Someone's knocking at the door, somebody's ringing the bell
Sunday, September 23, 2018 - 11:00 to 12:00
Recently I was shocked to find a man, a complete stranger, standing at the foot of these steps. I had just come in from meeting at another church to attend one here, and there was this stranger, standing, staring at the stained-glass window. He was also humming. I stood and I listened to him, thinking it a bit weird, but I realized the tune he was humming was actually a song by Paul McCartney from 1976, “Someone’s knocking at the door, somebody’s ringing the bell. Do me a favour, open the door and let ‘em in.”
Then I realized why he was humming that. When you look at the window – and for those of you who are listening on the radio, you can’t quite grasp this – but there is a picture here from Holman Hunt of Jesus knocking on a door from the Book of Revelation. This stranger had grasped precisely what was going on in this window. And I must admit in my 20 years at Timothy Eaton I have never associated that Paul McCartney’s song with our stained-glass window.
We talked for a few minutes about it, and he sang the song to me, and very well indeed. After, we talked about that and why the window was here, and why it’s an invitation to let Christ in. When I thought about that song and how McCartney had written it in 1976, I realized after research that it was the number-one hit in Canada for three weeks, that it was a huge seller worldwide for Paul McCartney & Wings, and that there are references to the Everly Brothers, which is cool. There ae references to Linda McCartney’s family, to Ringo Starr’s family. They’re all in there; it’s quite amazing. The idea is to let ‘em all in. Those who have gone before and have passed away, and those who are still alive. Someone’s knocking at the door, someone’s ringing the bell. Let ‘em in.
I had never either put that and our text this morning from Jesus and the disciples to the window to Paul McCartney together in one mélange. But they fit. Because the text we have from Mark’s gospel is a text about the disciples truly letting Christ in. Now this is the third of what has really been a trilogy of sermons on Mark. The first one I did was on Jesus when he was in Tyre and Sidon and encountered the Syrophoenician woman, and how Jesus reaffirmed his ministry to the Gentiles, that he wanted the Gentiles to come into God’s covenant relationship with Israel through him.
Then last week, Jesus was in Bethesda again healing and performing miracles. And again, Jesus is talking about the nature of his Messiahship, a Messiahship that wants to draw people in. Now he is with the disciples. We’re told he’s in Capernaum, back really at the heart of his base in Galilee. Jesus is telling the disciples to let him in. It’s only for them that Jesus is speaking at this moment. The crowds have gone, the miracles have been performed. This was a unique moment in a room we’re told, where Jesus has a conversation with the disciples, and it’s a powerful one because it’s about the nature of discipleship itself and what it really means to follow Christ.
The disciples were clearly going through a crisis at the time and were told by Mark that Jesus asked them the question, “What are you talking about?” Last week he was asking, “How do others say that I am?” Now he is saying, “What are you guys talking about?” They were gossiping about him behind his back, likely wondering what on earth is going on with Jesus. He is talking about some strange things: crucifixion, rising from the dead, being the Messiah for the whole world. They were confused.
Rather than being confused, they started to debate amongst themselves who of them was the greatest. I’m sure Peter was at the front of the pack; he always seems to be. He wants to know who’s the greatest. I’m sure his brother Andrew, God bless his soul, Andrew wanted to know, “Am I the greatest?” Andrews do that from time to time! James and John were probably no better because they had the big bucks, so they were wondering if they are at the top of the heap. Are they the really powerful ones?
So Jesus turns the table on them. As Lori said at the contemporary service this morning to the children, “He turned everything on its head.” He says to them, “Whoever wants to be first will be last.”
They’re thinking, “Hold on a minute now, this is not what we are about. If we’re going to follow you, we want to have some recognition for ourselves.”
The disciples were representing a very powerful human impulse: the power of the ego. When you really think about it, so many of the great conflicts in history, so many of the problems that have existed over time, as one wise person said to me this week, “So many of the great conflicts are caused by the ego of one person, or maybe a few people, and it ends up in the loss of hundreds of thousands and millions of lives at times.” Ego is a powerful thing. Wanting to be stronger, to be first, to be recognized, to be powerful – these are things that human nature in its sinful form wants. The disciples were no different. They want to be recognized; they want to be lifted up; they wanted to be first; they wanted to be important.
