BIBLE READINGS: James 3:13 - 4:3, 4:7-8a Mark 9:30-37
We were used to thinking of religiously motivated violence as something that happens in other parts of the world, but over the past several years it has come a lot closer to home. Mosques burnt down, Muslims rioting about offensives films. Burkas torn from the heads of women just going about their daily lives. When these kind of things happen, we all begin to feel some anxiety. We fear the violence and its apparent randomness. We didn’t make the film, we didn’t burn down someone's place of worship, let alone be so violently offensive to a woman.
One of the predictable responses to this current bout of violence is that many Christians will feel very superior. They will make claims about Islam being a religion of violence and about Christianity being instead a religion that civilises people and promotes peace and harmony. They will feel that in the competition of the world’s major religions, that Islam is discredited by this violence and that therefore “we” can confidently claim the higher ground. But if we allow ourselves to be sucked into such thinking, we will have missed the point, not only of the current events, but of our own sorry violent history. And most importantly we will have missed the point of the example and teaching of Jesus.
We won’t, however, be the first followers of Jesus to have so missed the point. Missing the point of what Jesus was on about has been going on since the beginning. We heard a classic story of it a few minutes ago in our reading from the Gospel according to Mark. Jesus is explaining to his little band of followers that it is now inevitable that he will be betrayed and attacked and killed. Already last week we heard how Peter responded by arguing about it with Jesus and trying to tell him that he must have it all wrong. In this week’s episode, Jesus explains it again. This time he doesn’t get an argument, but it is not because they get it now. In fact, we are told that they don’t understand but that this time they are keeping their mouths shut about it. So instead we are shown how completely they don’t get it. They get into a bit of an argument among themselves about which of them is the greatest. We’re not told the details, but we can easily speculate.
“I’ve been following Jesus the longest.”
“Yeah, but I’m the one he confides in when he needs to talk.”
“Well I was with him when he was transfigured on the mountain.”
“Yeah, well I’m the one who healed the most people when he sent us out to preach and heal.”
“Maybe, but it was my preaching that brought in the most converts.”
“Well, when we take on the Romans, you can preach all you like, but my skills with the sword will achieve a whole lot more for Jesus then.”
And they’ve completely missed the point. But are we any better? Are we any closer to getting it? It doesn’t seem so. Churches and their adherents are still constantly arguing over who is the greatest.
“Our church is more faithful to the whole teaching of the Bible.”
“Yeah, well our church practices the true forms of baptism and the Lord’s Table.”
“So what? Nobody comes. Our church is the fastest growing in the country.”
“But our church exhibits far more of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.”
“Oh yeah? Well our church does a whole lot more for the poor and the needy.”
And there we are, busy jealously comparing ourselves to one another and arguing over who is the greatest, and completely missing the point. Of course, it is not just church versus church. It happens just as much among individuals in the church.
“I tithe regularly and spend an hour a day in prayer.”
“Yeah, well I’ve got a theology degree from a reputable college.”
“But I’ve been baptised in the Holy Spirit and I speak in tongues.”
“Well I’ve served as church secretary for 22 years and been at every church meeting and every working bee.”
“Yeah, but I’m the one the pastor trusts with the important jobs.”
“So, I’ve been arrested like Jesus for civil disobedience when we protested against the refugee detention centres and I boldly trespassed in Parliament House.”
And there we are again, jealously comparing ourselves to one another and arguing over who is the greatest, and completely missing the point.
We’re missing the point firstly because such rivalries always inflame the hatreds and hostilities that cause chaos and violence to flare up around us. As the Apostle James said in our other reading, “where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” As soon as we claim to be greater, we are alleging that someone else is lesser or inferior, and before long we’ve got mass offence and riots in the streets.
And we’re missing the point because most of the time we are still unable to get our heads around what Jesus was on about. When Jesus spoke about how he would be betrayed and arrested and killed, he wasn’t just predicting an unavoidable chain of events. He was also making a pledge of non-resistance. He was committing himself to avoiding the quest for greatness based in a competition of strength, or in the right and ability to use justifiable force or violence. And just as his first followers couldn’t get their heads around the idea of a messiah who wouldn’t forcefully drive the Romans out of town and re-establish the patriotic throne of David, so we struggle to comprehend any idea of giving our allegiance to a messiah if it doesn’t involve proving ours to be the greatest religion and winning everyone else to accepting our ways, our faith, our culture.
We too easily get sucked into the idea that the only ways to end the religiously motivated violence are to successfully convert everyone of other faiths to our “greatest” faith, or failing that, to send in the army to crush the violence with our “legal and justified” violence. But Jesus’s response to the religiously motivated violence directed at him was to absorb it in his own body without ever reciprocating it. His response was to consistently reach out in love and forgiveness even to those who were attacking him. And in so doing, he opened up a new pathway to peace and invited us to follow. But a pathway to peace that is based in voluntarily relinquishing power continues to confuse and confound us, just as it confounded the first disciples.
So Jesus gives us all an object lesson. Taking a small child in his arms in the midst of them, he says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” The challenge is to learn to welcome and honour the ones who have no power or status or influence as though they were Jesus himself. Can we let go of our desire to associate with the celebrities, the movers and shakers, the ones who call the shots and make things happen, and instead privilege and honour those who have no recognition or influence or fame? Can we offer ourselves in love and service to those who cannot repay us or boost our image?
Now, welcoming children and other less influential people is not, on its own, about to end inter-faith conflicts and bring about an outbreak of peace and harmony. But our responsibility for religious peace-making begins at home. It is in offering ourselves in service of the little ones that we take our first steps in learning to offer ourselves in service of the whole world, as Jesus does. And our contribution to peace between peoples of different faiths will only come when we begin to see them not as targets to be converted or conquered or at least outdone, but as people made in the image of God who we are called to love and honour and welcome as we would welcome Jesus and the one who sent Jesus. Jesus is calling us to be partners with him in blessing the world with love and mercy and generous hospitality. And the paradox is that the only way we get to be number one in that is by doing our best to make everyone else look like number one, starting with the children, and working our way up to those frightening people who are offended and angry and baying for blood in the streets. And the only reason we have the opportunity to become part of the solution is that when we were part of the problem, part of the angry mob baying for blood, Jesus walked into our streets and took the worst we had to give, and came back to us with arms open wide offering that welcome and forgiveness and love and service.
Acknowledgement: Nathan Nettleton