Sermons from St Faith's   

Baffled by the Scriptures
Revd Denise McDougall, Sunday 23rd September, 2018

I'm fairly sure there's no one here this morning who could honestly say that they hadn't ever been baffled or confused by the scriptures. So I think we can have some sympathy with the disciples who had so often tried to get their heads round things Jesus said to them, they frequently missed the point, said inappropriate things and constantly misunderstood what Jesus was teaching and doing. At this point in Jesus' ministry they must have felt as if they were on an emotional roller-coaster ride. How could the disciples possibly understand when Jesus tells them that he will be handed over to others, murdered and then rise to new life?

It's hard not to feel sorry for them, if we still get baffled after years of going study groups, listening to sermons and reflecting on the scriptures the poor disciples, who were immersed in the fast lane of Jesus' life with little time for reflection and certainly no time for study! Also they weren't together for anything like as long as some of us have been bound together within our family of St. Faith. So if we feel sorry for the disciples in their confusion perhaps we should ask ourselves how confused are we still; do we listen, understand and take on board what we believe God is asking of us? Or are we prepared to have our understanding and interpretation of things taken apart so a new way of thinking can be opened up for us? Or it could just be that we are so static in our ways and beliefs that that we become immoveable and more motivated by power or our own importance?

Today's readings offer three contrasts - contrasts between the godless and the virtuous, between the wisdom from above and the "wisdom" of selfish ambition, and between the way of the cross and the way of our own selfish actions. Today's gospel reading is set immediately after the Transfiguration and the spectacular healing of a very sick child. But instead of building on these events Jesus takes the disciples away quietly and tries again to explain what it really means to be a disciple. He teaches that the Son of Man is to be betrayed and handed over to powerful opponents who kill him but then in three days will rise again.

And this time Jesus speaks to them clearly, no codes, parables or hidden meanings, just the truth about his suffering and dying; but the disciples weren't able to take on board what he was telling them. On several previous occasions they had asked him to explain things that they didn't understand but this time and uncharacteristically, they don't even ask; Mark tells us they were too afraid. Perhaps they felt too embarrassed or confused. I can remember as a child myself not understanding maths in school but always too frightened to ask the teacher to explain. (Possibly because I thought others may think I was stupid?)

The disciples lacked understanding about the implications of what Jesus was saying and they became more concerned about who was the greatest amongst them and a heated discussion developed about their self-importance, their position and rank within the community. We can almost imagine Jesus' frustration and disappointment hearing that the disciples were only discussing and worrying about their own status without grasping his prediction.

But how can they understand? As I have often said before, we have the benefit of knowing the end of the story but despite that, do we sincerely believe Jesus is God's way in the world? Or do we act as the disciples, nod our heads and bow piously to the notion of the cross and then go away and argue about who is the most senior or important?

Jesus went on to use that occasion to try to jolt them out of their way of thinking and he leads us into one of the most beautiful moments in the gospel. Jesus turns their whole way of looking at themselves and others completely upside down.

Jesus took a little child in his arms he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and who ever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’

The key point in this passage, apart from normal family love, a child in first century Palestine had absolutely no status or legal rights whatsoever. A child was totally dependent on others and in this sense powerless. Yet Jesus gives the child the most important place and takes him or her in his arms. The one of no status is given the position of greatest honour. The last is placed first And so it is for us if we welcome such a person with lack of status or importance, the child is a symbol of what is needed as a follower of Jesus.

This lesson resonates with centuries of church history in which so many have thought that being a pillar of the church somehow made them special, when of course that isn't the case at all.

However when we serve those who are most in need it is then that we come closer to meeting Jesus and finding God. Anyone who receives even a child in Jesus' name will receive Jesus himself and in turn will receive God who sent Him.

Jesus shows us a God who triumphs in the resurrection through rejection, humiliation and death. God's greatness is shown in service and humility; above all it is shown in a little child.

It is our Christian duty to show compassion and hospitality and provide hope for the despairing, vulnerable and frightened and to do this we need to act. In order to fulfil the commandments to love The Lord our God and to love our neighbour as ourselves it is imperative that we welcome all, without judgement or prejudice.
Of course the complex and very difficult question is how, the Gospel message is very different from that of our consumer and selfish society in the 21st century?
If only more countries, communities and individuals could change their outlook and behaviour and place less importance on power and greed and become humble, generous and loving, then every act of compassion, generosity or kindness, however small may just make a positive impact on the kind of people who are so often invisible to us.

The words of this gospel passage give us a fresh opportunity to reflect on the type of disciple we hope to become, it asks that we begin to rethink our attitude and it should lead us to ponder all the more deeply what Jesus is doing when he becomes last of all and servant of all on the cross.

Yes, it may seem frightening and hard but also liberating and easy. We no longer need to struggle to be the best, the most senior or the most important. We do not have to work to be the centre of attention. In the world of God's love and mercy; the sooner we let go of our own self-centredness the sooner we become the beloved, the chosen and the free.

We don't have to ask the Father to welcome us, we are all welcomed with outstretched arms as helpless children. All we need to do is to consider carefully how we might be converted to Jesus' view that by welcoming a little child is welcoming him, and therefore we are welcoming the one who sent him.

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