Embraced by Jesus
And he [Jesus] took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me” (Mark 9:36-37 ESV). Lessons in discipleship are never easy. They can sometimes make us feel out of place or upside down. But thankfully these lessons always connect us to Jesus as He connects Himself to us. Today at International Lutheran Church, we are embraced by our Savior in such a way that He transforms us, and we learn what it means to embrace Him.
This week we will be celebrating Chuseok, a very important family time in Korea. Known as “Mid-Autumn” festival in other parts of Asia, we are learning all about what it means for people here. In Korea this holiday is a kind of Korean Thanksgiving and Christmas all rolled into one. People travel great distances, families gather, food is shared, and gifts are exchanged. It is this element of gift giving that is of particular interest to me as it reveals so much about a culture. In fact, how one gives a gift or how one receives a gift is very closely controlled and dictated by our cultural norms as these reflect our place in a society. In many ways, the exchange of gifts uncovers the core cultural nuances of how we engage and interact with one another as “giving” implies “receiving,” and “receiving” is part of the “giving.” A simple example of this would be how a parent or closely related adult can give a child a gift, but very rarely would it go the other way around. I understand that on another level this can lead to some challenging situations when gifts are exchanged between peers as they must be reciprocal and of the same value due to the influence of hierarchy and social status.
In Mark’s gospel this morning, Jesus challenges the disciples’ culturally conditioned understanding of hierarchy and relationships. We begin by reading the second of the three passion predictions of Jesus as He tells the disciples how he will suffer, die, and rise on the third day. In each case, His words seem nonsensical from the disciples’ perspective and leads to a discussion of what it means to be a follower, a disciple of Jesus. Jesus’ prediction ignites an internal discussion as to which of them is the greatest. Maybe their question came from a natural curiosity or perhaps a serious concern over succession planning, or even a debate about who among them is best prepared or committed to carrying out the mission in Jesus’ absence. But the embarrassing thing was that the discussion was probably not culturally appropriate as Jesus was still with them, after all.
Rather than rebuke them, Jesus takes a child in His arms and embraces the child. This seems simple and natural enough as a child is often understood to be the recipient of the care and nurture of adults. But in embracing the child Jesus says that to receive a child in His name is to receive Him and even more to receive the One who sent Him, namely the Father. Children are generally the recipients of care and nurture, even naturally embraced and loved by their family and especially their parents. In Jesus’s day, children weren’t always seen as the most important or influential in society. To equate the embrace of a child with that of receiving Jesus, and God Himself, was to turn upside down our whole social understanding of who is the most important within the Kingdom. If the “least” (a child) is seen as the equivalent of Jesus and God Himself, then service to and care for them becomes a way in which the embraced become the embracers.
Jesus was not just reordering our social norms or cultural values. He was breaking into the very space to embrace us, each one of us. On the cross He embraced us all and showed the world our value and place in His Kingdom. Now baptized into His Name, we feel His embrace and are transformed to embrace the least and last in all we do. As we gather this week in family settings, embracing both young and old alike, giving and receiving His gifts, sharing in delicious once-a-year delicacies, we remember how He has embraced us that we might embrace all. Blessed Chuseok!