Psalm 1 | Mark 9:30-37
Mark chapters 8 and 9 really mark a turning point in the gospel.
For the first seven or so chapters, Jesus has been teaching, preaching, healing, casting out demons. He’s gathered a following, he’s challenged those in power, he’s reached out to those outside the Jewish faith (or perhaps – he’s responded when they reached out to him). But in many ways he’s been a recognisable figure – an itinerant preacher, a figure in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, calling out the powerful for their failure to follow the one true God.
And the transfiguration, of course, confirmed – at least for the three disciples who were there to witness it – that status.
But now the tone of his teaching has changed, and at the same time, so has its audience. No longer is he speaking to the crowds; now he is talking to those who are closest to him, his disciples – perhaps just the twelve, perhaps a larger group – to those who are not just interested, not just listening in to hear the man who is flavour of the month, but to those who have taken the step of following, committing themselves to the Rabbi, the Guru.
And his message for them is one they don’t (as we saw clearly with Peter immediately after the transfiguration) want to here.
‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
They didn’t understand what he was saying to them – for it was so far removed from their image of the Messiah, that it made no sense.
And perhaps it didn’t help that Jesus spent so much time speaking in parables; maybe they were just trying to work out what he meant this time…
But that’s just speculation. What’s for sure is that any hint that the disciples might have even had a clue what Jesus was going on about is pretty thoroughly by the argument they have as they walk.
As they walked, after Jesus had told them that he was going to be betrayed and killed, they were arguing about which of them was the greatest.
And I’d say this was sad and pathetic, and an indication that they really, really didn’t get it – except that, I suspect, it’s not that far away from the experience of a lot of Christians, a lot of Churches, and certainly, a lot of ministers. Actually, it’s probably the experience of people.
We look at one another and try to work how we are doing next to them.
We compare salaries and properties, postcodes and schools. And then when we grow up a bit, we compare how our children are doing (the barely hidden subtext of many conversations at the school-gate, not to mention the much mocked but even more practiced habit of brag booking), or our grandchildren. And part of it is a very real and healthy pride; but, if we are honest, there’s always an edge of competition about it.
I mentioned that it’s the experience of ministers – whenever you get a bunch of Church leaders together you’ll hear them sounding one another out, subtly, of course, being supportive and encouraging, but also trying to work out the pecking order – whose congregation is growing, whose Church has the money to pay the bills, where are there exciting things happening. It is, I think, the second most popular topic of conversation for ministers when they meet – the first, of course, is “things that have gone wrong at funerals”.
And the thing about this story is – we know the punchline. We know it so well – too well, probably. We know that Jesus turned the rules upside down, that he declared the first to be last and the last to be first, that he said the Kingdom of God belonged to the children, that the sinners and tax collectors would enter before the religious leaders. And yet we persist with our hierarchies, dressing ministers in fancy clothes and giving them special seats at the front of the Church, fêting those who achieve and, well, welcoming, perhaps, but making little of, those who do not.
And it’s perhaps only at the great ceremonies of the Church, at the start of life, in baptism, and at the end of life, in the funeral service, that we really recognise the truth of Jesus words, and place our pecking orders aside. In birth – in baptism, and in death – in the funeral, all people are equal.
In baptism, in death, and here.
At the communion table.
For this table is the great leveller. We call come to communion on the same footing, on the same basis. It doesn’t matter if you’re one year old or a hundred; if you’ve been in Church all your life or just walked in today for the first time; if you’re a success or a failure; if you know what you believe or if you really don’t have a clue.
It doesn’t matter if you have a degree in theology, or if you don’t know one end of the Bible from the other; if you’re a success in the world or struggling to hold body and soul together; if you’re Labour, Coalition, Greens or none of the above; if you are a theological conservative or a woolly liberal.
We come to the communion table – whoever we are – as visitors who have been brought to the party, as kids who have been allowed to stay up to eat with the grownups, as strangers welcomed in and invited to stay.
This feast, this shared meal, this sacrament, strange though it may be, reminds us who we are, reminds us of our standing before God: in the words of the old hymn: nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling. Here we come not on the basis of our greatness or our success, not on the strength of our goodness or our lack of badness; we come simply because we have been invited.
Here we welcomed as Jesus welcomed the child that he set amongst them as a living, breathing example.
And here we welcome one another.
Without judging, without ranking, without status.
Not because we are good enough, not because we have earned it, not even because we believe the right things.
Simply because we belong to God.
And to each other.