Mark 9: 37a. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me.
This Sunday's passage from Mark takes an important direction from high and mighty (The Mount of Transfiguration) to lowly and domestic (a house, a chair, a child). We'll bear that downward direction in mind as we look at these seven short but devastating verses from Mark 9.
The passage begins 'Having gone forth from there...' and reading back slightly, we can see that 'there' refers to the mount of Transfiguration where Jesus has been spectacularly revealed to Peter, James and John as a dazzling figure of white, the exalted Son of God, or to use the language of the Harry Potter books, 'The Chosen One'. Scholars are not agreed, but this may have been Mount Tabor, 1843 feet of glorious elevated mountain, 17 km west of Lake Galilee.
'Having gone forth from there...'
So they're leaving the mountain behind...How many times have we had splendid ideas for our church, a dream that God will move in power, that God will be on that mountain top experience of healing, blessing or new vision. And then we 'go forth from there', and find that life is seemingly still mundane, ordinary, troublesome.
As we saw, the disciples are 'moving on' from the mountain top experience, and continuing with Jesus along the way, they discover that instead of talking about Elijah and Moses and the great coming of God at the end of all things, Jesus is talking about suffering. 'The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him and three days later, he will rise again'. Not only do they not understand what he's talking about, they are afraid to ask.
If only following Jesus' teaching was as simple as following his footsteps through the Galilean countryside. At least the disciples are good at walking. Picture them trudging the dusty pathways in the heat of the day, Jesus always up ahead, forging onwards, but occasionally turning round to catch what it is they're discussing at the back of the group there. As the sun heats up the dry earth from its zenith in the blue sky, arguments are simmering...
They come to a house. A domestic setting, so different from the mountain top. A house with four walls, a family, arguments. A house where you eat, sleep, live alongside each other. Or feel the loneliness of empty rooms. Jesus is at home both on the mountain and in the house. In a house you can be intimate, sit and eat with friends and be honest about your nearest and dearest, as long as you're ready for them to be honest about you.
Here, in this house, Jesus brings out all the dirty linen. 'What were you arguing about on the way?' It's not that he doesn't know, even though they are silent. They are silent because they are ashamed. Family silences can be oppressive - better to get things out in the open - most of the time anyway.
From the mountain to the house. And now Jesus sits down on a chair. Not exactly sitting at God's right hand in glory, more sitting after a long journey, sitting to summon patience with your fellow travellers, sitting to be smaller. Perhaps the disciples continued standing, while Jesus was content to physically shrink in front of them. Did he sit because at that moment a child ran in from an adjoining room? Perhaps Jesus suddenly wanted to leave behind the adult world of bickering, one-upmanship and cover up. The child running in just then must have been a blessed relief, a breath of fresh air. Or perhaps Jesus was just tired. We all need to sit down once in a while. Even a servant sits at the end of a long day sweeping floors, cleaning cupboards and cooking meals for the whole family.
'Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. And then he took a little child and put it among them.'
Jesus is good at visual aids. The disciples (and we) need them. The little child was perhaps 4 foot, 7 years old? Thrust into the middle of a group of adults who were busy trying to pretend they were not arguing over who was the top disciple. At that moment, looking down at the child in their midst, they must have felt pretty stupid. The child (let's call her Miriam) may have felt a touch frightened. Good job then that Miriam found herself in Jesus' arms moments later, the warm reassurance of strength, being special, being noticed, being the centre of Jesus' attention.
The Jesus of the mountain top is in a house, sitting on a chair, cuddling a child. Which parent, uncle, auntie, Godparent or grandparent has not felt this timeless moment of utter communion, this moment when we think we're offering comfort, when in fact the child comforts us, and the world feels right, this cuddle in a comfy chair, this one-on-one conversation with divine wisdom.
Here, at last, is the heart of discipleship. From the mountain, to the house, to the chair, to the child. If we cannot sit with Jesus and know his tender love for us, how can we ever enter the kingdom of God? As we welcome the child in his name, we will find we're welcoming Jesus himself. And as we welcome Jesus, we will find we're welcoming the one who sent him - even God.
'Are children welcome in all your services?' was a question asked recently of us as a church....In this question, as we ponder the downward direction from a mountain, to a house, to a chair, to a child; we surely (like the first disciples) have a great deal to learn.