Last summer I heard an incredibly good sermon by a student of mine from Acadia. She is now a minister, and an excellent preacher in St. John’s, Newfoundland, in a very good congregation. In the class she preached a sermon titled “Crabs in a Bucket.” I thought coming from Newfoundland, crabs in a bucket is probably a good theme, but I wasn’t sure how much gospel was going to be in it, until she told the told the story. I’m sure some of you have heard the parable about the crabs in a bucket. The crabs are picked up and placed in the bucket, and not one of them is able to climb out of the bucket. Not one of them is able to break free.
The reality is that if one was able to climb out of the bucket, they could save them themselves. The problem is that all the crabs were fighting to get out of the bucket at the same time, so none are successful. There’s not one that is liberated because all the crabs are fighting each other, trying to climb on top of each other to get out of the bucket. She made the case, and it’s a good one, that it relates to what Jesus is saying. The problem is when all the egos are trying to get out of the bucket at the same time, no one and nothing is saved. Nothing redemptive takes place; we just crush each other and bring each other down.
Jesus saw this happening amongst the disciples. They were crabs in a bucket. On the Sea of Galilee, on the shores of Capernaum, Jesus saw this kind of egocentric life going on amongst them. So what does Jesus do? Does he go into a long speech about the nature of the Kingdom of God? Does he reiterate that he has to suffer and die and on the third day rise again? Is that what he has to do? He’s already told them that.
No, he does something simple, iconic. He simply takes a child in his arms. Now, this was probably one of the children from the disciples’ families, and he says, “If any of you want to follow me, you have to receive me as a child. And when you receive this child, you receive me. And when you receive me you don’t only receive me, you receive the one who sent me.”
This was powerful because it goes right to the very heart of discipleship itself. This is the model of discipleship that Jesus wanted the disciples to adhere to, and he does it first of all by simply having the image of a child as the image of discipleship. In the first century this was powerful because children were considered non-persons, especially in Roman law because of the paterfamilias, as it was known. Children were non-persons. As Phoebe Perkins, the American writer points out, even the mothers of children were often shunned, were not allowed into worship, or positions of power or commerce. Women and children were lower down on the status level, and the disciples are being told that they have to receive Christ like one of these vulnerable children.
One of the great depictions of this is by Rembrandt in the Hundred Guilder series, a picture from the Book of Matthew, not Mark, where women bring their children to Jesus and Jesus says: “Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.” Rembrandt depicts Jesus with open arms and children being brought to him while the disciples and the Pharisees are sitting on the edge of things. Jesus and the children are at the centre.
Here again in Mark, another story, Jesus takes a child into the centre, these children who are vulnerable, non-persons, totally and completely dependent. For small children cannot fend for themselves. They cannot feed themselves, nor educate themselves. Children are not in a position to look after themselves. They’re dependent. Jesus says, “When you receive him, you have to be dependent on him. And not only dependent on him but dependent on the one who sent him, which is Almighty God.” In other words, don’t you come into my kingdom worrying about where you are in the totem pole of life, where you stand in honour and respect, come as somebody who is dependent and in need.
But you know, we are so often self-absorbed, so often caught up in ourselves, and worried about ourselves that we don’t recognize our dependence. It’s all about us and not all about Christ. A great illustration of this not long ago was with a friend of mine, who had an opportunity to meet Kiefer Sutherland. It was a chance meeting on Bay Street. Kiefer Sutherland had just bought some new glasses and had walked out with new shades on and was looking very dapper and cool. My friend sidles up to him, introduces himself and says, “Do you think we can do a selfie?” Kiefer was very obliging and said, “By all means, that’s fine.” So phone up, click, selfie done, everything was great.
So I asked my friend, “Are you going to put this on Facebook?” If this was me, it would be up in 30 seconds, right? My friend declined to do it. I said, “Why?”
And he says, “Because my hair is a mess in the photograph.”
I said, “Nobody cares about you! They want to see Kiefer Sutherland! No one will care one iota about you. It’s about him.”
So he puts it on Facebook. First comment, by one of his friends, “Your hair looks a mess!” He wanted to kill me.
