December 4, 2016
Many of you have been in churches where visitors were singled-out. You know what I mean – the pastor perhaps asks visitors to stand and introduce themselves. Ushers come forward, give them a welcome packet – complete with a little stick-on rose they can put on their shirts so everyone will know who they are. We’re thinking about using those neon necklaces you get at concerts. Not really. I selected this picture because of the website – glowwithus.com. I heard about a church once where, when it came time to recognize visitors, they had all the members stand while the visitors remained seated. Then, the members would turn to the seated visitors and sing a welcome song. Yeah, that’s not going to happen here, either. Now in fairness, those churches are just trying to welcome people – there’s a sense in which they understand it’s not just about them. All are welcome to join our group, to be part of us. That’s actually a good thing.
I’m sure many of us have also been in churches where only certain visitors were singled-out as special guests. I’m not talking about introducing guest speakers or people who have perhaps traveled a long way. I’m talking about singling out special people because of their positions or abilities or status in the community. Perhaps the pastor looks out and sees an important person, and wanting to honor the person, he has him or her stand, introduces him, everyone applauds and thinks, wow, isn’t it something that so-and-so actually visited our church. An athlete, a politician, a well-known celebrity. Why are they so important? Well, because they’re great.
I’ve mentioned before how excited the Christian community gets when even the whiff of a rumor makes the rounds of some well-known celebrity becoming a Christian. It travels on social media like wildfire – whether it’s true or not. We tend to think, wow, what an impact the gospel could have if that person actually became a Christian – as if the gospel needs important people to succeed. You see, important people somehow make the gospel more acceptable – validates us. We’re not as unimportant as we thought. Let me be clear, the gospel actually needed only one important person to succeed – His name was Jesus.
Obviously, we don’t do those things around here – we do want visitors to feel welcome, to be our guests and be treated with special kindness – we want you to know how important you are to us, and to the God we serve. But, one of the things I believe Jesus is teaching is everyone is to be treated as important. In fact, people we would by nature honor are not necessarily on His list of greatness. And people we may not even give a second glance might be the ones He esteems.
You see, we found that greatness is not necessarily determined by what we do, but by who we are. Meaning, not by the positions we hold, the power we wield, the status we enjoy, the size of our bank accounts, the number of people who know us. Who’s the greatest in the kingdom? Probably not the ones most of us think. The last words out of Jesus’ mouth last week were these, “Whoever receives one child like this [the one in His arms] in My name receives Me.” We found Jesus was not necessarily talking about just children, although He certainly includes them. No, the child was an object lesson – representing every less-than-important person.
That was the message last week. You see, somewhere along the way, the disciples had forgotten a very basic truth of Christianity – Jesus came to save undeserving sinners – not those who deserve it, but those who don’t. His very first recorded full-length sermon is called the Sermon on the Mount. Wanting to make sure the disciples and the crowds understood the kingdom He came to bring, He introduced the sermon with the Beatitudes. Blessed are the rich and famous, well-known, the celebrities, the gifted, the religious, those who have it all together, the performers, the high-profile members of society – the ones who get introduced in church.
No, that’s not what He said. First words out of His mouth, Blessed are the poor in spirit – the destitute, the spiritually bankrupt. Blessed are the broken – because theirs, and theirs alone, is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who would never be noticed, let alone be introduced in most churches. Now I’m not saying well-known people can’t be Christians – that’s not my point. My point is well-known people who are Christians are no more important than, well, you.
Blessed are those the disciples, and even we, may shun. Jesus had communicated that truth by both His teaching and those He chose – the broken people of society. The outcasts, the sick, the demon-possessed, the lepers, the prostitutes, the sinners. The religious and political leaders of society – the who’s who on everyone’s Hanukkah list? Well, they were the ones opposing Jesus.
So now, Jesus and the disciples are on their way to Jerusalem. The time is short. Jesus has begun clearly telling them, beginning up in Caesarea Philippi, He must go to Jerusalem, suffer at the hands of the chief priests, scribes and elders, be killed, and raised again the third day. The disciples were confused when they heard that news, but quickly dismissed it.
How do I know that? You see, on their way to Jerusalem from Philippi, they stopped at Capernaum one last time. And on the way there, Jesus told them again, and I will be handed over, and killed. And so, quite understandably, an argument broke out between the disciples as to which one of them was the greatest. Are you kidding me, Jesus was giving up His life, they were promoting theirs.
Remember, Jesus asked them, “what were you discussing on the way?” and after a moment of embarrassed silence, knowing they were talking about who was greatest, Jesus said, “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and the servant of all.” This is a critical characteristic of the kingdom. The last will be first, the first, last. Remember, He’s been saying all kinds of shocking things like this. If you want to live, you must die. If you want to save your life, you must lose it. If you want to be great, you must suffer. If you want to be first, you must be last. If you want to be great, you must serve.
