October 3, 2021 (World Communion Sunday)
We are beginning a new series this week, which will take us through the tenth chapter of the gospel according to Mark. Since we’ve been focused on the letter from James, we might need a little context to help us re-focus on the gospel story. Jesus is on the move. Several themes will appear in chapter ten. These themes are like threads in a tightly woven tapestry, weaving together ideas that might seem at first glance to be disconnected, but when woven together, they form a perfect image of the Kingdom of God.
There’s the theme of walking – in Chapter 9, Jesus walks down from the mount of transfiguration, and then takes his disciples on a walk through Galilee so he can teach them privately about his coming death and resurrection. Which, by the way, is teaching they don’t understand, but they are afraid to ask him about it.
Then there’s the theme of children – not a topic of common conversation in first century Palestine. Children weren’t even considered to be ‘people’ yet, and they had absolutely no rights. Yet Jesus takes them in his arms and tells his disciples, “Whoever welcomes a child like this in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me also welcomes the one who sent me.” (9:37) He goes on to say that anyone who puts a stumbling block before a child would be better off thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck. (9:42). We’ll hear more about Jesus and his countercultural view of children in today’s lesson.
Then there is the recurring theme of greatest and least. In chapter 9, the disciples argue among themselves about who is the greatest, and Jesus tells them that, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and a servant of all.” (9:35) This teaching will come to a much finer point in chapter ten.
Most importantly, perhaps, holding this whole tapestry together, is the theme of the Kingdom of God. Jesus is constantly teaching us that this kingdom is already here, but not yet fulfilled. He tells us in no uncertain terms that, if we want to be part of God’s kingdom, whoever we are, we have to change.
We have to change our minds about what is important. We have to change our hearts toward God, and we have to change our behavior toward each other. We have to turn away from putting ourselves first, and turn toward putting God first, which means loving the people God loves.
All of these themes will weave together in Chapter 10. But there is something else we need to notice, as we walk with Jesus over these next few weeks. This is a trip Jesus and his disciples have taken before, traveling between Galilee and Jerusalem, but this time, the destination is a final one.
This is the last time Jesus will travel with his disciples to Jerusalem. He knows this, even if they don’t. So Jesus is taking the opportunity to teach some hard lessons. And before they’ve even made it all the way around the lake we call the Sea of Galilee, the Pharisees show up to put Jesus to the test.
The assigned reading for today begins at verse two of chapter ten, but to help us get our bearings, verse one tells us that Jesus has left Capernaum, and is now headed into the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. Once again, crowds have gathered around him; and, Mark says, “as was his custom, he again taught them.”
Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. (Mark 10:2-16)
Whoever you are, you’ve probably experienced being broken at some point in your life. And whoever you are, Jesus wants you to experience being blessed.
First, we have to deal with brokenness. The Pharisees put Jesus to The Test: is it lawful to divorce? Jesus knows it’s a trap. Their question assumes that divorce happens, but is it ever justified? The Pharisees are trying to catch him saying something they can use against him, but he doesn’t blink.
You already know the “lawful” answer, he says, but keep in mind that the Law was given to Moses because of your hard hearts. God’s intention is always for “oneness” and since Creation, God has intended for husband and wife to live as one flesh.
Jesus completely reframes the question: instead of talking about grounds for divorce, we should be thinking about the grounds for marriage. Marriage can be seen as a model for our relationship with God – Just as a married couple becomes one with each other, God offers us at-one-ment – atonement. It’s about as close as any of us will ever come to experiencing the interrelationship of the Triune God.
This teaching isn’t really about divorce; it’s about God’s desire for wholeness. Jesus uses the Pharisees’ test as an illustration of the way hardened hearts distort God’s intention for all human relationships, but particularly marriage.
Jesus expands on the difference between what God intends and human hard-heartedness by addressing the rights of a woman –which was unheard-of in that time and place. When Jesus compares remarriage after divorce to committing adultery, we might be struck by the severity of such a judgment.
But the real shock is that it applies to both husbands and wives. This was a radical claim in first century Jewish culture, where wives were little more than the property of their husbands. By Jewish law, there was no provision for a woman to divorce her husband. By saying that, “if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery,” Jesus is actually placing women on an even legal footing with men.
Jesus reminds the Pharisees of God’s first intention for marriage by quoting Genesis 2:24 – “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. “ Being one flesh means full equality and full commitment.
Sometimes divorce is necessary because of the harm hardened hearts can cause. Hard hearts can make it impossible for two people to stay together without hurting each other. Abusive relationships have no place in God’s design. A marriage in which one partner exerts power over the other is not healthy “one-ness,” but brokenness.
Jesus is not urging anyone to remain in a relationship that threatens safety or health. Sometimes, a marriage becomes irretrievably broken. But that was never what God intended. God intended for husbands and wives to be one flesh.
In a wedding service, I often refer to Miroslav Volf’s ‘drama of embrace’
- First, you open your arms to welcome the Other into your personal space, making yourself vulnerable to the Other, and acknowledging that you are both equals in submission, and equals in power.
- Second, you wait, allowing the Other to decide whether or not to accept your embrace.
- Third, you step into each other’s open arms, and close your arms around one another. You are each distinct, with your own identities and personal boundaries intact, yet you have welcomed each other into your personal spaces, eliminating the distance between you. Volf calls this “mutual interiority.” You are each in the other’s personal space, and yet you remain yourselves. You can stay in the embrace long enough to give it meaning – but not too long, or it becomes a stranglehold.
- Fourth, in opening your arms, you release each other back into the world, giving freedom to one another.
But you have been changed by this embrace. Neither of you can ever be the same again, having welcomed the other into yourselves.
This transformation, this change of self, is exactly what Jesus did on the cross for us. He opened his arms, welcoming our sinfulness into his own perfection. As we accept that welcome, and step into Christ’s embrace, we are changed. But Jesus does not hold us against our will. Instead, he releases us back into the world, so that, having received blessing, we might bless others.
This is exactly what Jesus means when he says we must receive the Kingdom as a little child. Now, the Greek is ambiguous here. It could mean receiving the Kingdom as if you were a child, trusting completely in God’s grace and making ourselves as vulnerable as a child. That’s usually how I think of this phrase.
But it could also mean receiving the kingdom as you would receive a child – and contrary to Jewish tradition that placed no value on children, Jesus receives children with open arms. No matter which way you read it, trust and vulnerability form the foundation for receiving the kingdom of God, just as trust and vulnerability form the foundation for marriage.
And notice, finally, how Jesus embraces the children in verse 16. Mark writes, “He took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.” Do you see how this parallels the actions we repeat each time we receive Communion? Jesus takes the bread and cup, holds it as he gives thanks, and blesses both bread and cup before …. giving them to his disciples. In the same way, Christ gives us, his children, to the world on this World Communion Sunday, and says, “unless you receive the Kingdom as a little child, you won’t enter it.” (v.15)
We are broken … and we are blessed, to receive – and to give.
Jan Richardson has written a blessing for World Communion Sunday called “And the Table Will Be Wide.” May this be today’s invitation to Christ’s Table.
And the Table Will Be Wide
A Blessing for World Communion Sunday
And the table
will be wide.
And the welcome
will be wide.
And the arms
will open wide
to gather us in.
And our hearts
will open wide
And we will come
as children who trust
there is enough.
And we will come
unhindered and free.
And our aching
will be met
And our sorrow
will be met
And we will open our hands
to the feast
And we will turn
toward each other
And we will give up
And we will taste
And we will become bread
for a hungering world.
And we will become drink
for those who thirst.
And the blessed
will become the blessing.
will be the feast.
– Jan Richardson
 Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation.