Scripture Readings: James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
This morning at the Old High Church we are celebrating the baptism of Johnny Baird. It’s always great to have a service at which the child is the centre of attention. For lots of different reasons, we are seeing fewer children in our churches nowadays, and I think that’s a great pity. Children ought to be the centre of the church’s attention more often. After all, in today’s Gospel reading, a child becomes the centre of attention, because Jesus puts him or her there.
At this point in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus and his disciples are in the middle of a tour of the villages and towns of Jesu’s home region, Galilee. They have been together for some time, as Jesus travels from place to place teaching about the Kingdom of God, and healing the sick. And we join the story at a difficult time.
Jesus is telling his friends that he will have to die and be resurrected. Those of you who were here last week might remember that he had spoken about this earlier, and that talk of his death had led to a furious falling out with one of the closest of his friends, Simon Peter. And still, we are told,
[T]hey did not understand what this teaching meant, and they were afraid to ask him.
It’s a difficult topic, so nobody wants to talk about it: the elephant in the room. For after all, who wants to talk about death?
And perhaps because they are avoiding the main subject, they disciples talk about something else. As they come to Capernaum, Jesus realises they were arguing as they walked along. When he asks them what they were talking about, they ashamed to admit.
People Jesus because they saw in him hope- hope for themselves, hope for their nation, hope for the world. He had a sincerity which seemed missing from other rabbis. He cared and healed all sorts of people; it wasn’t just talk. And so Peter, James, John and the rest of them had given up their fishing boats and their farms and their homes to follow him. All with the best of motives.
But we humans are prone to let ambition get in the way of our best ideals. Take an example from today: I’m sure that most people who go into politics, do so wanting to make the world a better place. But if you find yourself in a ministerial limousine, you have to be careful that ambition for yourself doesn’t overcome your principles.
Now the disciples of Jesus are threatened that way. They followed Jesus because they loved his ideals, but now they are at loggerheads over their own ambitions. They’d heard him speaking about the coming Kingdom of God’s justice, where the powerless and the forgotten are blessed by God; but now they are worrying about their own rank in that Kingdom.
And so, Jesus has to remind his chief followers of what they should have known already. Mark the Gospel writer tells us they are indoors by now- this is a private meeting. He also tell us that before speaking to them, ‘Jesus sat down’; and he gathers the disciples around him. I think the sitting down is quite an important wee detail. In those days, a Jewish religious teacher would sit down to teach. So if Jesus sits, it’s a signal to the disciples that what he has to say is important- this is teaching that they are not to forget. And he says to them:
“Whoever wants to be first must place himself last of all and be the servant of all.”
This, in a nutshell, is how Christian leaders are to lead. They are to understand that they are, above all, servants. If you are appointed to lead in the Church- whether as a member of the clergy, or as an elder, or to some other post of responsibility, you are to lead by serving. If you are given responsibility in the Church, it’s not a stepping stone for your ambition. For leadership in the Church is not about prestige; it’s not an ego trip for you. Leadership in the Church is about service. We give people positions of leadership and responsibility in order that they can serve the people of God.
“Whoever wants to be first must place himself last of all and be the servant of all.”
Because, for Christians, our model is Christ himself: the Son of God who became lowly for our sake.
But if you live in poverty, if you struggle to put food on your children’s table, if you are an overworked, underpaid worker, or a wife battered by a brutal husband, when Jesus speaks of being the servant of all, he is not speaking to you. If, as a Christian, you are part of an oppressed minority, if you are someone who has little status in the world, well, these words about being last and a servant of all are not for you. There are millions of people who do not choose humility, but have it thrust upon them. Jesus is not telling them to become more lowly or humble than they already are.
No, Jesus said these things about being last, and a servant, to his chief disciples. They would soon be the first leaders of the Church. They were already tempted to set up a hierarchy, they were already arguing about who was the most important. It is to people like that that Jesus is speaking to; telling the leaders of his Church to be servants of all.
And to really hammer the point home, Jesus brings a youngster into the room:
He took a child and make him stand in front of them, [and he] put his arms around him.
