Our Gospel reading this morning begins with the simple statement: “They went on from there….” (Mark 9.30-37). On the one hand this reminds us that each of the Gospel writers and Mark in particular, have a keen sense of movement and geography as they tell the story of Jesus. But more than this, they also want to draw our attention to what we might call, the geography of the soul. In other words, as we ponder these incidents week by week, we’re invited to see how the disciples themselves are moving on in their understanding of Jesus and what he’s about.
Today’s reading illustrates how this moving on is characterized by some startling and sometimes unnerving experiences; some perplexing teaching and pointed questioning. Here they are, moving through Galilee, and Jesus for the second time, predicts his death at the hands of the religious establishment. And we sense that from that ‘internal’ perspective, the disciples seem a little stuck. And it’s not just, as we’re told, they didn’t understand what Jesus was saying. No, they, “were afraid to ask him” (verse 31). So, here is something of a watershed moment for the disciples in their ‘moving on’ with Jesus; a moment where he helps them get their bearings.
Let’s begin with that pointed remark that they were afraid to ask him. I don’t know about you but this phrase transports me back to my schooldays, sitting in the math’s lesson; totally at sea and afraid to ask the teacher for help. Many years later, I realized that if I could have trusted the teacher and the others in the class I’d have been fine… but all I could think about was looking stupid if I put my hand up.
I’ve often come across the same sort of fear in Christian people I meet. So often it seems that we have cultivated the same kind of insecurity when it comes to faith questions doesn’t it? Again, it’s hard enough when you don’t understand but when you are afraid to ask it’s very difficult to move on in faith. Which is why a secure and trusting relationship, not only with the Lord; but also with his people is so important. So, I’m suggesting firstly, that in this passage Jesus moves, so as to create a space and a relationship which is strong enough for the disciples to come clean about their questions. Which is why the first thing we see him doing (in verse 35) is taking them aside privately.
But then notice, Mark says: “When he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’” In one sense this is clearly an attempt to clear the air; but look closely and we’re given an illustration of what praying is about. Let me explain. How would it be if we were to think of praying as being drawn aside by Jesus into a place where that the relationship is deepened and the fear is removed?
Perhaps we’re not used to thinking about prayer as something Jesus initiates. Perhaps we’re not used to thinking about it in this robust kind of way, where dialogue is much more the order of the day. But hold onto this for a moment.
How would it be if instead of focusing on the things we might ask of the Lord, prayer becomes that intimate space in which he asks questions of us? “What were you arguing about on the way?” Jesus said to them.
Jesus had taken them aside and there he brought them face to face with not just something they were embarrassed by: I mean, they were arguing about who was going to take over the group once Jesus was dead! But also, if you will, he made them consider the seat of their passions and what really engaged them. This is an ‘honest to God’ moment.
In other words, it’s typical of the Lord that he should expose where our ‘treasure’ really lies; and that he should get us to examine something of the foundations on which we’re building our lives. As someone said, these usually have something to do with ‘power, prestige and possessions’ don’t they?
But then, having established that there’s nowhere to hide(!); there in verse 35 we get a little more detail. So, we’re told that Jesus “sat down”. It’s a very simple point but this is the spiritual equivalent of Jesus rolling his sleeves up, because sitting was the position taken up by the teacher. In other words, Mark wants us to know that we’ve reached the point where Jesus is now saying, “OK boys, it’s about time that I put you right on a few things”.
Next, notice how Mark tells us that he “called the twelve”. It’s no accident that this is the name they’re given. You see, Mark is not only setting the scene, where Jesus is clearly the teacher. No, once we’ve established who he is, it’s now they, who are being reminded of who they are. I mean, ‘the twelve’, is that highly symbolic and powerful reminder of their calling as representatives of the twelve tribes of the new Israel, isn’t it? This motley crew need reminding of their real dignity.
And then, thirdly, comes the teaching itself. Jesus sets out what holds true in the new age; the new dispensation which he is ushering in. He says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all”. Now, to understand this, we might want to use the contemporary buzz word: ‘citizenship’. What I mean is, Jesus lays before us what kinds of attitudes and dispositions will be seen in the lives of those who inhabit the Kingdom of God. Jesus is entirely serous that ‘transformation’ is the name of the game. Or to return to the citizenship model…. It’s all about becoming a ‘naturalized’ Christian.
This, I would suggest is the reason why he takes the little child and sets it down in front of them. This isn’t mere sentimentality. Jesus is highlighting a fundamentally different attitude and outlook towards this thing called life; small wonder they didn’t understand.
So, what I’m saying is that if we’re among those who dwell in this skeptical, “really not sure what’s going on” version of the faith; where we don’t quite understand and we’re afraid to ask. This morning, Mark describes not so much what we need to do, in order to ‘move on’, but what Jesus is wanting to do for us and within us.
Fundamentally, there are questions here about what prayer means to us. Perhaps it might help to see it not as a chore, or a problem to be solved or the place we go as a last resort. But instead, how would it be if we saw prayer as that place of intimacy, into which we are invited and drawn? A place where all the fear is taken away? We may have to face pointed questions; but it will feel like a space in which we get our bearings.
And Mark lays out the pattern for ‘moving on’. Firstly, as Jesus sat down to teach the disciples; we learn to sit at his feet with a renewed sense of who He is; and what he wants to teach us. Secondly, as the disciples are reminded of their calling and purpose as ‘the twelve’; so, our Baptism tells us who we are in relation to him. This is our fundamental dignity and identity. That’s why Christians cross themselves.
Then thirdly, towards the end of his life, the Apostle John said: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are” (1 John 3.1). Saint John was there on the day Jesus put that little child in front of the twelve. He realized from the start, that being called God’s ‘children’ doesn’t condemn the Christian to some literally, ‘infantile’ condition. No, it highlights the radically different outlook and disposition which the Holy Spirit is seeking to bring about within us.
To put it another way, the way of being in the world to which Jesus calls us is as different as the attitudes you see between an adult and a child. It’s that fundamental. And what we might profitably see as a word to each of us personally is of course, a word to us as a Church. It is, after all ‘the twelve’, collectively to whom Jesus offers today’s teaching.
So, let me put it this way. If we are to ‘move on’ as a Church, then we need to set aside the notion that this might be achieved by managerial and institutional means. Because today’s Gospel calls us to a greater spiritual seriousness than that.
What really matters is whether we are a people who really understand ourselves as those who are being drawn into intimacy with Christ?
This is how it works: Once we know who Jesus is; then we discover who we are,… What we’re for, flows from that. It was C.S. Lewis who said, “Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed in disguise – and calls us to embark on a great campaign of sabotage”
As some preachers are prone to say: “Can I get an ‘Amen’ to that?