Psalm 124; James 3:13-4:3; St. Mark 9:30-37
The context of this argument amongst the Apostles is that they had just descended from the mount of transfiguration where they had seen Jesus’ glory, the glory, as St. John has it, “as of the only Son from the Father”. Mark 9: says “They went on from there” Where is this “there”? The “there” is the mount of Transfiguration where the three disciple, Peter, James and John, had witnessed the glory of Jesus transfiguration. Now they were travelling from “there” with Jesus, going with him up to Jerusalem where He was to die. To achieve his “exodus”, his departure indicated by Moses and Elijah in the conversation with Jesus accompanying the transfiguration vision which the disciples heard and witnessed
The problem with the disciples was that they completely misread the meaning of Jesus’ transfigured glory. By their actions toward one another it would appear that they understood glory in the this worldly sense of power or greatness. But Jesus glory is exactly the opposite. He who shared the inconceivable uncreated glory of the Father from all eternity, in inestimable condescension makes himself one with humanity, not in a neutral sense by simply of becoming a human being, but sharing our humanity in the condition in which God finds it in alienation, estrangement, living in the darkness of sin and separation from God, the true source of human life. T
This is Jesus glory that in obedience to the Father, in that unity of will and purpose which is God’s essential nature, Jesus undertakes His strange journey in to the far country of this world. There he descends to the depths of the abandonment of the human condition. It is here, according to John’s gospel that we see what Christ’s glory is, the glory which the disciples beheld on the mount of transfiguration. It was on that mountain that the figures of the Old Testament, Moses and Elijah, spoke to Jesus of His departure, His exodus that He was soon to accomplish in Jerusalem. His exodus, his departure through the humiliation of his death on the cross. The truth of this mountaintop experience for the disciples is hidden in the deep mystery of Christ’s impending humiliation as the glorified Son of the Father. There is this false and misleading view abroad about Christians’ Mountain top experiences, of emotional highs that are meant to indicate experiences of God’s grace in a person’s life. Well, the disciple’s incomparable mountain top experience is one which completely hides form them the truth of the reality that is taking place before their eyes. They are blind to the truth of Jesus glory consisting in his abject humiliation in the cross as the eternal Son of the Father. This should make us pause and realise the highly questionable nature of all religious experiences as revealing anything, apart from our own psychological state rather than the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ
But amazingly, all this is hidden from the apostles. They dispute with one another; they argue about preferment in the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus whose glory they have just witnessed in His Transfiguration. So, Jesus takes a child and teaches his disciples an unforgettable lesson. But just what is it that Jesus teaches His disciples?
Here it is not a question of the disciples becoming infantile. Their arguing amongst themselves is already a sign of their infantile understanding of Jesus purpose and presence in the world. The child represents one who is weak and vulnerable, who is defenceless in the world. It is a child whom Jesus chooses to represent Himself to his disciples. “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me”. The receiving of a child as representative of Jesus means that the disciples must learn that their life before God depends upon them not counting it too small a thing to receive that gift from One who, like this child, is weak and vulnerable in the world; one who is defenceless against its predations, deceptions and subversion.
This One of course stands before them. The child is witness to Jesus in the form He assumes for our sake as the weak and defenceless one whose glory is in His weakness, His victory in His defeat. But it is these very characteristics of the child which the disciples despise; as is indicated by their arguments among themselves. But it is precisely this with which they must come to terms with if they are to receive truth of their life before God as mediated to them by one who has this form and no other. The form of a weak, vulnerable, defenceless child.
These words of Jesus about the child and the disciples receiving Him in the form of a child occur in the context of the gospel record alongside Jesus’ quite direct indication, in his own words to them which cannot be misunderstood, that the purpose of his ministry will find its fulfilment in the cross. “The Son of Man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and when He is killed after three days He will rise.” St Mark 9:31. But from their totally incongruous behaviour, their discussion about who is the greatest, we see that what the disciples see in Jesus words is either nothing at all or only a frightful paradox, a radical contradiction and destruction of any idea they might have of Jesus as the Son of God.
But these same disciples, blind to the reality of Jesus purpose in being among them as the true son of the Father, subsequently came to confess the crucified Jesus as the hope of the world, as apostolic witnesses of the resurrection. What they came to see as a hopeless contradiction and meaninglessness, they come to see as Jesus kingly coronation. Where now they started back in incomprehension at Jesus words, they then understand in the light of His triumph: That is, they now saw His cross, which had been the subject of their experience of the transfiguration and Jesus own testimony concerning His future, being a great source of their blindness, disturbance and a fundamental contradiction for them, they came to see the cross as the solid basis and sign of their temporal and eternal hope, by which they could live and proclaim to the world as its hope too.
The encounter between Jesus and His disciples concerning the place of a child in this context, which refers in such dramatic and direct way to His passion and death, has a particular meaning for us. It raises for us the question of the power and meaning of the existence of the one-man Jesus Christ for all people. The relevance of this reading for us today may be summed up in this way: How is it that what Jesus was and is and will be can reach and affect us as an act of divine power?
“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.” Receives………… in my name. The question of Jesus presence and purpose for us and the world can be received by us in our relationship with a child. But here we must distinguish between the relationships which we have with children by nature, either as parents or friends, and our receiving a child in Jesus’ name. To receive a child in the name of Jesus is to receive a gift which radically calls into question the basis of our life before God and each other. The child as a child is not identical with Jesus, in fact there is no inherent relationship between Jesus and children apart from Jesus’ will that we receive Him and all He wills to be for us in this form: The form in which a child confronts us is in its dependence and vulnerability, its weakness in the world. For the child is a witness to Jesus in it being who it is, a child. For in its being who it is; in its dependence and vulnerability in the world, who without resolute protection by family and society would fall prey to the powers of negation at work in our society, the child in being who it is in this way witnesses to whom Jesus Christ is for us today.
For the child, in being a child, points to the astounding fact upon which depends the existence of the world before God: that our life before each other is grounded in and sustained by the fact that in Jesus Christ the eternal God accommodated Himself to the weakness and vulnerability of our mortality. That for our sake He traversed our way from birth to death in order that our being, our lives, which in their alienation and corruption are tumbling down into the non being and nothingness of death should be preserved and renewed in relationship with God. It is precisely because this One who went this way lives as the Lord that the child can become for us the source and testimony to the Truth of our life in Jesus Christ.
But it was just this truth which the disciples rejected as they companied with Jesus on the road up to Jerusalem as they argued amongst themselves as to who was the greatest. Jesus’ action and words regarding the place of the child in their understanding of themselves and their relationship to Him is just as relevant for us in the church today who own this One as Lord. We need to realise that the church in its mission in the world, in its word and its service, cannot escape from the same judgment as that to which the disciples were subjected when Jesus took a child and uttered those memorable words. For the church both as individual members and as a community of Christians are constantly intent on securing ourselves over against vulnerability and dependence, seeking ways and means of escaping from the narrow path of costly disciple ship to which Jesus calls us. We all, in one way or another, refuse to receive Him and His promised presence as the only resource the church needs to live and endure in its earthly pilgrimage.
Our life before God as a church and before each other is totally dependent upon us receiving Jesus becoming, like a child, weak and defenceless for our sake; vulnerable and exposed, to the power of darkness for our sake. The Christian claim is that only as we acknowledge this One as Lord, as the truth of our life before God and each other, can we be set free from ourselves to serve Him in the distressing disguise which he assumes in the vulnerability of a child in the world. Jesus comes to us and we receive Him in this disguise or we cannot receive Him at all, as the One He wills to be as our Saviour and Lord.