Christ calls us to look to the cross, and understand both God’s love and our own path. Let’s not be afraid to ask for understanding.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 25 B
Text: Mark 9:30-37; James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
The disciples didn’t understand what Jesus was saying.
But they were afraid to ask him.
Of course they were. The last time Jesus predicted his death, Peter challenged Jesus as to the propriety of a Messiah being killed. No one needed a reminder of how devastating Jesus’ rebuke of Peter was.
Now Jesus predicts his death again. No one wanted to ask. Instead, they argued on the road about which one of them was the greatest.
Do you see the irony? Jesus speaks of giving himself up, and they talk about who’s most important among them. They act as if he didn’t say anything about suffering and dying, and get distracted by something else.
But hear Jesus’ response.
Jesus answers Peter’s criticism by calling everyone who follows him to take up a cross, to deny themselves, to be willing to lose all. We heard Jesus say last week that if you don’t think Messiahs should take this path, then know this: it’s not just for me. It’s for all who follow me.
Today Jesus responds to frivolous chatter about which of them is greatest in a similar way. Jesus says if you really want to be first among my followers, be last. Be a servant of all.
It’s clear they don’t understand this any better. But do we? And if we don’t, or perhaps don’t want to, are we also afraid to ask, afraid that then Jesus would become all too clear?
We’ve been hearing sayings like this from Jesus all our lives. So what are we Christians nattering about as we walk along the way?
Like the disciples, we’re talking about a lot. Unlike them, it’s mostly important things. Churchwide debates over Biblical authority, church order, sexuality. Church meetings in this city about how to address homelessness and poverty and starvation of far too many of God’s children among us. Workshops and meetings about the church’s problem with racism. Handwringing about membership decline in mainline churches, and proposed strategies.
Many of these things are important. We want to be faithful to God’s hope for the world. So we focus on how to do that, on strategy and plans, marketing and awareness.
But when was the last time you ever heard of a Christian group – national, local, congregational – have a focused debate, workshop, or strategy, on servanthood? We have committees at Mount Olive caring for our property, our worship, our stewardship, our ministry with youth and families, our mission, and more. All are important tasks.
But we don’t have a committee for cross-bearing. A director for servanthood. People to lead this congregation in understanding what Jesus asks of his followers, people to help us learn openness to the Holy Spirit so that God might change our hearts into servant hearts in every aspect of our lives.
They didn’t understand Jesus, and were afraid to ask. Can we learn from this?
If we read the New Testament, issues like the ones that dominate Christian thoughts and planning and strategy are deeply important, but are secondary to a greater understanding of what Christ came to do and to call us to be. Each of the three times Jesus predicts his death, he then calls his followers to a servant life like his. After his resurrection, he keeps at this core to his preaching and teaching. The New Testament writers all echo this center.
Jesus says two things in these predictions: Look to the cross. Understand what God is doing there. And then, follow the same way.
We struggle to understand how the cross and our following with a cross is the heart of everything for Jesus. When we think of the cross, it’s rarely to consider our daily decisions and actions. But that’s where Jesus always goes with it.
And thanks be to God, these disciples eventually did understand, and in the writings in the New Testament, they share what they’ve understood about this call of Jesus to follow, so we can understand. Today we hear from James.
It’s a wisdom from above, James says.
This servant heart is given us in the Spirit, comes from God. It is pure, peaceable. Gentle. Willing to yield. Full of mercy and good fruits. It has no trace of partiality or hypocrisy.
The New Testament describes this kind of wisdom again and again, and gives concrete ways to recognize when one is living in it. These writers take Jesus’ call and help us see how it might look to live that way.
And they help us see that all the things we talk about, those concerns of God for the world that we want to help with, flow from this new reality. That if this was the wisdom you sought from God, you’d be changed in such a way that doing the work God needs in the world would come naturally. If you asked to be made peaceable and gentle. If you asked the Spirit to teach you to be willing to yield to others, and to be full of mercy. If you asked God to take away any partiality you had or hypocrisy.
When we are changed into servants, cross-bearers, then we become part of God’s healing of all things. That’s the plan.
Do you understand? Are you afraid to ask Jesus if you don’t?
That’s OK. Jesus has a lot of experience with disciples who get distracted, who misunderstand. Like all the other lists that describe the path of Christ in Scripture, this is a vulnerable place to go, a vulnerable place to be. Jesus said it today, “be last, not first. Be servant to all.” It will take courage – heart strength – to do it, which comes only from God.
But that’s at the center of all of this: God wants to give this to you, James says. The love shown by the Triune God at the cross – where Jesus keeps telling you to look – isn’t just a model. It’s the power of God to enter your life and help you, change you, so you actually follow the model.
And remember: You’re not in this alone. Joined together in Baptism and God’s love, with the Spirit’s help, we can help each other lose our fear of asking, get the clarity we need from God, and the courage to take the path of Christ ourselves.
That’s something worth talking about as we walk this road together.
In the name of Jesus. Amen