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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 09/23/2018

The disciples are often criticized for their lack of understanding, for their failure to “get it” regarding who Jesus was; you’ve undoubtedly heard sermons about their failure to understand, in fact you might have heard one last week with Peter’s correct but misunderstood identification of Jesus as the Messiah. You’ve heard the criticism about what seems to be consistent confusion about Jesus’ identity, but…I get the idea that on some things the disciples understood more than we perhaps give them credit for.

They didn’t understand everything, mind you; but it’s also unreasonable for us to expect that they should have understood everything. After all, we still have trouble making sense of the need for Jesus to suffer and die, wondering sometimes if there wasn’t another way God could have accomplished what needed to be accomplished. Did it have to be so unpleasant? Did it have to involve what seems to be a blood sacrifice? There are good reasons for the disciples being confused by Jesus’ talk about suffering and death because it didn’t make sense in any way that they could figure.

On the other hand, while it’s not exactly clear how long they had been traveling with Jesus, they had been around long enough to know that apart from that strange talk about suffering and death and resurrection, Jesus was talking quite clearly about a different way to live in the world, a way that was in conflict with much of what was widely accepted. I have to think that they could understand that. They knew he was talking about a world where priorities were different, where one’s importance was evaluated differently, an upside down world, where as Luke’s gospel says, “The poor are lifted up and the rich are sent away empty.”

They might not have understood all the details, but based on Jesus’ words and actions, the disciples had to have had some sense of this different ethic of Jesus so when they arrived at the house in Capernaum, and Jesus said, “What were you talking about out there?” they were embarrassed. They didn’t say anything because they knew that what they were talking about had nothing to do with what Jesus was talking about.

At which point Jesus didn’t get mad at their failure to get it; he didn’t get mad at their inappropriate conversation about which one of them was the greatest, although one couldn’t have blamed him if he did. Instead, the text says that he sat down. That might seem like an insignificant detail, but in that culture that’s the position that a teacher would assume so that says to me that Jesus was taking advantage of a teachable moment. It’s in his role as a teacher that he brings the little child into their midst as an example of the kind of welcome he was talking about, as an example of the least of these that his disciples were called to serve.

Keep in mind here that this was not a child centered society, children had no rights, there was no United Nations declaration about how they should be treated, the family’s life did not revolve around the activities of the children as it often does now. I’m sure that Jesus loved little children but this isn’t just “Jesus loves the little children” sentimentality; in this case the child primarily represents an example of those who were not highly regarded, an example of those seen as less important, even unimportant. They are part of those who Jesus’ followers were called to care for.

I doubt however that this represented a moment when the light of Jesus’ ethic suddenly went on for the disciples because I suspect that the light was already on, that they already had some sense of what was important to him; it just wasn’t that important to them. They were still locked into the idea of Jesus as their ticket to a position of greater status. So when Jesus asked them what they had been talking about, they were embarrassed because they knew he wouldn’t be pleased. This is more of an example of Mark Twain’s statement, “It’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me; it’s the parts I do understand.” The disciples were bothered by what they did understand, perhaps choosing to ignore it and, in honesty, the same thing can be true of us.

How pleased would we be to have Jesus ask us what we were talking about…as we leave a church council meeting, as we leave a committee meeting or a WELCA gathering or any of the many other church activities that go on? How much of what we talk about has anything to do with what Jesus thought was important? Would we be embarrassed and silent like the disciples? Not always; there are times, many times I hope, that we are about the work Jesus calls us to. With any organization there are also times when there is necessary nuts and bolts business that has to be attended to and there are also times when relaxation and celebration and fellowship are appropriate, even necessary. These aren’t necessarily things Jesus put high on the list of importance but it’s all part of the life of any church and I don’t think he would take issue with it.

What we have to remember is that balancing the budget and enjoying times of fellowship, while necessary, can’t be the primary reasons for a church’s existence. The church is more than a religious social club so the question about what Jesus thought was important should always be kept in mind so that we don’t wind up doing things or talking about things that are contrary to that which Jesus thought was important. That’s what the disciples were doing in this story. They weren’t paying attention to the alternative that Jesus had been talking about, about how whoever wants to be first of all must be servant of all. Instead, they were continuing to plan their lives according to the power structures of the world as they knew it, contrary to Jesus’ alternative.

It can be dangerous to think that we know for sure what Jesus would think about things, especially what he would think about contentious issues that come up in our world, but still, the question about what he thought was important is always worth keeping in mind. Think though about some of the issues that church bodies have stressed about over the years.

Go back far enough and race was an issue; should Black people be allowed to worship with Whites? Fast forward and you get to questions about whether or not women should be ordained and serve as pastors. More recently you get to churches being consumed by all the issues around sexuality and gender identity.

If Jesus stopped people as they were leaving places where discussions on these issues were taking place and asked, “What were you talking about in there?” would those people have been silently embarrassed after having talked for hours, days, years about whether or not a particular group of people should be fully included in the church? I think Jesus might have responded the same way he did with the disciples in this story.

He might have sat down, assuming the role of a teacher and then he might have brought in a child, a leper, a woman who had been married five times, a Syrophoenician woman, a prostitute, a tax collector, a foreigner, a Pharisee, a widow and he might have said, “Do you remember these people? Are there any of them that I didn’t welcome? They’re all people who some see as lowly or worthless or unclean. Are there any that I didn’t welcome?”

If they presented Bible bullets from Leviticus or Paul to make an argument, I still think Jesus would look around at those he had gathered and say, “Do you remember these people? Are there any of them that I didn’t welcome?” Jesus’ gospel of grace as revealed in his death on the cross, was for everyone. It is that gospel message that has authority, not biblical literalism.

In living out that grace, Jesus would want all of us to get on with the business of what he thought was important, the things he talked the most about. Like the disciples, I think we know what those things are, but we’d rather talk about things Jesus didn’t think were important because talking about what he did think was important hits too close to home.

For example, Jesus says a lot about money and possessions and what he says doesn’t agree with consumer capitalism which might be the real religion of this country and I think we know that. He says a lot about power and status (like in today’s text) and it doesn’t agree with how the world views power and status and I think we know that. He says a lot about justice and care for the poor and the outcast and I think we know that. He says a lot about the equality of all people and we nod our heads in agreement and continue to live in a world where some are more equal than others and we’re OK with it, even though I think we know that Jesus is not OK with it.

I could go on but you get the idea. These are the things Jesus talked about so I have to think that they are the things he thought were important. We however, would sometimes prefer to talk about other things that don’t place too much of a demand on is. If we focused more on the things Jesus thought were important though, we wouldn’t be reduced to embarrassed silence if he asked, “What have you been talking about?”

Rev. Warren Geier

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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