Mark 9:33-50, Philippians 1:12-18
September 10, 2006
Sometimes when you read the Bible, the challenge is figuring out what goes with what. Here in Mark chapter 9, we have two seemingly separate stories. Yet they seem to be part of the same picture. And if we really dug into it, we would probably find that they are both related to an even larger section of this passage. But I’d like us just to focus on these two today, and I’d like us to make one picture out of them. Because the message they both give us is very important. Are you ready?
First of all, we have this great little exchange between Jesus and his disciples. They were traveling and they had just returned to Capernaum. And once they had settled in, he asks them (knowingly!) what they were talking about on the road. I say “knowingly” because Mark tells us that he already knows! But he asks them to say it anyway – which they can’t! Because they were discussing who was the greatest among them. That seems strange to us, doesn’t it? It doesn’t fit our image of the Apostles!
Here’s Jesus’ reaction. Mark tells us this. “And he sat down, and called the twelve to him…” That’s very important. Because that’s what a rabbi would do. When a rabbi would want to have a teaching session with his disciples, he would sit down and call his disciples to him. The original readers of this gospel – who were Jews – would have picked up on that. They would have said, “Jesus is teaching like a rabbi here.” “This must be something important.” And what was this important lesson he gave them? He said, “If any would be first among you, he must be last of all, and even more than that, he must be servant of all.” Then he calls over a child and using that child as an object lesson, like a good rabbi would, he said, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.”
In this part, he was trying to tell them one of the most important things about the kingdom of God. That is, that it isn’t being first or greatest that matters. Instead, the important thing in God’s kingdom is the giving up of the self, it is the surrendering of the will to God’s will, it is seeking first God’s kingdom. That is where true greatness is found. That was very important for them to learn. And it was hard for them. And if it was hard for them then, imagine how hard it is for us today.
Last week we talked about being “Doers of the Word.” And we said how it was the practice of our faith, the living out of our faith, that was the hardest part of being God’s people. Well, of all the things in our faith that are hard to live, the giving up of the self is perhaps the hardest thing – especially in the context of our culture.
Since about the 1970’s we have seen growing in our world what has been called a “culture of the self.” Remember how we used to talk about the “me generation?” Well, that was only the beginning. Since then, there has been an increase in the attitude that the self is central in our world, and that “getting one’s” way is the most important thing in this life. That’s the context in which we are attempting to give up the self, and to surrender to God’s will. The world can’t understand that. Yet it is at the heart of the Christian message! And that is a struggle! If we don’t choose the ways of Jesus, the ways of the world will be chosen for us. Jesus tried to tell them that.
Let’s look what happens next. As this little “rabbinical teaching session” develops, there is a further exchange of ideas with the teacher. That was part of that method of teaching. John says, “Teacher…” You see, this was a rabbi/disciple thing going on here. “Teacher,” he said, “we saw a man casting out demons in your name and we forbid him.” And why? John makes no pretense. He said, “We forbid him because he wasn’t one of us.”
Think about that. This was the same thing as arguing who was the greatest. This was still a problem with the “self,” wasn’t it? “We stopped this guy because he was not one of us.” In other words, “We are ones in the ‘in crowd.’” “We have the right understanding.” “We are the chosen ones!” This is still them thinking about who was the greatest and who was the most important. And Jesus the rabbi was about to give them the real truth. In both cases it was not the self that was important, but the message. The message was important, not the messenger. Do you see that? It was the kingdom of God that was foremost. As Jesus had already said in his Sermon on the Mount, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God…”
It is the message, the Gospel, the “Good News” (that’s what that word means) that is the most important. That’s the lesson here. That’s what all of God’s people need to keep at the forefront of their faith! It’s too easy to let the self, the ego, our own will, to take the top place. Look what Jesus said. “Don’t forbid the man!” “If he’s doing our work, if he’s telling our story, if he’s helping people in this way, if he’s advancing the kingdom, then he’s doing what’s important. It may not be ‘our way,’ but the good is being done.”
This isn’t easy, isn’t it? We humans like to have things our way. We are comfortable with being done things certain ways. Sometimes even our search for truth gets sidetracked, because it’s much more comfortable to accept truth as we want it to be, rather than seeking the truth as it is. As I said a few weeks ago, if we are truly seeking truth, we’d better be prepared for the possibility that the truth might ‘rock our world.’
Look at this second scripture reading. This is from Philippians, and here we find Paul echoing the sentiments of Jesus. In these strange words, he says, “Some people are out there preaching Christ out of envy or rivalry, others from good intentions.” “The ones with good intentions are doing it out of love, and they are supportive of my work. But the ones who are preaching out of envy or rivalry are doing it out of partisanship. They think they are harming my ministry or taking over my work in some way.” “But I don’t care!” “No matter how it happens, the important thing is that Christ is proclaimed!”
I’m not sure we can ever know what he meant by people who were “preaching Christ out of envy or rivalry.” Maybe they were people who wanted to be the greatest in their world. Maybe they didn’t like Paul, and they wanted to ‘steal his thunder’ some way. It’s hard to say. They certainly were not helpful to Paul personally. But the thing is, Paul didn’t let that matter! I’m not saying it didn’t bother him. He was human. I’m sure it did. But he didn’t let it matter! Instead of being upset about it, he told the people to see the good in it. He was able to do so because he kept his eyes on the ministry, rather than himself as the messenger. The Good news was the most important thing to him. It was so important “That the Gospel be proclaimed…”
Folks, we need to concentrate on that message as being the most important thing for us – that the Gospel be proclaimed! We need to concentrate not so much on the way things are said, but that the Gospel is proclaimed. It matters less the style of worship, but that God is being worshipped. It matters less how the message is proclaimed, but that is being proclaimed! That is the most important!!
The message is being proclaimed here at Eddington Church. It’s proclaimed in different ways. And it’s great! And not every style is for everybody, and that’s ok! But we have something for everyone here. In fact, we have what many Churches wish they had! Really! I’ve heard that from a number of Churches! But in all this, the important thing is that the Gospel be proclaimed! We need to continue to see that. We need to continue to see how we’re proclaiming the gospel – together. And we need to keep emphasizing the unity of believers. We need to see the importance, the relevance, and the value, in each other, and in each other’s expressions of worship, music, and devotion.
That’s the message! That the Gospel be Proclaimed! That’s the most important thing! And the good news in this is that that the God we worship is the God “who is able to do far more abundantly than whatever we could ask or even think.” The potential blessings on this congregation are beyond what we can imagine! I know that! I see it in all of you – all the time! It will happen if only we will look to God first, to seek his kingdom, to surrender to his spirit, to find new ways of upbuilding one another, and to open our hearts to his possibilities.
Will you do that with me?
Eternal God, help us to seek your kingdom and to see your kingdom. Help us to concentrate on your message to the world. Teach us the hard work of surrendering the self and seeking to do your will in our lives and in our Church. We thank you for your spirit in our midst. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.