I then retorted, “But Kiefer looks good and I really like his glasses.” It’s not about us sometimes. Discipleship is not about us and what we want and what is pleasurable to us. It’s about Christ and following him and opening the door. And there is also a duty of care that comes with what Jesus was saying. “If you receive a child like this,” he said, “you receive me.” There is a direct correlation here, a vulnerable child in Christ.
There is a duty of care, and it seems to me that this is twofold. The first part is actually to care as a disciple for Christ himself. After all he’s on his way to the cross. He knows he’s going to be rejected. He has now told them this in Mark’s gospel more than five times. He is talking about his own ministry on their behalf, his ministry for others and the whole world. Sometimes, as disciples, we have a duty of care for Christ and his ministry. This isn’t just some light, fluffy thing that we do when we worship. This is about following Christ, and we have a duty of care as those who commit ourselves to his name to share the gospel for which he died.
We also have a duty of care to children. This came home to me not long ago when I read an essay in the paper of my hometown, The Manchester Guardian. In it there was an article entitled “Our Society is Broken” by very well-known writer, Selena Randhawa. She is an excellent writer; most of The Guardian writers are good but she is excellent. Her essay was not about the United Kingdom or Manchester, it was about Canada and it was being written after an interview with Sheila North Wilson, a First Nations person.
The article, which was written in August 2017 – you can still find it on the web – talks about the suicides of young people in Attawapiskat in 2016. It talked about the number of attempts that young people made in a short period of time to take their lives, estimating that there were 100 hundred attempts in a ten-month period in a community of only 2,000 people. It goes on to talk about a Cree Nations community, this is in Manitoba, and that there were 150 youths in this remote community out of 6,000 that were now on suicide watch. It talked about the leading cause of death for First Nations people below the age of 44 being suicide. The study would show, and this is how it concluded, that young indigenous males are 10 times more likely to kill themselves than their non-indigenous male counterparts, while young indigenous females are 21 times more likely – 21 times! – than young non-indigenous females.
One of those young people said to the reporter from The Guardian, “I felt like I had no other option. I felt completely hopeless.” Now the article goes on with statistics that should make any Canadian cringe. And even if they’re only half true, it is a blight on our nation. We have a duty of care, and not as Canadians, but as human beings. When these things are happening, they should be a concern. We try here at Eaton Memorial to care as much as we can for young people and children. Look at the work that the refugee committee is doing with the families that we’re trying to help. And if you come to the congregational meeting today you will hear about another initiative, not an overwhelming one, but another initiative nonetheless, to lift up those who feel like they have no options and feel hopeless.
Do you hear Jesus knocking at your door? Do you hear Jesus ringing the bell? Do you let him in? It is not all gloom and doom, this passage. It is about joy and hope. When you receive a child into your midst, it’s about the future, it’s about hope. It anticipates something great taking place, notwithstanding all the challenges of bringing a child up in our day and age. Nevertheless, with every new beginning, with every child, every grandchild, every niece, every nephew, there is this sense of hope for the future. What kind of a future does this child have, and how important is the future for this child?
Jesus is telling the disciples it’s about the future. Never mind their past or even their present. “Look where I am taking you. I am taking you and humanity to a cross, I am taking you to an empty tomb. I am taking you to the glory of my death and the wonder of my resurrection, that the Kingdom is alive.” What he wants to hear from them is that they are with him on this. “Are you willing to go with me into this exciting future?” Not that it’s all going to happen overnight, not that the Kingdom in all its glory is going to be delivered without his ultimate return, but nevertheless, are we with Christ in the mission of the father?
I love the great James Garfield, who was President of the United States. Before that he was the president of Hiram College in Ohio. One of the student’s came to him and said, “Mr. Garfield, do you think you could accelerate my child’s program so he can graduate faster and not take as many courses?”
James Garfield said, “Well, it depends what type of child you want. You see it takes God 100 years to build an oak tree. It takes him two months to grow a squash. Do you want it now or are you willing to work and to wait?”
For the disciples at that moment in that room, that was the big question. Were they willing to go with Christ into the future, into the Kingdom, on the basis of his leadership? Or were they going to be self-absorbed and worry only about their own status, their own ministry and their own life? He asked the same question of us as he did of them, because surely someone’s knocking at the door, and somebody’s ringing the bell. The question is, do you let him in? Amen.