Shocking. You’re fighting about greatness, position, status, power? He gathered a little child, a toddler, in His arms before them. Then, very firmly, perhaps quietly, maybe with an edge of disappointment, He said, “Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives Me.” His disciples would have been stunned. At that time, children were the lowest on the food chain – they wouldn’t have even noticed the kid. A child, greatest in the kingdom?
In Matthew, He told them, this little child is great because he’s humble. He’s too young to be concerned about prestige and power and status and greatness – all the things you were arguing about – all the things you were putting forward to display your greatness. This little one – he’s humble – not only that, he’s dependent – not self-dependent, not independent – totally dependent. His existence is dependent on others for survival which brings humility. This, Jesus says, is greatness. When you come to the end of yourselves, when you stop worrying about greatness and performance, when you start depending totally on Jesus as your source of life – that is greatness in the kingdom.
That brings us to our text today, which is a continuation from last week. It’s critically important we keep the context before us. Jesus is getting ready to return to His Father, to leave the kingdom in the hands of the disciples, and they still don’t get it. They’ve been with Him for up to three years now. They’d seen Him care for the least in society. And they’re arguing about who’s greatest. Not only that, we’ll find today they think it’s only them.
So, Jesus is teaching them about true discipleship. He’s concerned, with their eyes only on themselves, they may develop a spirit of ungodly competition, looking down on other Christians who serve. I know that’s shocking to think Christians could actually be jealous of one another in a spirit of competition, but Jesus addresses it anyway. Because sometimes in our petty, competitive jealousies, we may prevent others from serving, or worse, we may even cause others to stumble. Read the text with me, Mark 9:38-50.
This is a challenging text. The context actually stretches from last week through this week into next week. Mark seems to take little sections of Jesus’ teaching and puts them together in a loose train of thought based on similar words or phrases. It goes like this – who’s the greatest? Those who serve little children in My name. Which seems to remind John – oh, speaking of Your name, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, so we told him to stop. Jesus says, don’t do that. Even if you give a cup of water in My name, you won’t lose your reward. But conversely, if you cause a little one to stumble, big trouble. And while we’re talking about stumbling, if there’s something in your life causing you to stumble, cut it out. Better to go to heaven maimed then into hell in one piece. And while we’re talking about hell, everyone will be salted with fire. And while we’re talking about salt, be salty.
It’s all a bit confusing, but the underlying theme seems to be true, costly discipleship. This is what life as My followers looks like. Don’t worry about greatness. True greatness for followers of Jesus is found in being last and serving. Serving even the least in the kingdom. It doesn’t matter whether they are up front kind of people – one of the Twelve, or just someone who goes by My name – whatever they do in My name – big things like casting out demons, or small things like giving a cup of water – it will all be recognized and rewarded. On the flip side, make sure you don’t cause followers to stumble – especially little ones, the ones the world overlooks, because I love them, too.
So, let’s just look at that first story, verses 38-41, where we’ll see, Service in Jesus’ Name is What Matters. Not your name. Not who you think you are in rank or position. Big things, small things done in My name – it’s all good. As Jesus mentioned receiving little ones in His name, it seemed to spark John’s memory. We don’t know if this just happened or if it was sometime earlier. But John says, “Um, Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, but hey, he wasn’t following us, so we told him to stop.” Mark talks a lot about following, but it’s always following Jesus. John? Well, he’s concerned someone is not following us.
No doubt, at some point, this guy had witnessed either Jesus or the disciples casting out demons. Please notice, John’s concern was not that the guy was casting out demons. And remember, the disciples had recently been unable to do that very thing. That maybe added to the angst here. We were the ones given authority to cast out demons – we’re in a special group. But then, they had just come through a significant failure, and this guy seemed to be succeeding.
His concern was not that the guy was casting out demons, nor that he was casting them out in Jesus’ name. His concern was that he was not following us. Notice the little word, us. Not, not following You, Jesus. He apparently was – he was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. John was concerned he’s not following us – he’s not one of our merry little band of important disciples. He’s not one of the Twelve. He’s not one of the big guys. Who does he think he is? Don’t miss, John’s concern still seems to be his inflated, singular self-importance. Remember the context – that’s why Mark put it here. Who’s the greatest – it’s got to be one of us. Not this guy – we don’t even know his name. We told him to stop.
So Jesus begins teaching another critical lesson. Last week, whoever receives a little one in My name receives Me. Greatness in the kingdom is not found in the world’s standards of greatness – prestige, power, status, rank, position. The least are actually the greatest.
