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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.”
A couple of weeks ago, our very own Jeff McLaughlin shared with council an encounter he had with a work colleague. During a conversation, his colleague said this:
Jeff, I was worried about working with you because you’d come from a Christian college.
“Really?” Jeff said.
Yeah, I figured you would have no sense of humor.
“Ha! I think I do.” Jeff said.
Yeah, you do. You’re also not so judge-y like I’d thought you’d be.
You’re also not so judge-y like I’d thought you’d be. That line stood out to Jeff. And he asked us, “Where have we gone wrong when that’s the first thing people think about when they hear the word ‘Christian’?” We’re getting a bad rep out their folks.
In fact, there is whole book out there right now, called UnChristian, which is about how most young people these days think Christians are un-Christian. That we are judgmental and hypocritical. And apparently, we have no sense of humor.
Is that what it means to be a Christian? Is that why you are a Christian?
So, why are you a Christian then?
Really. Why are you a Christian? I think it is a question that is worth asking ourselves.
In fact, that very question is at the heart of a conference that gathered this past weekend in the Twin Cities. A conference appropriately called WHY CHRISTIAN. It asked the question: when there are so many reasons not to be Christian – like centuries of corruption and scandal, hypocrisy, and crusades – why do we continue to follow Jesus?
I couldn’t attend, of course. Here at St. John’s we had the task of saying farewell to Kenneth Jennings as we entrusted him into God’s good care on Friday. And we had the task of saying hello to Gretchen Colby Rode as we welcomed her into the fold of ordained ministry on Saturday.
But thanks to Facebook and Twitter, I could get the highlights of the conference pretty easily. And some of the presenters’ answers stood out to me.
Why am I still a Christian? One said, “Because baptism gives me an identity that no one can take away: beloved child of God.” (Rachel Held Evans)
Why am I still a Christian? Another said, “I’m Christian because I need the gospel to see the world differently than I tend too. I need the gospel to see others differently than I tend to. And I need the gospel to see myself differently than I tend to.” (Paraphrase of three statements Nadia Bolz-Weber made).
So it got me asking the question –Why Christian? Why am I Christian?
And I think I found my answer. I can’t take credit for it because a friend said it, but it rings true for me too. Why am I a Christian? Because if there is a god – then I want a god who is like Jesus (Alan Storey). Not to get into Heaven. Not because I think it makes me a moral person. But I’m Christian because if there is a god (which tells you that sometime I wonder about that too), then I want a god who is like Jesus.
So what is Jesus like? That what I want to do with today’s gospel. I want to use it as a lens for us to see what Jesus is like…so that we might then see what god is like. Because there are some things that we learn about Jesus – and therefore about God – in this text that make me want to keep being a Christian.
The gospel began with this phrase, “They went on from there …” They went on. If you pay close attention in the gospel of Mark, Jesus and the disciples are constantly on the move. It reads almost like a travel log of all these places they’re going to and coming from. Jesus keeps his disciples always on the move. Which is to say that Jesus never lets the disciples get too comfortable where they are at. He never lets them settle down in one place.
And maybe that is a metaphor for us. Jesus will never let us get too comfortable. Jesus will not let us stand still. We don’t say that we are people who stand beside Jesus. No, we say we are followers of Jesus, which means Jesus is going somewhere. And he is taking us with him.
If that’s what Jesus is like, then that’s what God is like, and I want a god who will never let me get too comfortable.
So Jesus and his disciples, they’re on the road. The road of faith. And Jesus starts to teach them, and he says to them for the second time about himself, “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.”
The first thing I notice is that it is human hands that kill Jesus. Human hands can kill God. And I have human hands. And so do you. Which reminds me that I have been entrusted by God with an incredible amount of power – power for good and power for great evil.
And notice that when Jesus speaks of his impending murder, he makes no mention of retaliation. In a kill or be killed kind of world, Jesus – therefore God – would rather be killed, than to kill.
