There are three distinct sections to this passage from Mark, chapter 9.
- Passing through Galilee.
- The question about the disciples conversation along the way.
- Jesus’ admonition on what it means to be welcoming.
Remember two weeks ago we heard about Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophonecian woman? This was a consciousness expanding experience, for Jesus. The challenge presented by this gentile woman, who seems to be the first to openly recognize who Jesus really is, dislocates him from his hitherto understanding of his mission to the Children of Israel. Jesus now opens to the wider implication of a mission to everyone who recognizes the message he brings. God’s open armed inclusion of all within the grace of God’s love and acceptance. For Mark, this is the pivotal point in Jesus’ ministry, because it is from here-on that he turns his face towards the journey to Jerusalem.
Then last week, we were invited into a rather tense encounter between Jesus and his disciples, and in particular, their spokesman, Simon Peter. Having been recognized by the gentile woman Jesus now challenges those who are closest to him with the question – who do you say I am? Jesus then begins to share with them the implications of what his mission really means, for him, and for them.
Tracing Mark’s theology
Mark begins his gospel with God’s open declaration – this is my son, my beloved, and I am very pleased in him. It’s unclear as to who among those present at his baptism get to hear God’s voice, but the point is that we the readers, hear God’s declaration as to who Jesus is. Mark then treats Jesus’s identity as the Christ as an open secret. The Syrophonecian woman – a gentile seems to understand. It is significant for Mark that after the theophany (God event) at his baptism, Jesus is next recognized by someone outside of the dispensation of Israel. Then it’s a case of the disciples, those inside the dispensation playing catch-up.
The question continues to hang over us – who do we say Jesus is, or put another way- who is Jesus for us? The difficulty for many of us is that we think we know the answer, because we know Mark’s story and how it ends. It’s not a secret for us. Yet, let’s not dismiss Mark’s notion of the open secret too soon. We know who Jesus is because at one level we know the story. Yet, knowing the story means we know about Jesus. It does not mean that we experience who Jesus is.
Jesus’ question to the disciples has two parts: who do people say I am, and who do you say I am? As part of the generic people, we know who he is because we know the story. Yet, in our heart of hearts can each of us answer – yes, I know who Jesus is for me?
In Mark 9: 30-37 we come to realize just how hard it is to truly know who Jesus is, because the consequences of knowing are rather unsettling. With the three-fold outline of this passage in mind, we see Jesus talking to the disciples about what it means to be who he is as they pass through the region of Galilee. He talks to them about the ultimate implications of who he is and what God is asking him to accomplish. The details are so dire, so frightening that the disciples hear, and yet do not hear him.
This is what we human beings do all the time, we select what we want to hear and ignore the rest. Most of the time this is a semi-conscious process. By semiconscious, I mean that if someone were to bring it to our attention we would readily recognize the process. Yet, there are some things so terrible, so frightening for us in their implication that we simply can’t take them in without something blowing up. The hippy phrase – wow that really blows my mind, man – comes to mind here.
Now, the reason we can’t take in the message is because unconsciously we do hear it. It is just that confronted by an imagined sense of utter helplessness, the message is too much for us. This is exactly what we see the disciples doing as they follow along at a distance they think is safely out of Jesus’ earshot. We see them distracting themselves with a pointless conversation. Unconsciously, they feel terrified and helpless in the face of what Jesus is telling them. No, no, no, they psychically scream!
So much of our lives together in parish community involve distracting ourselves with endless chatter about things that don’t matter because we are afraid to really recognize the full implications of why we are here. Do we not chatter on endlessly about our desire to make a difference in the world while keeping our commitment to building Christian communities with the energy and power to really make a difference rather low, in the list of our priorities? Do we not feel a need to protect ourselves from being dislocated by the demands of the kind of discipleship Jesus is talking about in Mark 8 and 9?