This week, in terms of serving, only one thing matters – do they carry the name of Christ? He was doing it in My name. Are they Christ followers? Not, are they part of our little band – our group. If they name the name of Christ, then what they are doing in My name is good. Jesus went on to say, they can’t perform a miracle, they can’t do a work in My name, and then speak evil of Me. Leave them alone – whoever is not against us is for us. Even if they aren’t part of our particular band or brand.
Somewhere along the way, in our spirit of competition, in our attitudes of personal greatness, we lost that truth. One commentator pointed out, this is an apostolic example of ministry intolerance and jealousy – arrogant exclusivism and narrowness – in the Body of Christ.
This same thing happened in the Old Testament. In Numbers 11, a couple of guys named Eldad and Medad were prophesying in the camp of Israel. Who the heck were they? Never heard of them. Exactly – who do they think they are? So a young man ran to Moses and told him, these two no-names are prophesying in the camp. Joshua became incensed, and demanded Moses tell them to stop. Why, they can’t be prophesying – only certain people, important people, can prophesy. But Moses said to young Joshua, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would but His Spirit upon them!”
Moses, the leader of the children of Israel, had his heart in the right place. This isn’t a competition between us – this isn’t about us. This is about the Spirit of God resting on people so they do His work. It’s no wonder Moses was called the most humble man on the earth.
Well, the same kind of thing happened in the New Testament in John 3. John the Baptist had been quite popular – his had become a household name. Droves of people – all kinds of people – went out to him at the Jordan to be baptized by him. He was without doubt the spiritual leader in Israel.
One day, as John’s star began to set, his disciples came to him and said, “Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified, behold, He is baptizing and all are coming to Him.” You catch that – John, you were the star. Everyone was flocking to you. But now, this one to whom you testified, this Jesus, is baptizing more than you. What are you going to do about it? After all, this is about us, right? This is a competition, right?
27 John answered and said, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven.
28 “You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent ahead of Him.’
29 “He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made full.
30 “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
John the Baptist understood what the John the Apostle missed. This is not about us. This is about Jesus – and everything we do is to make Him increase. To make His great name known. Our stars must fade – His must increase. John – both Johns – this isn’t about you. The first John understood that, the second John missed it. All those who name the name of Christ matter – small and great, in our group or not.
So, as we close to move toward communion – something we do together as followers of Jesus – what does this look like for the church of Jesus Christ? I think most of us would agree there is an unhealthy, ungodly competition in the church today. It may be as insidious as being jealous of the ministry success of others, or as blatant as actively opposing and criticizing the success of others in the church. Just as authentic believers welcome those of low social status (last week), so also they don’t jealously guard their own personal authority and agendas, because they recognize the advancement of the church of Jesus Christ is more important than personal ambition.
The criteria for fellowship and ministry is not style or tradition or denominationalism, but the name of Jesus being exalted. As one said, we are all branch offices of the same business. Now, this is not to say there is not a place for discernment and exposing doctrinal error. But when believers are following the same Jesus – teaching and believing the same things in the essential doctrines of the Christian faith, there must be mutual love, support and respect. This is not about us. This is about the Christ we serve – and whose name we bear.
Those who are not against us – whether they are part of our little group called Alliance – are for us. Jesus is here opposing that which we should oppose – partisanship, cliques, us four and no more mentalities, we’re the only ones doing it right, ungodly competition. We must not develop personal agendas and thereby neglect God’s kingdom purposes.
Jesus finishes with this great truth, “whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because of your name as followers of Christ.” Stop right there. Because you name the name of Jesus – because you are Christ followers, Christians – this is one of the only places Jesus refers to Himself as the Christ. The messianic secret will soon come to a close. And we will together be called Christians – bearing His name. And there ought to be special consideration for each other – that is, those who go by the name, Christian.
So, whoever even gives a cup a water – the minimum of Middle Eastern hospitality – whoever gives a cup of water to someone who bears My name – he will not lose his reward. This is the only place Mark talks about reward – but reward is promised to those who treat other believers with loving, accepting care. The point is, we, followers of Jesus, must care for one another, support each other – even the least of these – giving cups of water in His name, to those who name His name. The spirit of ungodly jealousy in the church of Jesus Christ must go.
It is, by the way, why we observe communion together. In I Corinthians 10 – written to a church divided over ungodly jealousies – I follow Paul, I follow Peter, I follow Apollos, I follow Christ – Paul reminds us we all partake of the same bread. Listen to these words:
16 Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?
17 Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread.
Even communion, as we remember the body and blood of Jesus, reminds us we belong together.