn around and believe again.

Truly, Christ does have confidence in us as partners in His ministry but we fail to understand the depth of His love if we do not see ourselves as the child before we see ourselves as the disciples.

We are Christ’s modern day disciples, we are James’ modern day audience.  We do our best to follow Jesus and to understand the Gospel but we are always in need of more guidance, more grace, and more mercy.  We may—as the disciples were—be tempted to think that because we know Christ and because we walk behind him, are somehow less limited by sin and selfishness than others, but this is not the case.

We are able to welcome a child in Christ’s name because Christ has first welcomed us as children.  As children of every age, from every place, with every kind of faith and experience.

Like James’ audience, we are tempted and convinced of our limitations; even to the point of being in conflict with one another.

Like the disciples in Mark’s Gospel, we too are on the road and trying to follow Christ; with imperfect understanding, with imperfect courage, with imperfect faith.

In Christ, we have been given not only mercy, not only grace, not only forgiveness, but also an opportunity to participate in His Mission:

As Children of God we are encouraged to invite others to follow Jesus. Not because we understand perfectly or follow perfectly. Not because our works are blameless and pure. Not because we are perfectly merciful and gracious, but because Christ is.

Amen.

 

 

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