We cannot understand what the path of Christ, our path, means for us unless we break our silence of voice and ear and talk with God and each other and together, learn.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 25, year B
texts: Mark 9:30-37; James 3:13 – 4:8a (restoring 4-6 to the assigned reading)
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
We understand why the disciples are silent today.
After what happened to Peter last week, it would take great courage for anyone else to speak up. Seeing a brother be told, “Get behind me, Satan,” puts a damper on one’s need to speak.
But their silence is a profound problem. A week or so earlier, according to Mark, Jesus told them that his path, and theirs if they follow him, is a path where one dies in order to live. We heard last Sunday how Peter’s struggle with that turned out. Today, Jesus tells them that his path, and theirs if they follow him, is a path where one is last in order to be first.
No one said anything this time. “They didn’t understand what he was saying,” Mark says. But “they were afraid to ask him.”
Worse, when they continued walking together on the road, they didn’t even talk to each other about their confusion, which would have been natural. They got into a discussion about which of them was most important in Jesus’ entourage, which was the greatest. When Jesus asked, “what were you guys talking about on the road?”, once again they were silent.
We can explain their silence. It would be better if we recognized our own unhelpful silence in theirs, and decided to do something about it.
This path of Jesus is both familiar and something we struggle to embrace.
It may have been a new shift in Jesus’ teaching for these disciples. But we’ve read these words for years, heard them in worship as long as we can remember. We sing countless hymns that refer to them; “cross to bear” from last week is a common expression even among those who aren’t Christian.
But we’re often as confused as those who heard it for the first time on that Galilean road. We don’t know what it means to lose our lives so we can find them. We misunderstand “bearing the cross” as all suffering that happens in our lives, from disease to evil to accident, instead of suffering we receive because we choose to follow Jesus on his path. We don’t know what it means for the last to be first, though we’ve heard it often enough, and we’re not sure we want to try being last all the time. What if we remain last, and are taken advantage of?
And the whole “servant of all” thing. Again, it’s familiar. But what that actually means for our everyday lives and decisions is so uncomfortable to consider we often set it aside rather than struggle with the implications.
In this tension we theologize and abstract Jesus’ words until they don’t challenge us personally.
Listen when Christians talk about these words. Hear how quickly we make a high-level discussion of servanthood, or a theoretical question of denial of oneself that never really asks the speakers, what denial are you avoiding?
Hear how quickly we speak of others who are self-righteous, who lord it over people, how often we talk about great societal woes and pains that surely Jesus’ words are meant to address. These words can certainly lead to a conversation about a racist culture or the terrible refugee crisis, or any other huge problems. But it’s interesting how that is often the exclusive content of our conversations, not our hesitance to see what Jesus means for our daily lives.
Our reluctance to ask, “what would happen if my mood, my attitude, my needs weren’t what drove my actions and decisions, but the mood, attitude, and needs of others were my priority? If I were the one to adjust to others, rather than expecting others to adjust to me? What would happen if I got up first to be the helper? If my needs didn’t always have to be considered? If I yielded? If I didn’t always try to be the one who wins?”
It’s so easy to see other peoples’ blind spots and struggles to follow Jesus, to see society’s ills and failures to grasp these simple truths, to make it a question about theology and not a question of how we actually will live. Talking about those things helps us avoid facing our own fear of Jesus’ words.
That’s the silence that’s eroding our discipleship.
But . . . what if we set aside our fear and asked our Lord, “what do you mean, and what does that mean for me?”
What if we ask Christ Jesus to explain, help us understand? He is the living Word of the Triune God, speaking through the Holy Spirit into this world. We could ask what we’re wondering.
We could pray about this. Lay before God our fears and worries about what might happen if we saw ourselves as lowest and last. Ask for wisdom in specific situations every day when we struggle to serve others.
We could read the Bible. Listen for help and guidance on our path of faith, for understanding about the challenges we have in learning how losing ourselves is actually finding ourselves. For clarity and courage about the ways we might die for others every day. These aren’t easy things to learn. God’s given us guidance in these words. Maybe we could look for that.
James says today, “you do not have because you do not ask.” What if we finally asked? Broke our silence? We could break the silence of our ears, too, and listen. James could have added, “You do not hear because you do not listen.” Both silences need to end.
What if we broke our silence with each other, changing the topic of our conversations on the road?
Instead of arguments over things that distract us from our purpose, fights over who’s right and wrong, conversations about ideas that never enter our hearts and change our direction, we could talk about this confusing, frightening path of Jesus.
We could ask people alongside us, “how do you understand this?” “What’s hard for you when you try to lose, try to serve, try to die to yourself?” “What do you do to set aside fear when you’re too afraid to step forward?”
Our silence with each other comes from fear of being exposed as a poor disciple. But if we opened our mouths and ears to each other we could learn how to be better disciples. As long as we need to pretend we’ve got it together, we’re going to stay confused.
Listen, Jesus put us together for a reason. We need each other as faith companions on our road. We need to learn from each other, help each other, encourage each other. Once we talk about this together, we’ll find tremendous wisdom in the people around us. There are folks walking with us who can help us see the next steps ahead on Jesus’ path.
And here’s the grace we find when we break our silence with God and each other: God’s wisdom begins to sink in.
God’s gift in Christ is the wisdom we need to understand and walk this path of Christ. When we draw near to God to speak and listen, James says we find God drawing near to us, and pouring out wisdom that, according to James, is “peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits.”
This is God’s answer when we speak, and James’ answer, and the answer of all whom we trust to speak to on the road: the wisdom we need to walk the path of servanthood, the path where we lose to win, where we die to live, where we yield to others, are peaceable, gentle, full of mercy, this wisdom is God’s gift to us. We don’t need to make it happen in ourselves.
It’s time we broke our silence and started to find this grace.
James says God “yearns” for the spirit God has made to live in us. God’s been waiting and waiting for us to speak, to ask. Waiting for us to hear and listen. We might not realize it, but others have waited, too; when we start talking on the road we’ll find that’s also true.
This path Jesus takes, the one we’ll take if we choose to follow him, looks confusing and hard. What we will learn when we open our mouths and ears is what those who have already walked ahead of us on this road have been telling us for centuries: this is the only path of life. From the very first step, when we are open to God’s wisdom that to the world seems upside down, we find abundant life and God’s grace everywhere we look on the road.
So maybe it’s time we started to learn really what lies ahead.
In the name of Jesus. Amen