Similarly, as a society we are distracted by the spectacle of the massive corruption of our political election process, presented to us as entertainment by an equally corrupted news media. In truth, we are all disgusted by the waste and the wasted opportunities to confront the issues that really matter. While being somewhat entertained we stand helpless before the escalating crises bearing down upon us like the headlight of a locomotive soon to roar upon us from its tunnel.
Jesus takes a child in his arms. For us this seems a tender and caring gesture that resonates with our view of the world where we hold our own children dear and at least in principle, we hold all children dear. Contrastingly, Jesus’ society predates the development of a concept of childhood. Here, children were simply smaller and weaker adults, to be overlooked and disregarded. To be a child was one step down from being a woman. So to represent a little child as the model for the receptivity and welcome of the Kingdom of God was a startling thing. This is an invitation for all of us to embrace vulnerability. In our vulnerability, we are compelled to welcome God.
Welcome and change
To welcome, costs us something. There is an important link between our process of welcome and what we welcome others to. We long to be like little children with their open and trusting view of the world. Yet, as adults we know disappointment and disillusionment. We are caught between our child-like desire to be open and our adult need to protect ourselves.
Resolving this tension is a matter of deepening our experience with the living God, an experience always mediated through the way we negotiate our day-to-day lives. To this end at St Martin’s our key priority areas: inspiring one another to greater levels of engagement in all aspects of our community life, strengthening the message of financial stewardship, and attracting and retaining new members, merge into a single priority:
to facilitate our personal transformation through the renewal of our individual spiritual lives.
Key to addressing our new priority is offering a practical approach to the enrichment of our day-to-day lives through spiritual practice. Spiritual practice – is for me a catch-all phrase covering the application of age-old spiritual wisdom and experience to help anchor ourselves more securely in the face of the escalating demands and stresses of modern life.
In the particular
At St Martin’s on the Eastside of Providence we long to become a more magnetic community – the fruit of transformation in our individual spiritual lives. In my mind, that requires us to become more magnet shaped. This has implications too terrible to contemplate, i.e. changing the way we do Sunday morning.
In our Anglican- Episcopal tradition worship is the focus of who we are. The primacy of worship gathers us, transforming us into a community that celebrates the long relationship between God and the people of God. In Eucharist, we make present here and now this great story, collapsing past and future into this present moment.
To become more welcoming, we think it’s a matter of tinkering with the liturgy, in some cases simplifying it, in others making it even grander and more complex. We think if we offer more services then we will attract more people. All of this smacks of a response of those of us already here, desiring and designing a welcome for those who are already like us.
In Advent, we will launch an experiment that flows partly out of our recent experience of the simplified summer schedule of services. During the four Sundays of Advent we will move from two Eucharist’s on Sunday morning to one, timed to be followed by an hour of Christian formation time, for adults as well as young people, ending around 11.30am. A second, contemplative and instructive Eucharist will be added to the late afternoon – early evening. Our recent experience of this pattern confirmed for us a new and strengthened experience of a more magnetic community as we husbanded our human resources into one place and time.
This is bound to inconvenience some of us who are used to the existing pattern. The chief reason for this change is to offer a richer diet for a world where many are so spiritually hungry.
Jesus called his disciples to mission. It took them a while to be able to face the fearful implications of what this would mean for them. But embrace mission they did, breaking out of the fear shaped prison of their selective cognizance, and in nearly every case, like that of their master, at the cost of their lives.
The question of welcome, that so exercises most church communities boils down to the question Jesus asks us: who am I for you? Am I the comfortable Jesus – distanced by the gospel narrative as a once-upon-a-time story? Or, am I the anchor that holds you firm in the face of the escalating demands of life?
Echoing Archbishop William Temple’s statement that the church is the only organization which exists for those who are not yet its members, let’s work to renew our community as a magnetic – mission-shaped community of disciples, – a community where personal transformation through daily encounter with God us, its members to with energy and joy have an open and welcoming heart for those who have yet to show up.