One of my favourite things about Mark’s gospel is the disciples. They never seem to understand what Jesus is doing or saying. Sometimes they half get it but then do the totally wrong thing in response. They make me feel so much better about the number of times I get things wrong – especially when it comes to following Jesus. If the disciples, the people Jesus chose to follow him, can mess up, fail to understand what Jesus is saying, well that gives me a lot of hope for my own faith journey.
Our reading for today follows just after the transfiguration – that holy moment on the where God blesses Jesus say, “This is my son the beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:7) Most of the disciples may not know what happened up on the top of the mountain, but they do know things are different with Jesus. The way he teaches about God is different than any other teacher and Jesus can heal people in amazing ways.
Our reading this morning picks up as they are returning home to the area around the Galilee. Jesus wants time to teach his disciples and that was impossible if there are crowds around. When they finally get to that quiet place, Jesus says for the second time to them, “The Son of Man is about to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” (Mark 9:31) The very next line says it all. “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask.” (Mark 9:32)
I’ve been there – maybe you’ve been there. Too afraid to ask the question that was on your mind. There are a hundred reasons why we do this. Sometimes we are worried about how it will look to others in the room if we ask or sometimes we imagine that everyone else understands and we don’t want to be the only one who doesn’t. Sometimes we just assume that it is a stupid question. In this case it seems like a strange response because Jesus clearly wants them to understand what he is saying to them. It’s the second time he’s told them. The first time, we heard about last week when Peter gets mad at Jesus for saying he must suffer and die. Jesus turns to Peter and says, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but human things” (Mark 8:33) This week everyone is pretending to know what’s going on because they are too afraid to ask what this all means. They miss a great opportunity to understand more about Jesus ministry and mission.
See what I mean about the disciples. They don’t always get it right. And it doesn’t really get better for them as the reading goes on. After the teaching Jesus and the disciples head to Capernaum. When they finally get in the house, Jesus asks the disciples, “What were you arguing about on the way?” (Mark 9:33) No one answers him. Jesus asks and the room gets that nervous kind of quiet and not because they didn’t know the answer. They know but they also know that somehow Jesus knows and they’ve been caught. The Message translates it this ways, “The silence was deafening – they had been arguing with one another over who among them was greatest.” (Mark 9:34) Yup these are the disciples – the ones Jesus himself picked to follow and to carry on his message.
Somehow, I find their missteps as disciples comforting. Who among us hasn’t found themselves in the middle of a foolish argument that totally misses the point of what’s important. Fortunately for us Jesus doesn’t roll his eyes or do shake his head in embarrassment or do what one of my children when I say something foolish – hand to forehead shaking their heads in disbelief. Jesus sits down and then invites the twelve to sit and listen. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:36). Then Jesus takes a child, and holds that child in his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:37)
This is what the kingdom of God is like. To our modern ears and even to the disciples ears what Jesus says makes no sense. We all want to come first, win the race, be the best, earn the most, gain the prize in short be the greatest. But Jesus is the one who turns the world upside down. The logic of the kingdom of God and the logic of our world are completely different things. It’s what Jesus told Peter last week, “you are setting your mind not on divine things but human things” (Mark 8:33) Every day, we are bombarded by reminders that the greatest in our world are those who win, those who make the most money, those who are famous. Jesus says no to all of that. Jesus reminds that greatness is found in putting others first. Jesus puts one of the most vulnerable in society in the midst, a child, and reminds them to welcome those who need our care and attention.
It’s not very often we have someone say to us in order to be the greatest you must not only come last but serve others. If we could all follow the example of serving others, our world would be transformed. Dr. David Lose writes, “In the first-century world, as you know, children were of no account. Oh, of course, their parents loved them, but they had no rights, no influence, no standing. They were utterly dependent, utterly vulnerable, utterly powerless. So how could caring for a child count as greatness? It’s crazy. Or is it? Think about it for a minute: What if Jesus is right? I mean, what if we imagined that greatness wasn’t about power and wealth and fame and all the rest, but instead we measured greatness by how much we share with others, how much we take care of others, how much we love others, how much we serve others. What kind of world would we live in? Can you imagine if people were regularly trying to out-do each other in their deeds of kindness and service? If there were nationally broadcast competitions to see who was willing to be last so that others could go first? If there were reality TV shows that followed people around as they tried to help as many people as possible?” (https://www.davidlose.net/2018/09/pentecost-18-b-a-different-kind-of-greatness/)
That, my friends, is the life Jesus invites us all to. It is not easy follow live into the promise of God’s kingdom. We won’t always get it right – just like the disciples. But like them we will keep trying. There is something so amazing about the logic of the Kingdom of God where signs of greatness are marked by helping others. Jesus tells how to make it happen. Put others first. Help others. Serve those who are suffering. Care for the earth. It is only when greatness equals caring for the most vulnerable in our midst will God’s kingdom be fully realized. Until that great day we must strive to care for those who need our help in particular those who are most vulnerable. Let us go into the world with our mind fixed on divine things so that together, we can follow in Jesus’ way of greatness. Amen