Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost Proper 20 September 20, 2015 Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
They must have expected they were going to get a whupping. The disciples hadn’t been doing so well lately. Just before this story they had tried and failed to perform a spiritual healing and when they asked Jesus why they couldn’t do it, he basically said, “Did you try… prayer?” They hadn’t. Apparently they thought they were so great that they didn’t need any spiritual help to solve a spiritual problem. Then Jesus began to reveal more of God’s plan of salvation. They did not understand. And they were afraid to ask him.
Maybe Jesus was looking forward to getting a little rest at his improvised home base in Capernaum, probably Peter’s house. They all would have been tired, dirty, and sore from the long journey over rocky paths. Like a lot of us after a long trip, the disciples were getting testy. Jesus heard them arguing. That they were arguing at all must have been dispiriting for him. But the disciples knew it was the wrong argument at the wrong time. Nerves were frayed and they had already let Jesus down intellectually and spiritually. They had seen him lash out at religious leaders. Imagine the looks on their scraggly, sun-lined faces when Jesus asked, “What were you arguing about?”
Someone had to ’fess up, but Jesus didn’t lash out at them as they might have feared. He gathered them and sat down to teach them. I bet this time they had no trouble paying attention. Jesus didn’t tell them not to strive to be his greatest disciple, on the contrary, he told them how to go about it.
Being a great disciple isn’t about being a miracle worker and it’s not about believing all the right things. Relationships with God and neighbor are the heart of discipleship. To get to those things, and all the wisdom and joy that a strong relationship with God entails, you have to be willing to follow, to change, to admit that you don’t have all the answers yourself; so you have to be humble, willing to let go of your own ego, set aside your agenda, be open to God’s ways of doing things, and accept something that’s been true all along: we depend on God for everything, and every good thing we have is a gift from God.
Children know that everything they have is a gift, but in Jesus’s day, children weren’t valued the way they are now. Children received the least honor and regard in the families Jesus knew. Parents loved their children, but mostly because of what the children would do for them. Children were investments; they were precious not innately, but because they would work in the fields or maybe assist their father if he was a tradesman, and take care of their parents in their old age. That is, of course, provided they survived childhood; the mortality rate was high, so parents tried not to get too attached.
Welcoming a child, that is, showing a child the hospitality that would be accorded to an honored adult guest, would have been ridiculous, and if Jesus had given this teaching under other circumstances, the disciples might have laughed out loud. A child could not be counted on to reciprocate, or even to praise the host to others, but of course this is precisely the point. A big part of Jesus’s ministry was blessing, honoring, and including all manner of social outcasts and have-nots. Another was Jesus’s teaching and example of humility, which would culminate with his submission to betrayal and death. So by following Jesus’s example, we are following him, and we discover that we are loving God and loving our neighbor. We become his disciples by practicing gracious generosity, giving without expectation of repayment. And yet, God does repay us with joy, wisdom, and fellowship.
On Saturday, the Church will welcome the three Murray-Brown children, Julian, Sebastian, and Iona, as mature adult members, because they have chosen to commit themselves to live as followers of Jesus Christ. This choice is so important, so life-altering, and so full of grace that the Church recognizes it as sacramental, the sacrament of Confirmation. They have been working with Jay over the summer to gain a deeper, more mature understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Far from becoming childlike or, God help us, childish, they are taking on the very adult responsibilities of servanthood and discipleship so that they might more graciously welcome whomever God may send them. [But I’ll wait until the announcements to embarrass them a little more.]
Right now I want to take the opportunity to touch on the matter of the creeds. The Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds are treasures and gifts from the Church but the nature of our own times has caused a great deal of confusion about what they are and how we use them. The intense individualism of our age leads us to think that the Creeds are declarations of personal, individual belief, but they were never intended to be used in this way. Remember that being a Christian is all about following Jesus Christ, not about debating the inner workings of the Trinity. We are loved, forgiven, and saved by Jesus Christ, not by assenting to a list of doctrines that were codified centuries after his earthly life.
The Creeds serve us and the Church, not the other way around. They do this in several ways. They advise people being baptized, and remind people being confirmed, what they are signing on to, that is, what the Church teaches. As the Rev. Canon Robert Hendrickson puts it, “The only thing the Church includes anyone in is in the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ — the mystery at the heart of the Creed. … The Creed is a salvation hymn that expresses the movement of the Spirit over generations of the Church and lays out the shape of God’s interplay with humanity in past, present, and future.”* This is valuable to all of us, but especially to those who might not be familiar with the Church’s teachings, those outsiders whom the Holy Spirit is always pushing us to welcome.
The Creeds also settled disputes, ruling out lines of argument that might sound appealing, but lead to bad outcomes. For example, at the time the Nicene Creed was written, some people who called themselves Christians said there were two gods: a good god who created the spiritual world, including our souls, and an evil god who created the material world, including our bodies. This idea was a lot simpler than Trinitarian theology and it squared nicely with the Greek philosophy that was culturally normative, so it caught on. The trouble is that taken to its logical conclusion, this simple dualism implies that harming the created world — intentionally harming the environment and human bodies — is morally acceptable, or even desirable. The Creed says, nonsense! Also, once the Creed established a certain position on the nature of Jesus Christ, bishops no longer came to blows on the matter, making church meetings more civil, though less entertaining.
So if any part of the Creed doesn’t sit well with you, take heart: God still loves you mightily and the Church is still there to support you and nurture you. In fact, instead of keeping the matter a secret, you might find that talking to another Christian is a powerfully affirming experience. You won’t get a whupping. You might just get greeted as a faithful servant welcomes a beloved child, with the unconditional love that is the hallmark of every relationship which is sanctified by Jesus Christ.