And so we learn that the way of discipleship, the way of following Jesus, is one that bends towards non-violence. And I need to be reminded of that. Especially when I want to kill with my words. Like the James reading from last week warned, too often, we use our words to “curse those who are made in the image of God,” which is everyone, by the way.
There is no mention of retaliation, just simply that Jesus will rise again. Which goes to show that you cannot kill that kind of love Jesus has for this world.
So Jesus warned the disciples that following him is dangerous, it leads to the cross. And they didn’t understand. Again.
And what we learn from that is that Jesus spends his time with people who don’t understand him. And if God is like Jesus, than God spends time with people who don’t understand God. Thank God! So if you don’t know if you understand this whole faith/church/Jesus thing, you’re in good company. You’re in the company of Jesus. Because Jesus hangs out with those who don’t understand.
So, the disciples don’t get it, but they continue on. But while on the way, the disciples start arguing about who is the greatest.
Now, we’ve always been taught to hear that as if the disciples are arguing for themselves as the greatest. I’m the greatest! No, I’m the greatest! No, no, no, please, I’m the greatest! But what if that’s not how it went? I mean, what if these disciples were from Minnesota, where we tend to be nicer about things. You’re the greatest! No, you’re the greatest!
You never know. It could have happened that way.
But here is the thing, if I ever think I’m the greatest it’s never because I actually think I’m the greatest. It’s usually more that I think I’m the worst or not good enough. And it’s because of that that I try to convince myself who I’m better than. I don’t know about you but I spend more time thinking that people are better than me than I do thinking I’m better than someone else. I’m more likely to think lowly of myself than I am to think highly of myself.
So, who knows how the disciples were arguing about it. Either way, they were wrong in trying to divide themselves into who was the best and who wasn’t. And they knew it.
But then the text says that Jesus sat down and he gathers these arrogant and insecure disciples around. And sitting in that culture is the traditional position of teaching. He’s already taught them and they got wrong. So he teaches them again. And again. And again.
What we learn from this is that when we get it wrong, Jesus will spend time to teach us how to do it right. Again and again and again. A good teacher is always willing to keep teaching. On the way of faith and life, God will continue to teach you, even when you get it wrong.
And so what does Jesus teach them? He says that whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.
Jesus reminds them, and us, that the way of life is not to be first. But it is to be last. To serve.
And then he takes a child in his arms. And what we too often forget is that back then a child was the lowest of the low. They were nobodies. They were expendable. Even the text reflect this. It says, “Then Jesus took a little child and put it among them.” It. He put it among them as if this child is a thing and not a human being. That’s how they were viewed back then. But then Jesus does this radical thing – he takes the child in his arms and close to his chest and declares that whoever welcomes such a lowly being as a child, welcomes him. And whoever welcomes him, welcomes God.
So what we learn is that to be a follower of Jesus is to welcome the lowly. Even if it is our selves that we think are lowly. And when we welcome that one – the last person on earth we would want to welcome – then we’ve welcomed God. We learn that Jesus is always trying to stretch our boundaries of who is in and who is out so that no one is ever out.
In just these 7 verses, I’ve learned that Jesus will never let me get too comfortable where I’m at in life. But rather, he will continue to push and nudge me to see and live into a grace and love that is wider than I can imagine. I learned that Jesus would rather be killed by those made in the image of God, then retaliate against those made in the image of God. I learned that Jesus stays with those who don’t understand him. And he continues to teach them, even when they get it wrong. And Jesus turns this world on its head when he tells his followers to be last instead of first, and to welcome the lowest of the low.
If there is a god, than I want a god who is like that Jesus.
So there you go. That’s why I am a Christian. Because I believe that God is like Jesus. And to quote another speaker from this weekend, I’m willing to risk being wrong about that. I’m willing to spend my life being wrong about that. (Rachel Held Evans) Not because it means I get to spend my life in a cloud of false hope, but because it means I get to view the world as a place that is profoundly loved and never abandoned and never without hope. And that, I think, is worth being wrong about. Amen.