We do not know who this child was; he must have been one of the sons of the house. Jesus brings the lad into the room (I think he must have known him already); and he embraces him in welcome, acting out before is disciples what the next part of this teaching will be.
For the disciples must have been a bit puzzled about what Jesus was up to. Why would be bring a mere child into their important, private meeting. It’s like bringing a baby into the boardroom. What is going on?
Then he took a child and had him stand in front of them. He put his arms around him and said to them, “Whoever welcomes in my name one of these children, welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not only me but also the one who sent me.”
There are two things here, two things which the Church sometimes still misses, two things which we need to hear anew.
Firstly, the first task of the Church is to be welcoming. That sounds obvious and easy. Part of the reason for the Church’s decline in recent decades has been that we have sometimes forgotten how to be welcoming. Sometimes it’s blatant: you still hear stories of people who have visited a Church, only to be told to move seats because that is somebody’s family pew; but it’s usually more subtle. I have visited churches for Sunday worship where nobody spoke to me, other than a grunt as I was handed a hymnbook. Sometimes people just experience an unwelcoming atmosphere, a feeling that Church is not for the likes of them. If people think they have to dress a certain way, or that the Church if just for a certain social class- then we have failed them, and Jesus.
But often, instead of changing the Church to help others fit in, we seem to expect them to change so they are more like us. We in the Church need to be asking ourselves, with every decision we make, ‘Are we just a holy huddle, trying to keep things the way we like it? Or are we willing to change drastically so that people feel more welcomed by the Church?’
And the second point: it is a child Jesus brings among the disciples. ‘Welcome people like this child’, he says, ‘and you welcome me’. One thing that we do get right in this denomination is that we welcome children to baptism; and we hope that Johnny and his family will feel welcome today, and will want to continue to be part of the community of the Church. Just as Jesus welcomed children, so we should work hard at welcoming children.
I know there are all sorts of reasons why there are fewer children in our churches. But to be perfectly honest, I’m not at all sure that a Church with no children is truly Christian any more. Because Jesus has told us that when we welcome children, we welcome him into the Church. So a Church where children are not welcome looks like a Church without Christ.
And what he says about children is true, surely, of all kinds of other people. In that room in that house in Capernaum, Jesus sat down and said to his disciples, ‘So you want to be leaders? Well, that means you are not so proud that you wouldn’t welcome a mere child into your midst’. Christ changed the world when it came to children. The ancient world didn’t really think much of children. It was as if they weren’t quite human at all. They had no rights, and no-one was much interested in them until they reached an age when they could be put to work. If you didn’t want a baby in ancient times, you took it after it was born up into the hills, and let the animals eat it. But with Christianity came a new ways of understanding children. Christ taught us to welcome children, to value them, to love them. That changed the world.
The biggest failure of recent decades has, of course, been that some of the leaders in the Church neglected or abused children in their care, or turned a blind eye and tried to cover it up. It is hard to imagine a worse sin than abusing children; but for that to happen in Christian institutions is a double failure: a failure to show basic Christian compassion to the children Christ told us to welcome; and a failure to heed Jesus words to those in leadership: be servants of others, and welcome the children.
The writer of the Letter of James reminds Christians that ‘good deeds [are to be] performed with humility and wisdom’. Christian humility is difficult, partly because it is not the way of the world. We admire people who are ruthless, who become rich and famous, who claw their way to the top. We don’t hear much about folks who keep quiet about their own achievements. I was speaking to someone recently who had been given a prestigious award, largely for their work with children: I congratulated her, but then I was taken aback by her vehement response, ‘It’s a disgrace- there are better people than me who should have got it!’ I knew that, in fact, she absolutely deserved it- and I’m sure she was pleased to be recognised. But her reaction was completely in line with the sort of humility which Christ expects in his followers.
In welcoming young Johnny today, we welcome a child in Christ’s name. For the Gospel is about welcome. Every person who has known God’s grace has known God’s welcome. God offers a welcome to everyone who wants to be part of Christ’s Kingdom, a kingdom of love, forgiveness, generosity, justice and grace. All are welcome in this place, for God’s welcome is for everyone, even the smallest child.
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2018 Peter W Nimmo