Pentecost 18B 2018
Proper 20
Texts: Proverbs 31: 10-31 | Psalm 1 | James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a | Mark 9: 30-37

“But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” Mark 9:32

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  Mark 9:35

Have you ever been afraid to ask a question? Have you ever been afraid that if you asked the question that was burning in your heart you might be completely undone by the answer so it was safer to leave your question unasked? Have you ever been afraid or embarrassed to answer a question asked of you?  

If there is ever a text that shows the humanity of the disciples, shows how much we are like them, this story in Mark is it.  

Last week we had Peter correctly answering Jesus’ question, “But who do you say I am” but then completely missing the point when Jesus tells the disciples that he must suffer and die. I told you that Peter thought he knew better. That Peter had put what he thought needed to happen and how the Messiah was to act above God’s plan for them and for the rest of humanity. For this Peter was branded as “Satan”, the adversary.

In today’s reading we are told that Jesus is again trying to teach the disciples what must happen-Jesus will be betrayed. Jesus will be killed. Jesus will also rise again. The disciples still don’t understand and rather than seek understanding, rather than asking the question that was burning in their hearts, they say nothing. Staying confused, not asking any questions, was safer than asking and finding out the answers were possibly something they didn’t want to hear. They were afraid there might be an answer that they couldn’t bear. How could they deal with everything changing? How could they deal with the person they had given their lives and livelihoods to no longer being with them? Everything they thought they knew was changing and they were scared.

And then the disciples did something so human and so understandable. Rather than staying with their questions, rather than struggling with the possibility of uncomfortable answers from Jesus, they turn inward, they focus on themselves rather than what Jesus is trying to teach them.

Jesus heard their murmurings on the way to Capernaum. Jesus got snippets of their conversations of who was the best disciple, of who outranked who, of who loved Jesus more, of who would be the most faithful, the bravest, the most loyal. When Jesus asked them about it they were too embarrassed to admit it. They again stay silent.  

Not only do they not ask their questions, they will not answer Jesus’ question. But maybe it didn’t need to be answered. Maybe everybody just knew that Jesus knew what they were arguing about and there really wasn’t a defense they could put up anyway. Jesus has a way of seeing right through things.

Jesus then does something amazing. He doesn’t scold them. He doesn’t make one of them an example to the others through embarrassing them. He teaches them through a living example, a flesh and blood image of what real leadership and discipleship means. He uses a child to show them what following him and receiving God looks like.

Children in Jesus’ time had no value. They had no status, no power, were not seen as benefiting the community in any way. They literally had nothing to offer anyone. Yet it is with a child, a person of no account that Jesus makes his point. He takes this child, embraces it, and tells them that when they do the same, when they value someone who can do nothing for them in return, that can give nothing to them, that can’t advance their agendas, interests, or livelihood, only then are they truly leading and only then are they truly following.

Being the greatest disciple, being the best disciple for Jesus, had nothing to do with an attained status, with working the hardest or being the bravest. Being the best disciple had to do with humble, loving service.  

Just as each disciple had to answer for themselves who they said Jesus was, the only person they could possibly be in competition with in the disciple department was themselves. They could not be in competition with anyone else because if they were in competition with another they were driven by their own interests and not by the interest of Jesus Christ.  

If they were interested in Jesus Christ, if their goal was to faithfully follow in his footsteps, then the envy and jealousy and one-upmanship had to end. There simply was no place for it.  

And if they were to follow Jesus than their own assumptions of what could have, should have, needed to have happen, were going to be turned upside down and inside out.  

Being a disciple can be hard and confusing. Like the twelve, we sincerely want to be good followers of Jesus. We want to please God. But sometimes we don’t ask the questions we want and need to ask because we are afraid of the answers. We are afraid that Jesus may demand things of us we aren’t quite sure we are ready to give or demand things from us that we aren’t ready to give up.  

Jesus may tell us to go places we don’t want to go, to interact with people we don’t want to interact with, to be uncomfortable and to struggle when all we want is what is best, as we define it, for ourselves and our families and to be left alone.  

It is so human to turn the conversation to what we want and what we expect rather than to stay uncomfortable with Jesus and to embrace the vulnerability and the hardship that Jesus puts in the middle of our life together.  

But it is only in embracing that vulnerability, it is only in serving where there is no expectation of being given something in return, it is only in giving up our own assumptions and agendas that we become open to the deeper revelation of what God is trying to teach us. And that happens because as this story shows, God’s reality is different than our reality and God defines greatness very differently than we do.

Since the incarnation, since God becoming human to live among us, all expectations, all assumptions of what God is like and what God wants have been redefined, “Because God becoming human decided that greatness is not about separation but solidarity, not about being better than but being in relationship with us. Greatness is not about “self-adulation but empowerment and encouragement of the other. Greatness is determined by weakness and vulnerability. By service and sacrifice. By humility and honor. By truthfulness and faithfulness.” 

New life was around the corner for the disciples, but they couldn’t know that. All they knew was that things were changing and nothing looked certain anymore.

New life awaits all of us, but like the disciples it requires that we have a radical trust in God’s larger plan and a radical vulnerability in opening ourselves up to Christ and to each other.  

New life means being uncomfortable. It means self-sacrifice, service, and humility in trying to be the best disciples we can be. And new life means losing sight of how great we think we are and allowing ourselves to be amazed at how great God is.


Brandon Wilson