Sermons That Work

What Does It Mean to Welcome…, Proper 20 (B) – 2003

September 21, 2003

What does it mean to welcome others in Jesus’ Name?

Two powerful images confront the reader and student of today’s Gospel: one is our desire (unchanged through the ages) to be first and to be right; and the second is our reluctance to enter fully into the terror and sadness of the incarnation.

The passages in the Gospels where Jesus foretells his own passion are heartbreaking, as is the one today. What did this knowledge of betrayal do to the sensitive heart of the one who felt human pain and betrayal more deeply than anyone else ever has?

Jesus knows what effect his manner of life and his teaching are having on those who do not want to be confronted with their own hardness of heart. He knows that the world has not received kindly those who tell the truth, and he is grieving over the impending rejection of his person and message. On a later occasion recorded by St. Mark he names those who want to do away with him — the chief priests and scribes who will condemn him to death and then turn him over to the gentiles who will abuse and then kill him.

The other heartbreaking element in these passages is that the disciples simply don’t get it. “They did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” There is an acute poignancy in this passage. Jesus has been with the crowds and has responded to their great needs by offering healing and release to the tormented people who came to him. But now he wants his friends to himself. They pass through Galilee, the evangelist tells us, but “He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples. . .” This is a crucial time for Jesus. He is telling his disciples something tragic and inevitable about himself, and they don’t understand. He wants to be alone with those he has chosen, to prepare them for the sorrow and shock of his arrest and death; maybe he also longs to receive the human understanding that is so necessary to every person, the assurance that at least these, his best friends, care for what he is showing them about God’s kingdom, so that they can carry on his work after his death. But they do not understand. It is easy for us post-resurrection people to scoff at them and wonder, “How could they have been so blind?”

The marvelous Anglican writer Dorothy L. Sayers cries out, on many different occasions, that the disciples and everyone around them did not know who Jesus was. Listen to a passage from the introduction to The Man Born to Be King: “We judge their behaviour as though all of them — disciples, Pharisees, Romans, and men-in-the-street — had known with Whom they were dealing and what the meaning of all the events actually was. But they did not know. The disciples had only the foggiest inkling of it, and nobody else came anywhere near grasping what it was all about.”

Instead, they are quarrelling over “who among them is the greatest.” At this point we, self-righteous, knowledgeable people of the 21st century, want to shake them: “How can you argue about something so selfish?” we want to shout. But we forget who we really are.

This is written during the time of a passionate and fearful argument in the life of our own church. Some are threatening to leave the church, others are talking about schism, and the secular reporters are having a great time being baffled or condemnatory. But we don’t recognize that most of us argue the way the disciples did. We are so certain we are right that we stand ready to condemn those who disagree with us. We want to be “the greatest.” In this kind of argument, love rarely enters, no matter what words we use to the contrary. We are bothered by the most obvious of sins — neglecting the sins of hypocrisy and arrogance. Sex has become the predominant verbal occupation of the day. Whether in sin or under sanctioned blessing, sex has become the central issue of not just the world but of the church. This passage in Mark cries out for us to notice the bitter irony, to see that while Jesus is telling us about his death and suffering, we are arguing about sex.

And, unlike the disciples and those surrounding them in Palestine, we do know. So Jesus, in great sorrow, takes a child into his loving arms (the Greek word means “he hugged the child as a loving mother does”) and says to them and to us, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Ah, here he is again going to the heart of the issue; this is the crux of the story: welcoming others in the name of Christ, in the way we welcome children. We know how important the nameof someone was in both Old Testament and New Testament writings and understanding. It contains within it the authority of the person, the representation of the person; name is connected or equal to the personality of the named. The Greek preposition used here, in verse 37, is epi, which means “upon.” So to welcome in the manner of welcoming a child, we stand upon, we rest upon, our devotion to Christ. We welcome Christ, and in Christ, God.

Instead of honoring it, we have allowed the name of Jesus to become either a talisman or an idol. Our world is filled with images of the cross, worn by people who have no idea what it stands for. Bumper stickers proclaim a possession of the name that is filled with idolatry. One of them asks, “Got Jesus?” The Second Person of the Trinity treated as commodity by unbelievers and believers alike. What is the difference between us and those people who surrounded Jesus in ignorance of who he was? While Christ longs to tell us about the meaning of the cross, we argue about who is right and who is the greatest.

Let us embrace one another with the love and tenderness we reserve for children and let us not talk about schism but about learning to be the last, not the first, the least, not the greatest-because this is one of the profound secrets the Cross of Christ reveals to us.


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Christopher Sikkema