One day, a little girl is sitting and watching her mother do the dishes at the kitchen sink. She suddenly notices that her mother has several strands of white hair sticking out in contrast on her brunette head. She looks at her mother and inquisitively asks, "Why are some of your hairs white, mom?"
Her mother replied, "Well, every time that you do something wrong and make me cry or unhappy, one of my hairs turns white." The little girl thought about this revelation for a while, and then said, "Momma, how come *all* of grandma's hairs are white?"
Children can come up with the funniest things sometimes. There brutal honesty has to be admired. It is no wonder Jesus uses children as examples so much. In Mark's gospel, Jesus uses children as examples three times in Mark 9-10 as he teaches the disciples how to follow him.
This morning is EMIM (Every Member in Ministry) Sunday in which we will have the opportunity to commit to being in ministry together. As we allow prepare ourselves for this time of commitment, I want to walk you through this a passage of Scripture in Mark 9 where Jesus gives us as example of how to live by using a child.
Jesus has just come back from the mountain top with Peter, James and John to find the disciples trying unsuccessfully to cast out a demon. Mark begins the story by saying,
30 They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, 31 because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, "The Son of Man is going to be delivered over to human hands. He will be killed, and after three days he will rise." 32 But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.
33 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the road?" 34 But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
This is the second time Jesus has predicted his own death. After the first occasion, Peter argues with him. This time the disciples still don't get what Jesus is saying, but they are afraid to ask each other. Mark gives us a clue as to why they may not be getting the message Jesus is giving to them because when they arrive in Capernaum Jesus asks them about their conversation, which was about which one of them was the greatest.
Missing the Point about Ministry
The reason I suspect the disciples did not understand what Jesus was trying to say is that they had a completely different agenda. He was trying to tell them that he was going to die, while they were in hopes that Jesus would be the new King and they would be great in his new kingdom. Even after this episode, in chapter ten, when Jesus has predicted his death a third time, James and John are arguing about which one of them will sit at Jesus right and left hand sides, meaning which one will be seated in the greatest seat. Again, the disciples seem to be completely missing the point.
Just as the disciples seem to be missing the point about what Jesus' ministry is all about, the church has been missing the point about ministry for decades. We have traditionally held that there are two ranking of people in the church. There are pastors and there are people who attend church. Traditionally the pastors are seen as being in ministry to the people who attend church. This is fueled by both pastors and church members.
Pastors, like me, sometimes get it in our head that we are the ones trained and called by God so we can do the ministry better than anyone else. So, instead of allowing church member to be in ministry, we have done it all ourselves. Church members on the other hand, have become quite content to "be served" and allow the pastors to do all the work, thus missing the point.
Everyone is Welcome
Jesus sets out in this passage to help the disciples understand the point of it all. He says,
35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, "Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all."
36 He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, 37 "Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me."
Jesus sits down, which is the position a rabbi would take when teaching in Jesus' day. He explains to the disciples how someone will "become great" in his kingdom. He says that if someone wants to be great, they must be last and a servant of all. Jesus then uses a child to illustrate his point.
To understand what Jesus is saying, it is important to understand the status of a child in his day. Children, until a certain age, had no social status and their role was to bring honor to their father. Jesus says that if we welcome a child, we will be welcoming God himself. What did Jesus mean with this illustration?
One way of looking at this passage is to suggest that welcoming a child is like welcoming one without status so that in Jesus' kingdom, everyone has equal status and no one is greater than anyone else. (NT Wright Mark for Everyone)
If we were to apply this teaching to our own misunderstanding of ministry it would be to say that all persons, pastors and church members are equal before God. In other words, pastors may be called to work in the local church, but every person is valuable to God. God calls us to except the ministry of every person.
I have been reading a book called Natural Church Devolvement as our church prepares to put together some strategic goals for our future. In this book, it is suggested that one sign of a healthy growing church is that they are engaged in "gift oriented ministry." This means that all the people in the church are aware of their spiritual gifts and are actively involved in the ministry of the church.
Greatness is in Service
I believe Jesus is also making the point that accepting a child, who has no social standing, is what it means to be "the last and a servant of them all." In serving a child, there would have been no social benefits in Jesus day. Jesus is telling the disciples to serve without expecting greatness in return by the world's standards. However, by the standards in his kingdom, they will be great. Jesus is redefining greatness as being in service. Every person is called to be in ministry and service.
One lesson that I have learned from my 11 week old son Caleb is that he is totally dependant upon Melanie and I to care for his needs. Just in the course of writing this sermon, he woke up from his sleep crying which caused me to stop writing and as I write these words, he is crying to get out of his swing. He can't get out of it on his own, so I have to listen to his squeals and get him out. He depends on Melanie to eat, on both of us to get him dressed and change his diapers. He is totally dependant upon us. (I am going to get him out of the swing now.)
It is neat to compare my relationship with Caleb to that of my parents. The older I have gotten, the more I become a partner in life with my parents. In a sense we are dependant on each other.
I know this illustration will break down some, but I think there is an underlying truth behind it. When we are infant Christians, we are Christians for what Jesus offers us. We receive forgiveness, grace, etc. As we grow in our faith, God begins to call us to be in ministry. We will always be dependant upon God, but as we mature we become partners with God in ministry to those around us. We move from selfishness to selflessness, thus redefining what it means to be great.