“Don’t touch me. It’s creepy and weird.”
She avoids eye contact while spewing the internal ungluing that resulted from a pat on the shoulder I gave her two weeks ago.
“And I don’t want to hear any of that Jesus stuff, either,” she snaps.
The conversation scores me. It calculates my comprehension of two assignments from Ministry 101: embrace and place others. It also grades my inability to “shake the dust off” my feet when rejected (Mt 10.14, Mk 6.11).
I struggle as a student of Christ. Like Peter, I prefer tattling on classmates and cross-checking conduct charts (Jn 21.21). Like the disciples, I paper-rock-scissors for status, pursuing human descriptions of greatness (Mk 9.34).
In the Mark 9 account, Jesus descends from the mountaintop of transfiguration and envisions the path to his death and resurrection that straightens out as a ruler before him. But, rather than hurrying past the crowds gathered in the valley, Jesus slows down to embrace and place people. He encourages a father’s faith and exorcises demons from his son (v17-29). Then Jesus pauses to construct a makeshift classroom (v35). While the disciples shoot spitballs and thumb-war over who will be the next Christian celebrity, Jesus summons his students and continues teaching.
“He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me’” (Mk 9.36-37, NET).
Four times Jesus articulates that ministry is “welcoming” others. He uses the Greek dechomai, meaning to intimately and intentionally receive a person into your family and bring them up or educate them (Mt 18.5, Lk 9.48, Col 1.28). I believe such family contexts not only include our brick-and-mortar dwellings, but also our Church services and conversations. Notice the child willingly receives the embrace and place of Christ.
Embrace. We hide behind computer screens and closed garages, watching from insulated windows as life passes by rather than experiencing it firsthand. We would rather hold technological devices than human beings. According to Christianity Today, “as our culture increasingly embraces bodily indulgences of sex, food, and other appetites, we are actually turning away from one another socially. Our lack of physical contact is related to increasing isolation, anomie—the sense of normlessness—leading to depression and suicide, and a lack of social cohesion.”
We waste energy manipulating and silencing our need for embrace. Research confirms that appropriate physical touch stimulates the release of oxytocin, a neurotransmitter that sends a message to our brains: “Everything is all right.” Though many people freak out in giving or receiving touch, our need for it can be met without dishonoring people or transgressing their boundaries.
Humans need holding and to hold. We need safety and connectedness which social media, starchy side hugs, and flimsy fist pumps cannot provide.
Why does Jesus embrace the child “in his arms?” How does Jesus’ posture, His lowness, enable this embrace?
Place. We dart anxiously between deadlines, daycare, and doctors’ appointments at a pace that prevents welcoming others. While we buzz along in our busy-ness, theologizing ministry and theorizing greatness (v 14, 33-34), we overlook the singles, orphans, neighbors, elderly, and immature who need a place to belong and grow in Christ. Why do we live as though ministry only occurs at Church or outreach events? Outside of these pre-planned contexts, we distance ourselves from people, deafening our ears with i-gadgets and deadening our hearts with excuses. No, we will not risk the time or humility involved in welcoming people into conversation or relationship.
Western Church culture perpetuates this distracted approach to ministry. Many pastors and leaders hide behind pulpits and prominence in the Protestant papacy, podcasting sermons from a distance rather than engaging people personally. They spend excessive amounts of energy and money rationalizing and outsourcing responsibilities, especially God’s instruction to dwell among congregations and communities. As their churches and ministries become “mega,” leaders use numerical growth to signify their obedience to God. I do not claim that mega = “bad.” However, if misapplied or misused, the systems and structures used to pastor people can create a herding mentality that stifles the Holy Spirit’s placement of them “in the midst of” families who can welcome with acceptance and build up in Christlikeness.
Humans need knowing and to know. We need intimacy and intentionality which social media, stadium Sundays, and surface-level small groups cannot provide.
Why does Jesus have the child stand “among them?” How does Jesus’ pace, His slowness, affect this placement?
Each day Jesus embraces and places us. If we deny the urge to grab at greatness and choose to get low and go slow, we can embrace and place others as ministers of the Gospel.
Who can you embrace this week? What place can you designate for them in your personal and/or spiritual family? What risks are involved and are you willing to take them?