The disciples were caught in another embarrassing situation. They were a curious bunch, those disciples. Jesus had healed a blind man, then predicted His suffering and death, at which Peter took issue, rebuking Jesus. Later, they witnessed the Transfiguration of Jesus on Mt. Tabor with Moses and Elijah. They saw Him heal an epileptic child and spent quite a bit of time with Jesus as He taught them about the Kingdom of God. Now, on the heels of Jesus’ second prediction of his suffering and death, the disciples must have been either a bit distracted or overwhelmed. In any case, they began talking amongst themselves. Later on, in Capernaum, where they were living, Jesus asked them what it was they were discussing.
That’s where the disciples were caught. They didn’t know what to say. But Jesus knew what the issue was—and he sat them down to gently teach them about what servanthood in the Kingdom of God looked like.
Jesus held a little child and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the One who sent me.”
So what was Jesus getting at? One of my professors, Dr. Don Juel stated that the image of a child may symbolize all those within the Christian family. Things were much different for children then than they are today. While receiving, welcoming, and caring for children was important to them, children were without status in the ancient world. So, to welcome a child as an important person in the Kingdom of God was a big change. Jesus said that to welcome a little child is akin to welcoming Him and welcoming God. Here is another way that Jesus is turning the world upside down. He’s overturning the social customs and giving importance to those who previously had no status or power.
So, the ‘rub’ for the disciples comes with the fact that they were arguing about who was the greatest among themselves. Just as we argued as children that ‘my dad can beat your dad,’ the disciples were caught in a juvenile act of trying to be the best of Jesus’ disciples. Jesus is saying that the societal norms of our everyday life are not what is important to God. God is concerned with those of low social status: the poor, the powerless, the outcast, the sinners, the children. The kingdom of God is open to all people always, but welcoming those who have previously been on the ‘outside looking in’ is what is important to God. Power, prestige, control, status, or the likes, is not what the Kingdom of God is all about.
We have an interesting parallel to this in our Second Lesson. The book of James, though it is one of my favorites, is not generally thought of too highly in Lutheran circles. It tends to focus more on what we do as Christians rather than on what God has done for us in Christ. Today’s lesson, however, reminds us of the root cause of our problems and struggles as sinful human beings. The writer uses the conflicts and disputes that we find ourselves embroiled in as examples of our sinful human cravings and desires. The root cause is that we let our own desires become the catalyst for disputes and disagreements. We all tend to think a little more highly of our own importance than we need to, and we all fall into the trap that the disciples fell into, wanting to be the greatest. These things are usually a lot more subtle for us than they were in the Gospel, and James really hits the nail on the head for us.
We are challenged to think of ourselves with all the social standing of a little child and to humble ourselves before God our Father. James calls us to submit ourselves to God; to resist the devil whereupon he will flee from us.
James is calling us to ‘draw near to God.’ This could be where our Lutheran understanding of God’s action in Christ comes into play. But I would challenge us to remember that relationships are not a one way street. We know that God is waiting like the father in the story of the Prodigal Son to welcome us into His arms whenever we come to Him. We also know that we can always grow in our relationship with God. There is always room for us to draw closer to God and let God’s love, forgiveness, and peace rule in our hearts. God never moves away from us, but in our attempts to control our own destinies, to make our own ways in the world, and to make our mark on society, we can let our relationship with God slide without our even being aware of it. Believe me; I’m speaking from experience here!
These lessons are urging us to draw closer to God, to be mindful of our human sinful limitations and the ways we attempt to use status, power, or influence to get what we want over and above the needs of others. Jesus reminds us that our status is not what is important to God; it’s not about getting what we want, but the Christian life is about doing what God is calling us to do to share His love with others.
As we celebrate our ministry the past year on this Annual Meeting Sunday, we remember that Zion typically is a welcoming place for others. We have had a challenging time the past 18 or so months. We closed for in-person activities including worship. We have been open for these things with many protocols in place after a lot of planning and implementing. We have been working in the midst of great uncertainty to provide a stable, safe, welcoming place to worship our Lord Jesus Christ. In the continuing uncertainty of the pandemic, we continue to welcome all people and have opened ourselves up for worship trusting in God’s leading and grace.
In the midst of uncertainty and fear there is Jesus. He has been leading and guiding us with the Holy Spirit to bring us through this difficult time and to lead us into the future, healthy and strong. It is my hope that you have had time or taken time to reflect on your relationship with Jesus during this pandemic. In times of uncertainty, fear, and trauma it’s natural to turn to Jesus in prayer and ask for help. These times can help us to grow in our faith and lead us to reach out to others.
There is an ‘edginess’ to the Book of James that reminds us that we are all in this together and we are all called to work on our personal relationship with God. In His grace and love, Jesus is always waiting, watching, and calling us to draw near to Him that we might draw others to His saving grace.
In his book, Christian Faith: The Basics, Pastor Walt Kallestad opens his chapter on “How Can I Know God?” with this little story:
A young woman said to me,’ This man lived in the same building with me, so I knew he existed. And on a particular Saturday, I could have walked through the door he held open for me and gone on my way. But if I had, I never would have come to know the man I’ve loved and called my husband for 26 years.’
Kallestad goes on to write: How many times has the pattern and quality of your life changed because you took the time to stop and get to know someone? The same holds true for God. We can know of God, but that is not nearly the same as knowing God.
So, how do you get to know God? …I believe when we open ourselves up to God and Jesus by sharing our inmost thoughts and feelings, by asking Him to work in our lives to shape and mold us into His image, we come to know God in the way that Kallestad was writing about. We come to know God in Jesus and draw near to Him as we acknowledge our sins and realize that it’s only through the grace of Christ that we are able to call ourselves Children of God. It is like children that we come, begging for God’s grace, knowing that we will receive that grace.