Rev. Ed Searcy
University Hill United Church : Sun, September 24, 2006
Jesus does not stand still. He is always moving on. Passing through. On the way. Today he slips through Galilee incognito. “He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples.” Jesus is not always trying to draw crowds, not when disciple class is in session.“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.” This is the second time Jesus has repeated this lesson. There will be another. He will say it not once, not twice, but three times. It is basic grammar for anyone who would be Jesus’ student. The One long promised by God, the One sent by God to save and heal and redeem and bring justice, the “Son of Man” will be betrayed, humiliated, rejected, killed, defeated by humankind. Three days will pass. Then he will rise again. This is the three day chord progression of the Christian faith. It is the song that weaves together the aching loss of Good Friday, the long silence of Holy Saturday and the impossible surprise of Easter Sunday. This is the plot of Jesus’ future, and of our own. This is the crucial subject matter of Jesus’ disciple classroom. You would think that the classroom will be abuzz with questions, hands up, wanting to understand. The first time Jesus taught this lesson Peter took him aside, trying to shut him up. But Jesus would not be silenced. Now he teaches the lesson again. He invites engagement, dialogue, argument from his dozen proteges. Mark says that Jesus gets none of the above. He tells us that “they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” They are confounded. Befuddled. They do not understand. God’s agent of justice, God’s powerful One, God’s answer to earth’s cry will be a loser. Then the failure will be raised. It makes no sense. They look down at their notes, hoping he doesn’t ask for one of them to summarize the lesson. At least they can claim that this is all new to them. The church we know can hardly make that claim. The crucifixion and resurrection is the storyline of countless hymns and sermons and theology classes. Yet understanding this paradox does not come easily. We imagine that if only we had been there at the beginning, if only we could listen to the words coming from Jesus’ own mouth and ask him all of our questions then we would understand. But Mark says it has never beeneasy for those who follow Jesus to understand the path of trouble and loss and suffering that he must take. There is a strange comfort in our inability to understand. After all, if Jesus thinks it is worth his while to tutor the original twelve who do not understand perhaps our own stumbling attempts to follow do not discourage him. The class does not ask Jesus any questions for clarification because they are afraid. Are they afraid of Jesus? Perhaps. They have seen him harshly rebuke Peter, calling him Satan to his face. Maybe Jesus is not always as “gentle, meek and mild” as the Sunday school portraits picture him. Or maybe they are afraid to ask him because they don’t want to understand. Perhaps they realize that if his future is troubled and dark that any who follow him must also travel towards a troubled, dark horizon. Maybe they are not afraid of Jesus. Maybe they are afraid of their own future. Maybe that is the reason that they change the subject as they travel. They arrive back in Capernaum and are inside “the house” (what house, we wonder) when Jesus asks them: “What were you arguing about on the way?” Stony silence. No one says a word. They look at the floor. They stare at the ceiling. Were they arguing about the theological meaning of the Messiah’s impending suffering and death? Were they wrestling out the implications of a theology of the cross for the life of discipleship in the world? No. They were battling over which of them is the greatest. It seems impossibly silly. How stupid can they be? They are like children on a playground with their sing-song “I’m the king of the castle”. It is so ridiculous. Twelve disciples each convinced that their own personal walk is more faithful than the next. Imagine. Imagine twelve denominations, twelve traditions, twelve congregations following Jesus. Twelve. Let’s see. Can we name twelve? Baptist. Roman Catholic. Anglican. Pentecostal. Lutheran. Mennonite. Presbyterian. Eastern Orthodox. Methodist. Salvation Army. Disciples of Christ. United. Imagine these twelve arguing about which is most faithful, which is most orthodox, which is closest to Jesus, which is most progressive on the way with Jesus. Well, actually, we don’t have to imagine that. That argument is a pretty fair description of the infighting in the classroom of Christian faith. And it is ridiculous. Which is exactly what Jesus thinks. No one answers his question. None of his churches will admit to his face that they claim superiority over his other churches. When he asks we are ashamed to tell him the truth. But he knows. He is not in the dark. Every time he tries to lead the church on his way of suffering it wanders off seeking greatness and success and acclaim, trying to win the religion battle and be the best. Every time it wanders he sits down and calls the twelve and says: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Notice how often Jesus inverts the common sense categories of culture, turning everything that we take for granted upside down. