September 22-23, 2012
Back in 1995, Joan Osborne sang a song that was later named to VH1’s list of Greatest One-Hit Wonders of the 90’s: “One of Us.” It was later used as the theme song for the TV show Joan of Arcadia. Throughout the song, the singer asks a number of questions, one of which is, “If you were faced with him in all his glory, what would you ask if you had just one question?”
Over the summer, we had the opportunity to tackle a bunch of those kinds of questions. Big, basic, foundational questions of the faith. Questions that many times we don’t know the answer to, but somehow we feel that we should, and are ashamed to ask.
And it’s not just faith questions that do this to us, isn’t it? We don’t like to ask questions, because to ask a question means that there’s something we don’t know, and for some reason, we live under the impression that we’re supposed to know it all and have it all together. I can’t count the number of times when someone has come up to me and started talking about something where I had NO idea what they were talking about. Sometimes they may have assumed that I had prior information, sometimes they may have just been talking and assuming that I was following where they were going, but for me, it quickly became abundantly clear that I was very much in the dark.
Do you think I stopped them and said something like “I’m sorry, what do you mean?” or “I’m just not following” or something along those lines? No. Maybe I didn’t want to look stupid, maybe I didn’t want to look like I didn’t have it all together or didn’t have the answers. I just nodded and smiled and listened, and after the conversation was done racked my brain or kicked myself for not knowing and then on top of it, kicked myself for staying quiet and worried and wondered if they know that I hadn’t been following them.
I hope I’m not the only one who’s done something like that.
Jesus’ disciples were in the same boat in today’s reading. Actually, the full story begins even before our reading. Turn in your Bibles to Mark 9:14. Verses 14-29 tell a story of something that happened right before today’s reading. There’s a boy with an unclean spirit that’s causing convulsions, and the disciples have been unable to do anything about it—in fact, as Jesus approaches, they’re in the middle of an argument with the scribes who had gathered. Jesus chastises them all, even the disciples, in verse 19, saying, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” You can almost hear the frustrated sigh in his voice, as even after the time that his disciples have spent with him, there’s still so much that they don’t understand. They don’t understand who he is, they don’t understand who they are, and they don’t understand who they are called to be. After he casts out the spirit, the disciples ask him in private in v. 29 why they couldn’t have done it, and his answer basically is that they didn’t pray.
So we have that embarrassing setup before we get to today’s reading. The disciples have been embarrassed by not being able to do something they thought they should have been able to do, and they were almost certainly embarrassed by Jesus’ disappointment. So in verse 30, they pass quietly through Galilee and Jesus takes that time not to stop and heal people or feed people or do any of these amazing miracles that he had been doing, but as they travel he teaches them. It’s as though he’s realizing that his disciples weren’t getting it, that he needed to go back to the beginning, to the foundational stuff.
And so we get to verse 31, where he tells his disciples quite explicitly what’s going to happen to him. He says that he will be betrayed into human hands, and that he would be killed, and that on the third day he would rise. But look then at verse 32, keeping in mind what had just happened in the previous story. “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”
In Mark’s account of the gospel, the disciples remain clueless pretty much all the way through. They are constantly getting things wrong or not understanding what Jesus is saying or doing. Even at the end of Mark, after the resurrection, the angel tells the disciples that Jesus has risen and would meet them in Galilee and that they were to go there, and what do they do? They stay in Jerusalem, and tell no one. So for the disciples to not understand Jesus in this instance isn’t a surprise, but now, they were afraid to ask him. They were embarrassed, they were afraid…instead of wanting to gain further insight into the truth of the strange things Jesus was saying, they nodded and pretended to understand, just like we do so much of the time.
And what was the result? Arguments. Infighting. Division. When they arrived in Capernaum, Jesus asked them what they had been arguing about on the way, and like a group of kids being confronted by a parent, nobody wanted to tell him, because they had been arguing over who was the greatest, and they knew that he wouldn’t have liked that argument. Their focus was completely the wrong one, and they knew it.
Because in their non-understanding of Jesus they had cut off communication, their focus was not on who Jesus was or what Jesus was about, but on themselves. Alyce McKenzie points out four possible causes of the disciples’ argument:
- fear that they have fallen in Jesus'estimation (9:19)
- insecurity at their failure to heal the boy (9:29)
- resentment toward one another as Jesus chastises them
- eagerness to compete to regain his approval
The first letter of each of those reasons spells out F-I-R-E. Last week, we heard from James’ letter that the tongue is a fire, and indeed these arguments over our own power, over our own prestige, when we’re trying to save face and establish or re-establish our credentials, generate heat. And then we hear this week from James 4:1-3:
4:1 Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 2 You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.
When we hear this passage from James, it’s easy for our minds to go immediately to our stuff. Asking for things, and receiving things. Possessions. But this passage also provides a commentary on our gospel passage and what’s going on with the disciples. It wasn’t just a piece of information that they didn’t understand that they needed clarification on. They didn’t get Jesus. They really, truly did not understand who he was, or what he was about. Their focus was on their own reputation. It turned inward, and when we curve inward like that, when it becomes about us and our standing and our place, then we too don’t get Jesus. We don’t understand who he is or what he’s about, or what we’re about as his followers.
What’s Jesus response to the disciples? He tells, and then he shows. To explain who he is, to explain what he’s about, to help them understand that his power is found in weakness, that life in him is found in death and resurrection, to help them understand their own calling, he takes their argument and turns it on its head. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Your greatness, your glory, your place in the Kingdom of God, is found in lowliness, humility, and your willingness to be a servant. Not just a servant of those who deserve it, not just a servant of those you like or those you agree with or those whose lifestyles or choices agree with yours, but a servant of all. A servant of your enemy. A servant of the outcast. You are to go even so far as to welcome children.
Of course we’re supposed to welcome children, right?
We look at this and our inclination is to think, “aw, how cute. Jesus hugs a kid and tells the disciples that they need to love kids too.” But these were revolutionary words. Children, in Jewish culture, weren’t yet fully human. They had no rights, they had no status, no standing, not even a fully formed humanity. Your calling, he tells the disciples and us today, is to love and serve and welcome even those who do not have the same rights as you do, who do not have standing in society, who your culture tells you that you ought not to love and serve and welcome. Welcome them into your homes, into your lives, into your church, welcome them to the baptismal font and to the communion table.
Do we dare take the risk? When we are radically welcoming, we risk losing our status in society. When the outsider is welcomed, we risk becoming the outsider ourselves. We risk losing what we had, we risk losing who we used to be.
But that’s the cross. That’s Jesus’ example. That’s what the disciples didn’t get. That’s what we so often don’t get. That’s letting go of our need to be right, our embarrassment of not having it all together, this house of cards that we build for ourselves that we’re so deathly afraid someone’s going to find us out, that’s letting go of all of that, and clinging instead to Jesus’ promises of forgiveness and new life.
New life for all of us.
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church