The Primacy of We
James 3:13 – 4:8
It had been a, shall we say, interesting, few days. From their excursion into the heathen realms of Syria and Lebanon, they finally had wandered back to the southwest towards home.
Three of them had slipped away to follow Jesus in the early morning mist as he had gone to the mountain top to pray. And there they saw—well, what they saw was supposed to be kept secret, but from the winks and grins shared by the trio, everyone else guessed it must have been something spectacular.
Whatever they had witnessed on top of the mountain, it hadn’t done much for their miracle-making powers. When they had encountered a man with a demon a few days later, the trio tried every combination of esoteria they could remember, and the still the man writhed and foamed and screamed. The others pushed past them, waved their arms, imploring God to heal, shouting and cursing and ordering the spirit to come out.
Finally, Jesus heard all the commotion, and knelt beside the man, touched him softly on the arm and he was quiet. The demon was gone. Jesus looked at them, “This kind only comes out after prayer and fasting,” a statement even more mysterious than his usual ones. “Now, let’s go, I’d like to get to Capernaum before we all get killed.”
And off he went, wandering down the Galilee highway. He lectured them with a sternness bordering on grouchy and kept saying things like, “You know that Herod would love to have my head on a sliver platter, just he had John’s.” or, “You know, you guys have the whole Messiah thing screwed up: they are going to kill me. I’m going to have to claw my way out of death to win this battle.”
After awhile, they dropped back. He was depressing them with all this talk of arrest and dying. Sometimes it seemed that he didn’t really even want to be the Messiah, or that he didn’t even believe the scriptures, which were pretty clear about how the Son of David would triumph, not fail.
Peter nudged John. “That really was pretty cool, up there, wasn’t it?” John smiled, and nodded conspiratorially. James shot them both a look. His eyes said: shut up, he told us not to say anything.
From behind them someone snorted. “Your little field trip sure didn’t help you when it came to exorcisms, Pete.” The snorts turned to snickers.
Peter turned around. “We saw Moses and Elijah, and the power of God.”
“Yeah and we saw Abraham and Isaac and Jacob playing in a klezmer band.” That got a huge guffaw.
John was angry. “Idiots. The reason he took us with him is that he trusts us to keep secrets. He knows who his real friends are.”
“Right, like the other day when he called Peter the Devil? That was a real term of endearment.”
“You lie,” hissed Peter.
“Satan!” came the retort, followed by a chorus of catcalls.
They had hardly noticed that they had walked past the city gates of Capernaum and down the twisting streets towards the house. The jabs and counter-jabs grew quieter. Jesus was only a few paces ahead, and the walls would amplify their arguments. They just glared at each other, hatred in their eyes.
Inside the house, their friends were waiting, with a grand meal of pita, tilapia, roasted figs and sweet, sweet wine. People were jammed everywhere, even children, bursting through the crowd, running up to Jesus and hugging him. The twelve thought all this raucousness a bit much. Jesus was the Messiah, for heaven’s sake. They should have a bit of respect. One of them shooed a herd of squealing children out of the room.
They dropped their packs and walking sticks and sat down. The wine began to flow. Everyone was talking excitedly, everyone that is, but Jesus. He simply stood there, quiet, the unmoved mover. One by one they stopped talking, grins disappearing, hands still, watching him.
“So guys, it feels pretty good to be back home in Galilee, doesn’t it?” They nodded. “I was a ways of ahead of you most of the morning, sorry about that. I didn’t mean to give you the impression that I didn’t want to be with you.” He flashed them that famous smile, the one that always came right before he sank a blade deep into their egos. “It seemed like you guys had some pretty intense discussions going on this morning. Of course, I couldn’t hear you, at least not very well. But it sure sounded to me like you were arguing about something.”
They looked down at their feet. John shot a sideways glance at his brother, who almost imperceptibly shook his head. Peter looked out the window.
A dirty little face appeared at the doorway. When Jesus saw her, his smiled broadened. “Come here, Tabitha.” She ran up to him, grimy bare feet flying across the floor. He held her close and she nuzzled up to his neck. He sat down, his arms holding her tightly to his breast.
He turned her around to them. Her round brown eyes stared at them. Her hair was stringy with the sweat of children’s play. Little drops of sweat glistened on her upper lip. Her tongue licked at them: sweet, salty dirt, washed clean. They looked at the wretched little creature. Why was he always hugging the worst possible examples of humanity: lepers, and beggars and whores and, they sniffed, as if to shut out the reek of her, filthy little children?
“You guys think you’re so great. Every one of you supposes that God is impressed with your piety,” he looked at James; “your loyalty,” he looked at Peter; “or your bravery,” he looked at Thaddeus. And then he took them all in. He ran his a hand through dirty strands of little girl hair. “You really want to be first? Then you have to be last, you have to be the servant of everyone.”
