We live in the confusion and fear of the disciples who struggle to follow Jesus in Mark 8-10, but are called together and re-centered and enlightened by Christ who leads us on this path of servanthood.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lect. 25 B
Text: Mark 9:30-37 (plus 38-40)
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
It was all going so well, this following Jesus.
Dozens of disciples followed this rabbi from Nazareth and experienced wonders. Teaching that brought God close to them. Miracles defying explanation. A sense that God was in Jesus, so you could even hope for a new world, a restored Israel. The prophets’ promise that God would one day spread a table for all, so none went without, seemed to be happening, as thousands were fed in one amazing evening.
Sure, there were unhappy people. Some of the leaders of the local synagogues, even some teachers from Jerusalem, seemed angered by their teacher and his way of interpreting God’s law, threatened by his popularity. But as they traveled, in every village more and more people flocked to him for healing and guidance. Minor opposition couldn’t stand against such acclaim.
That’s what the first half of Mark’s Gospel feels like. Then chapter 8 arrives. As we heard last week, Jesus casts a cloud over the sunny hopes and dreams of his followers. He says he’s heading to Jerusalem to be killed. He asks those who follow him to also lose their lives for his sake and for the sake of this Good News they’ve been so happy to hear and experience.
This cloud covers the rest of the Gospel until Jesus’ death, with the disciples trying to get their hearts and minds around this new thing that Jesus says is the central thing, the servant path.
Today we heard the second of three predictions Jesus makes about his death in Mark.
In chapter 8 and chapter 10, Jesus makes a single statement. But here in chapter 9 it’s an ongoing conversation. Mark says Jesus takes his large group of followers away from the crowds and repeatedly teaches them he’ll be betrayed, killed, and, three days later, rise.
In these three chapters are some of the hardest teachings of Jesus, many of which we’ll hear in the next few weeks. In these three chapters, the disciples swim in a sea of doubt and confusion, as Jesus keeps making it clear that his path leads to death and resurrection. That he is offering his life and they are asked to offer theirs. That he will be a servant to them, and that his followers are called to be servants of each other and of the world.
The disciples don’t do well with this shift. We heard Peter’s fall from grace last week, called “Satan,” literally, “the adversary,” for trying to stop Jesus’ talk. John hears the call to servanthood and, as we heard today, responds by bragging about shutting down some people who were casting out demons in Jesus’ name, because they weren’t part of the authorized group. We’ll hear the chapter 10 prediction in our Gospel in about a month, and after it, John and his brother James ask Jesus for the seats of honor in God’s coming reign.
Following Jesus made sense to the disciples when it looked like he was a winner. It was a lot more challenging for these women and men when he said he was walking a path that led to losing, to serving, to offering himself.
The Church basically lives in the struggle of these three chapters of Mark and always has.
Our conflict between wanting to follow a winner, when Jesus persistently won’t let us see him as that, is centuries old. Ever since Christianity got imperial protection as the state religion 1,700 years ago, the Church has been tempted by the lure of power and wealth and domination. From the Crusades to the Inquisition to the 30-years’ war in Europe to the deadly alliance of evangelism and colonialism, Christians often seem to like the first half of Mark’s Gospel better. Today it’s manifest in the modern American myth of an exclusively Christian nation where Christian teachings are protected by laws and a strong military, and those of other faiths are marginalized and demonized.
Never mind that for 2,000 years Jesus has insisted that his way, God’s way, is the way of servant love, of offering oneself for neighbors and even enemies, of sacrifice so the Good News of God’s love can reach everyone. The Church has always found ways to lift up Jesus the Winner and artfully ignore Jesus’ teaching, tweak interpretation, turn his clear words into ways to manipulate and oppress others.
You and I also struggle with this conflict. But our faith practice, our worship, fatally undermines our attempts to bypass Jesus’ clarity. Thank God for that!
See, we continue to read the Gospels – from beginning to end – in our worship, blissfully appointing a reading like today’s, forgetting the Word of God is alive and active and won’t let us go.
Today we come to worship and once more Jesus sneaks in under our denial and self-protection, our unwillingness to let go of privilege and status and wealth, and calls out to us as he did to those women and men 2,000 years ago.
If we really didn’t want to hear Jesus or follow his call to sacrificial love and servanthood, we shouldn’t have let the Gospels be read to us again and again.
But it’s life-saving Good News that we keep making that mistake. Taking up our cross, losing ourselves for others, will never be easy. But as long as we keep letting Jesus talk, so we keep hearing God’s voice of love and call speak in our worship, God will make cracks in our denial and avoidance. Keep planting seeds of a new life. Give us courage to be servants to each other and the world, and to let others be our servants in turn.
We’re always journeying through the difficult awakening in chapters 8 to 10, sometimes making wrong turns in our discipleship.
Just like these folks. And we’re already doing what they did, keeping on listening to Jesus, reading these Gospels at home and in worship. That’s what led them to faithfulness in the end.
But we can avoid their critical mistake in today’s Gospel. They were silent in their confusion and fear to the one person who could have helped. “They didn’t understand what Jesus was saying,” Mark says, “and were afraid to ask him.” They spread their confusion and fear amongst themselves without ever turning to Jesus and saying, “This is really hard. Can you help us?”
We don’t have to make that mistake.
We’re already listening to Jesus. Let’s learn to ask him things, too.
As we worship and hear from the Gospels week after week, from Paul and the New Testament writers, from the Hebrew Scriptures, we faithfully put ourselves in the way of God’s Word, letting God’s voice speak into our worship and lives. When you read your Bible at home you do it, too.
But learn to pray as you hear and as you read. When you struggle with something Jesus asks of you, when God’s Word makes you confused about your divided loyalties or embedded biases or about the right way to go in that moment, learn to ask Christ to help you. Learn to say, “Help me understand this. Help me not run from this. Help me do this.”
And learn to use your community, too. If the disciples hadn’t argued on the road by themselves but had asked Jesus to help them, they could have all learned together. So can we. If we help each other listen and ask.
This path Jesus leads us on is hard, no question. But it also gives us hope.
Hope, because we have each other on our journey, to learn servanthood, to encourage each other, to be honest and open together about our struggles, and so find grace as we go out as God’s servants into this world.
Hope, because Jesus always walks with us on the road through the Spirit, opening the Scriptures to us, encouraging and guiding us in our servanthood.
Hope, because this path of servanthood and self-giving love will end all the deep-rooted problems that plague our society and plague our hearts. Racism, classism, patriarchalism, oppression, systemic poverty, war and violence, have no chance of surviving a world full of servants of God who live God’s self-giving love.
Come, let’s journey together, learn from Christ together, and, with God’s help, take our place among God’s servants who are healing this world.
In the name of Jesus. Amen