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a great overturning of our expectations and assumptions. It is no surprise that learning this gospel life does not come naturally or easily. It always confounds and befuddles. Any church that lives this gospel in its life is a surprising upside-down people whose prevailing common sense reverses the assumptions of the neighbourhood. Take being first, for example. Jesus does not say that wanting to be first is bad. He doesn’t invite his disciples to live mediocre lives void of any desire to attain greatness. But he does radically relocate the position of first place. He does not look to the top of the heap to crown the best and the brightest. He does not look to the front of the line to hand over the gold medal. Jesus gives first place to the one who is “last of all and servant of all”. Not servant of many, last of quite a few. Servant of all. Last of all. Jesus says that God is turning all of our categories upside-down. The Son of Man will lose. He will be a suffering servant. He will redefine greatness. With God the Son of Man is first. Among mortals he is viewed as last and least. Jesus says that his greatest church, his first church, is the one that is regarded as last among the congregations, as the humble servant of all the other churches. This is the reason that we call what we do as disciples of Jesus “ministry”. It is the reason that I am called a “minister”. Ministry sounds holy and religious. Being called a minister sounds important and reverential. Besides, it helps us to forget that in Latin “minister” means servant. Servant sounds much less impressive than minister. Servants don’t get nameplates on their door or business cards to hand out or special parking places reserved for them. They don’t get fancy titles like “Reverend Doctor”. I think that we would benefit greatly if we began translating the Latin into English. I think that from now on when people use Latin to ask who the “minister” is at University Hill, you should answer in plain English: “The name of the servant at UHill is Ed Searcy.” I’m not sure that Jesus is getting through to the disciples. Mark does not record the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ one line lesson (What was it, again?). But he does tell us what happens next: “Then he took a little child and put it among them, and taking it in his arms”. Jesus enacts the upside-down kingdom of God. He inverts the world of the 1st Century. In that world old age is given high honour. The older the elder, the more revered is the person. In those days it takes until young adulthood to be considered a member of the family. When Jesus puts a little child among his disciples and then takes that toddler in his arms he creates havoc and controversy. He is taking a forgotten one, an ignored one, a useless one, a discarded one and giving her priority and seniority. This is regularly a proof text for us. We use it to remind ourselves that little children rightly have priority and seniority in Jesus’ circle of disciples. This is true. But there is a problem with this text. In our time older age does not equal higher honour. Perhaps here and now Jesus brings a forgotten, crippled elder in her wheel chair from the nursing home and places her in the midst of the church and then takes her in his arms. Jesus holds the last and least close. He is last of all and servant of all. This makes him first and it makes him greatest. Then Jesus says to his congregation: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Four times Jesus uses the word “welcome”. It is a word that literally means “your arrival is a pleasure”. The church has often advertised “All are welcome” but it has not always greeted the arrival of the lost and least with genuine pleasure. At times strangers are ignored and avoided. At other times hospitality becomes a technique used to build up membership and income when Jesus intends it to be a holy encounter. Jesus makes a dramatic theological claim about the act of welcoming an other. He says that those who long to meet Jesus, to know him and to welcome him can do so here, now. More than that, Jesus says that those who long to meet God, to know God and to welcome God are closer than they ever imagined to the Maker and Redeemer of all. He says that welcoming the last and the least in his name - in the name of the one who is last of all and servant of all - is to welcome him and, in welcoming him, to host God. The great gift of this invitation is that it can be practiced at any time, in any place. You can welcome the lost and least in your neighbourhood and at your office, in your classroom and in this congregation, at your supper table and within your own soul. Jesus Christ is close. He waits to be welcomed. He is also seeking, looking, longing to welcome ... to welcome you ... and to hold you close. Here. Now.