The servants were peaking around the doorway now. The air in the room was so heavy, they could hardly breathe. “You want to be great, then you have to welcome everyone in. Because only when you are willing to welcome everyone in my name, are going to welcome me in and the God in whose Name I come.”
This story is another of Mark’s funniest home videos, a wild ride through the backlots of Messiahville, the first century version of reality television, replete with ribald, inside jokes and the saddest sort of human folly. Stories like this explain why the Bible never goes out of style, though its worst enemies are the ones who claim to believe it, not the ones who regard it as ancient, dusty religious writ.
The disciples are so busy trying to prove to each other that they are closer to Jesus or better pray-ers or more orthodox or more full of wonder-working power that they are completely oblivious to the nature of God’s Kingdom in their midst. In a couple of short chapters, Mark has taken us from the Gentile country where Jesus faced down the demons of Jewish-Gentile bigotry, through the transfiguration on the mountaintop, the disciples’ inability to work a simple exorcism and finally, to their journey home.
Along the way, they have completely failed to comprehend anything he has said or done, and so he resorts to sticking their noses into the sweat of a dirty little child. Other than a menstruating woman, there was nothing more disgusting than a child: wild, selfish, mean, ungodly, given to demonic possession. The rumpus always began with these wild things.
And now he’s confronting them with their failures: “Unless you become a servant of all, unless you are willing to be in last place, unless you are willing to embrace even loud, sweaty children, you are never going to figure out the Kingdom.”
Servant of all? What kind of notion was this? Mark uses the word diakonos here, the same word that becomes “Deacon” in English. He’s telling us we have to become the servant of all, the Deacon to all, we have to be willing to give it all away to irresponsible children in order to gain the treasures of heaven.
This is certainly one of the more bizarre things he has said to them, for their culture had no notion of “women and children first;” there was a strict hierarchy of all existence and the free Jewish man was at the top. At the bottom were Gentiles, slaves, women and disgusting, snot-nosed children.
We feel pretty good when we compare our culture to theirs. We, by contrast, lift up women and children and put them first. We believe that everyone is created equal, we pledge allegiance to a flag that stands for liberty and justice for all. We are not like these ignorant Middle Easterners with their antiquated ideas of what makes a society great. In fact, we are the greatest nation that has ever been created on this planet. We command the largest army, we have the most fearsome weapons, we control the world’s money supply, we will fight on land, sea or in the air any nation or ideology that is foolish enough to challenge our hegemony. We will crush and defeat them, and we will rule, the shining city on the hill, where God Himself is pleased to reside in our churches, our homes and our Fortune 500. That’s right, we’re the greatest.
Unless you count the fact that in many of our communities, half of the children drop out of school before graduation, more than 13 million of them live below the poverty line, our teen birth rate is the highest in the developed world, more 8 million children go without health insurance, in spite of all our well-intentioned efforts. We’re the greatest, as long you define greatness as power that flows from the barrel of a gun or the ability to buy stuff by taking money from our children and grandchildren. We’re the greatest, the freest, the most united nation in the world, until you listen to us arguing on the road.
The Holy Order of Deacons, to which I belong, is called by God to do two things: serve everyone, but especially those who are without anyone else to serve them, and to interpret the hopes, needs and dreams of the world to the Church. That’s what Deacons do, and sometimes Deacon’s words are considered harsh, or crazy, or so hard to unpack as to have any meaning. So at the risk of losing you, confusing you or sending you scurrying for the doors, let me speak as plainly as I know how to do.
We twenty-first century American Christians have unprecedented wealth and power. We have not received them because God loves us more than God loves other people or other nations. But we have received them nonetheless. They were given for us to steward, to invest, to care for those the world considers of little value: the poor, the imprisoned, the young, the sick, the refugee. Frankly, we haven’t done a very good job. And most of what passes for wisdom in the current debates over what our national priorities should be is really, in the words of Jesus’ brother James, “earthly, unspiritual, devilish.” What passes for wisdom is the primacy of Me, not the primacy of We. What passes for wisdom is the gaining and holding of advantage over others, rather than serving them and seeing them as valuable in God’s eyes and ours.
Now, here’s a last bit of truth: we, you and I, and all of our neighbors; we can do something about this mess we’re in. Like James says, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” or like his brother the Lord, said: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Many of us loathe the expansion of government to care for those considered of little value. But government has expanded because the Church has failed to care for them. God will use even the ungodly as servants, when the godly are too busy arguing over who is the greatest. So, it comes down to our choice: do we want to welcome the unwelcome into our lives, and in the process, welcome Jesus?
What is it that we want to talk about on the road?