In Which the Disciples Miss the Point

Sermon preached for the Twenty-fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.

Mark 9:30-37
From there Jesus and his followers went through Galilee, but he didn’t want anyone to know it. This was because he was teaching his disciples, “The Human One will be delivered into human hands. They will kill him. Three days after he is killed he will rise up.” But they didn’t understand this kind of talk, and they were afraid to ask him.

They entered Capernaum. When they had come into a house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about during the journey?” They didn’t respond, since on the way they had been debating with each other about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be least of all and the servant of all.” Jesus reached for a little child, placed him among the Twelve, and embraced him. Then he said, “Whoever welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me isn’t actually welcoming me but rather the one who sent me.”

***

My childhood dog loved to get into things she shouldn’t. No food was safe. Any pile of clean laundry was simply waiting for her to jump in. And she loooooved to—I kid you not—carry soap around the house. We’d find slivers of it ground into the carpet.

As a rule, she was not big into shame. She wasn’t always smart enough for that. But she did have one look reserved for when she was caught outright, chewing on something she shouldn’t be chewing on.

I called it her “busted” look.

Most dogs have one. Most people do too.

I imagine this look—half-ashamed, half-embarrassed, and just a little bit, “who, me?”—is the exact look Jesus’ disciples gave him once they got to that house in Capernaum. When Jesus—Jesus who was JUST TALKING about the fact that he is going to die at human hands—when Jesus asks them what they were talking about, and they have to admit that they were trying to figure out who was the greatest among them.

I don’t quite know what the prize was. I don’t think the Disciples were planning on crowning anybody Prom King. But for whatever reason, they’d been walking along behind Jesus, their teacher, healer, miracle-worker, arguing about which one of them was the most awesomesauce of the bunch.

For all that Jesus has shown them and taught them, the disciples are still caught up in the immature obsession of the popularity contest, of all the bragging and swaggering and posturing that we are so prone to. They still want a hierarchy, a ranking, to know who’s following Jesus the best and who’s not making the cut.

You can almost see Jesus rolling his eyes.

The disciples have utterly and entirely missed the point. Jesus has not come to win a popularity contest with anybody. In fact, quite the opposite.

“Whoever wants to be first must be least of all and the servant of all,” he says.

And to demonstrate his point, Jesus takes a young child, and takes him in his arms. This little child, unimportant to the world, not yet big or strong enough to work the land or serve in the military or even study the Torah, is the one Jesus lifts up as precious. The one who is God’s own representative on earth. This child has no net worth, no political value. And yet, in the eyes of God, he is worthy beyond all measure. Jesus asks that his disciples see him that way.

This is what it should mean to be a disciple of Christ. To see as worthy those the world sees as unworthy. Not to chase after accolades and glory, but to become servants to all who need Christ’s mercy, Christ’s compassion, Christ’s love.

We know this. It’s Christianity 101. But it’s still so, so hard to live out.

This morning we kicked off our confirmation class for our older youth here at the church. Over the course of the next five months or so, Aidan, Corinne, and Liam will be digging deeper into what it means to be a disciple of Christ. At their baptisms their parents chose the Christian faith for them. Now they will have the chance to make the choice to follow Christ for themselves.

As children, we are used to being served, to being taken care of, to having our needs and wants attended to. It has to be that way. Children aren’t capable of taking care of themselves. But eventually children grow up, and they learn to take care of themselves, holding their own spoons, tying their own shoes. And then they learn to take care of others, to read to their siblings, to watch out for their friends. Learning to recognize that we are not the center of the universe is the work of growing up.

Likewise, becoming a mature disciple of Christ means going from being the one who is embraced, the one who is served, to being the one who does the embracing, the one who serves, the one who arranges their own life so that others can have what they need. It is a hard lesson to learn; it goes against our instincts, all our childhood wants, all our anxieties about having enough for ourselves, and it goes against everything we’ve been taught about how we have to come out on top, how we have to be the best, how we have to earn our place in the world. Very few of us are naturally drawn to being servants, to honoring the needs of others before our own wants, and yet that is the mark of mature Christianity—of maturity in general, in fact. To let go of that need to be seen as great, to be admired and cossetted, and to recognize that greatness is in lifting up others.

Think about the most mature people you know—the people you admire, the people you trust. Think about how they behave towards others. I bet they are people who are humble and kind, who know how to serve, who don’t insist on being seen as the greatest person in the room. You and I both know people who want to make everything about themselves and how amazing they are, how awesome their life is. You and I both know people who are always asking for others to do for them, to see to their needs and their wants and their wishes, who want to be the center of attention at all times. And yet the people who are truly great, the people who are truly worthy of all respect and our imitation, are the people who have learned how to serve, how to lift up the least, how to sacrifice for the good of others. These are the people who have learned to live like Jesus.

Jesus was God come to earth, and could have won every popularity contest in the book, could have wowed everyone with flash and power. Yet Jesus chose—chose—to be faithful and loving instead, even if it meant risking his own life to do so. He understood that loving the way he did—radically and without limits—would be threatening to those who needed the first to stay first and the last to stay last. He told his disciples this.

The Bible says that the disciples “didn’t understand this kind of talk, and they were afraid to ask him.” It’s that second phrase that caught my attention this week.

I wonder what would’ve happened with those disciples if they hadn’t been afraid to ask Jesus what he meant, what his ideas of greatness were. But they don’t talk to Jesus, they only talk to each other—and so is it any wonder that things go south? Is it any wonder that in the echo chamber of their own broken, prideful humanity, of their own instincts and cultural upbringing, that their faith stays shallow, that they stay caught up in the rat race of popularity and perfection?

We too are inclined to miss the point. The stuff Jesus says is hard, even 2000 years later. But if we truly want to follow Jesus, we need to be willing to ask Jesus the questions. To go to God in prayer and study and service and say I don’t know what you want for me but I’m willing to listen and I’m willing to try. I think there is another way to live, a way that isn’t all caught up in glitz and glamour. I want to live that life. I want to have a mature faith, a Christ-like faith, the kind of faith that Jesus had.

I am not expecting our confirmands to be adults by March. That wouldn’t be fair. I’m also not saying that confirmation is a way of achieving perfectly mature faith. Not one of us in this room possesses that. None of us is Jesus but Jesus.

And yet in the process of confirmation, I hope that our youth will find the courage to ask Jesus the questions. To ask Jesus questions about what it means to be faithful. About what it means to be one of his disciples. About what it means for the last to be first what it means to be the least of all, the servant of all. What it means to embrace the children and outcast, the unwanted and the unloved, what it means to seek the Jesus life. I hope that Aiden and Liam and Corinne are brave enough to ask to ask the big questions about how they can best follow Christ. It will be lifelong work for them—as it is lifelong work for us—but we have to start somewhere.

Each day, those of us who profess Christ as our Lord strive for a mature faith. We strive to be the ones who embrace the lonely, who welcome children, who feed the hungry, who clothe the naked and house the stranger. We strive to be the ones who take up our cross when it is necessary and who will follow Jesus to the end if that is what he asks.

And the miracle—the miracle—is that whether we do it well or do it poorly, whether we are strong in faith and service or miss the point entirely, we are still and always children of God, caught up in the arms of Jesus, who is eager to have us close, and to watch us grow.

For Christ who asks so much, and gives even more, we give thanks. Amen.

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