There’s really only one question before us, before you: do you want to follow Jesus, as Jesus describes it, as Jesus calls you, or not? The rest is simple after that.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 29 B
Text: Mark 10:[32-34] 35-45
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
Apparently the third time isn’t the charm.
The disciples hear Jesus predict his own suffering and death three times, all as he moves his ministry closer and closer to Jerusalem. Each time, the disciples miss the point.
So how many times do you need to hear it before you understand it? This whole fall we’ve heard challenging words from Jesus about what it is to follow him. We’ve heard these predictions three times ourselves. We even know the whole story, which they didn’t.
But we’re not much better at understanding, at following Jesus’ train of thought, much less Jesus’ path of life, than they seem to be. Mark today says that some of Jesus’ followers were amazed, some were afraid. That sounds about right for us.
Maybe it isn’t a problem of understanding, though.
Look at their responses. At the first prediction, Peter takes Jesus aside and says that facing suffering and death is not a good plan for a Messiah. Jesus rebukes him, and says following him will mean dying to everything, losing what you think matters, perhaps even literally dying.
The second prediction falls on silence. But after, on the road as they walked, the disciples argued about which one of them was most important. Jesus confronts them on this, and says that to be greatest is to be a servant to each other. To be the least.
With today’s third prediction, James and John are still stunningly tone-deaf. They hear Jesus speak of terrible suffering and death, and ask for the seats of honor when Jesus comes into his glory. Again, Jesus responds with talk of losing, of being least, pointing out that their society has power structures where those on top lord it over those on the bottom. Not with my followers, Jesus says. My followers who wish to be great – repeating himself from before – must be servants. But then he goes a step further. He says those who wish to be first must be slaves of all.
Maybe they understand just fine. Maybe they just don’t want this path. A path of losing, dying, willingly being a slave. This is the only question that really matters: do you even want to follow a Jesus like this?
The Church – at least in English speaking countries – is so reluctant to follow Jesus in this we’ve translated the worst of his language out.
Jesus explicitly uses the word “slave” here. It means exactly what you think it means. But this word is translated “servant” pretty much only by Bible translators. Everyone else who translates ancient Greek knows it means “slave”. Jesus knew it meant “slave”.
There are over 120 instances of the word in the New Testament. It’s a central point in the early Church’s understanding of the Christian life. But virtually every English translation translates the vast majority of those instances as “servant,” not “slave,” even though it’s perfectly clear what’s meant. Even our current NRSV, which does translate the majority as “slave,” very often renders “servant” when the reference is to how Christians might live or act.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the first disciples weren’t the only ones who didn’t like Jesus’ plan for himself or the Church. When you can’t even translate honestly because you don’t want to hear what Jesus or the apostles are saying, that’s a pretty clear sign.
It’s a hard topic to discuss. people who look like me talking about slavery as a model for our life can be a really bad idea.
The horrible stain of racism that still exists in our society stems directly from the violent, wicked original sin of our nation, the sin of slavery. The torture, humiliation, starving, murder, oppression of millions of human beings to build our country cannot be erased from memory. These slave texts were often used by Christians in power to justify their evil.
But remember that Jesus, a brown, Palestinian man under Roman oppression in the first century, also knew slavery as a horrible, wicked reality. It was no ideal. The brutality of the slave trade in our world today, and in American history, also existed in Jesus’ day. He chose an image that his own people would shudder to hear.
But Jesus turns it upside down. He sees the Christian’s path as a chosen slavery. A willingness to put yourself at the service of everyone else. Jesus is saying, to follow me is to let yourselves be slaves to all. People who relinquish free choice to do what you want, and become obligated to serve the needs of everyone, without question. Not because you are forced. But because you choose this path.
And then Jesus reveals this astonishment: he will choose this path first.
The path to the cross, offering himself to the whole universe, his body, his blood, his pain, in order to reveal God’s love for the whole universe, this is Jesus’ willingness to be a slave, to all, for the sake of all.
Paul explicitly lays this out in his beautiful hymn in Philippians: “though Christ was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” (Philippians 2:6-7)
And Paul led the apostles in claiming this same status with their congregations. To his church in Corinth he wrote: “We don’t proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.” (2 Corinthians 4:5)
As Jesus entered into servitude for the sake of the world, now his followers choose the same path for the sake of the world.
Do you even want to follow such a Messiah? Are you willing to enter into that new reality?
We too often keep faith, and our relationship with God in Christ, fenced into its own place. Hear Jesus’ commands and teaching as options to consider. So, when he says feeding those who are hungry and clothing those who are naked is doing it to him, we agree wholeheartedly. Then we ponder when we might do that. Instead of seeing every person in need as someone we are obligated to serve.
Love your neighbor as yourself? Sure, Jesus, that’s good. Let me think about when that works for me.
We’re sitting on the edge of the pool of faith. We’ll dip our toes in if we feel a need for cooling. We’ll maybe splash around.
But Jesus says, Jump in the deep end. Let the water of my love, of the Spirit, hold you up and bring you life. But jumping in means not touching the sides or the bottom. Not being in control.
So Jesus, our relationship with God, and the walk of faith, stay at arm’s length.
We also avoid the question by distracting ourselves with the “how.”
It’s likely some of you are thinking, “tell us how we are to do this.” That’s good. There’s a lot of help. From the teachings and modeling of Jesus, to the preaching and writing of Paul through First John, the New Testament is full of wisdom, of models, of specific advice, of practical descriptions of what such a life where you are slave to all would be like.
But if you don’t want to do it, none of that matters. We’ve had the New Testament in our hands for years; this isn’t new information. But for it to help, you need to want it.
Do you remember this summer, when Jesus asked the remaining disciples if they also wanted to leave? They said, “where else can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
That’s your dilemma. If you’ve heard God’s promise of love and forgiveness in Jesus, have found the joy and support of the community of faith Jesus established, if you’ve believed the promise of life in Christ with God after you die, if you’ve found wisdom for understanding your world, hope in Christ for a world where people live in love and peace and justice with each other, where else can you go for that?
So how many times do you need to hear Jesus before you follow?
Following is hard. Living your life as a slave to everyone else for the sake of the love of God in Jesus you know, changes everything. No options to love or not love: there’s only the command. No options to partially follow or do some of the plan: there’s only “follow me.”
But as you struggle, even as these disciples struggled, remember their experience. They ultimately followed. Many gave their lives. They embodied being a slave in love to others, because that’s what they knew in their Lord. They saw it in the suffering, the cross, the empty tomb. They saw it in their Master kneeling before them, lovingly washing their feet. They were filled by the Spirit at Pentecost who empowered their new lives of being slaves to all. Willing, choosing that life, not being forced.
You’ve known all this too, you’ve experienced the Spirit. These disciples can remind you in that knowledge and experience of the Spirit that following Jesus is, in fact, following Jesus. Following the pattern of love and service and grace that Christ has already given you and the world. Following the way that has already shown you the possibility of life. Letting God transform you into this new way.
So: what do you want to do about Jesus and his call to you?
In the name of Jesus. Amen