What are we doing here? Saturday night in a Vancouver industrial zone, worshiping God in a boxy warehouse shared by a garment factory and appliance wholesaler? What is church about anyway? What are we doing?
Mark 9:30-37 offers some answers, in two conversations between Jesus and his disciples.
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, "The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again." But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. . .
Mark records Jesus saying that he is going to be betrayed and killed, and rise again three days later. This is the second time he predicts his suffering and death. The first time he did this, Peter had challenged him and Jesus rebuked him as "Satan." Understandably, the disciples are afraid to ask him what he means and they keep quiet. They didn't get it. Jesus had told them, so they knew a little, but I believe they knew enough to know that they didn't want to know more.
This is a familiar place for most of us. We know enough about the tar sands to know we don't want to know more. We know enough about global warming to know that we don't want to know more. We know enough about the effects of colonization and residential schools on indigenous people to know that we don't want to know more. Because if we actually learn more, then we will actually need to do something. Really grasping a truth will change us, our attitudes and actions. We, like the disciples, would much prefer things to remain as they are.
After what was likely an awkward silence. . . They came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the way?" But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. . .
Awkward silence again. Jesus had just told them that he is going die like a lamb to the slaughter, and here they are fighting over who is the greatest.
Imagine Jesus approaching you in the context of your day, your words, your thoughts: "What were you fighting about?" or, more universally, "What are you stressed about, preoccupied with?"
"Ah. . . hmmm. . . well, just what show I wanted to watch, or how I can afford this thing I don't really need, or how I'm way more deserving of success than that idiot. . ." We spend so much time and energy on ourselves and our egos and we so often miss the point of what Jesus is doing.
But he doesn't get angry.
. . . He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."
Take this child: vulnerable, needy, unable to return any favours. As you receive her, you receive me. As you make that child (essentially a "non-person" in her day) the centre of your attention, you receive the one who sent me.
So what are we doing here? What is church about? It's about living as a community that wants to follow Jesus. It's about being people who believe - and try to live out - how the greatest is the servant, the last is first. It's about being a place where the most vulnerable and weak are made the centre of our attention. Set apart from a society where the strong, the empowered, the wealthy are at the centre.
We aren't just a group of people with a common interest in a particular religion, we are following the one who lived counter to what surrounded him. He loved rather than fought. He served rather than demanded. He went to the cross instead of seizing power.
If we aspire to live that way, we cannot do it alone. We need each other, we need to be in community, we need church. We need to be reminded of the death and resurrection of Jesus as regularly as possible. And regularly we need to be encouraged and nourished in order to be able to live counter to what is around us - crushing forces that tell us to hold on to what's ours, hold back from others and store up for ourselves, rather than to let go, to give out.
We come to the table every week, wherever that is, because we need to be reminded of how God himself entered into our suffering, became the man of sorrows, refused to return violence with violence, died rather than kill. And how he ultimately became the greatest, rising again and conquering death. We need to hear about how we can do that, too. That is what we're doing here.