Willow Creek Friends Church
Mark 9:30–37 (NRSV)
Jesus Again Foretells His Death and Resurrection
(Mt 17:22–23; Lk 9:43b—45)
30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
Who Is the Greatest?
(Mt 18:1–5; Lk 9:46–48)
33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
It is always nice to see the moments of humanity within the disciples. We often think of the disciples as these super spiritual people, we regard them as saint, but often forget that they were at first human. They like each of us were prone to those pesky little nuances of humanity. They were jealous, they were seekers of power within a community, and at times they were as hard headed as me.
In last week’s passage, we saw that Jesus told them what was to happen in the near future, and Peter rebuked him. Peter the rock of faith, cursed Jesus because what Jesus was speaking about did not fit into Peter’s perspective and interpretation of the person of the Messiah. He rebuked Jesus. Have we ever done this? Be honest, I am, I have rebuked God. I have told him that this is not how I envisioned things would happen. And often the response I have sensed is much like that Peter received.
Today Jesus again tells them what will happen in his near future. They are walking through Galilee once again, heading to the town most of the disciples probably lived, Capernaum. As they walk Jesus tells them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” They did not understand it days before and they still do not understand.
For their entire life they were taught certain things. They had heard the greatest minds of their faith traditions speak about the Messiah, and they had even listened to teachers from other traditions speak on it too. I say this because the local synagogue was often more like a library is today. They were the center of community education for children and adults, and part of that included seminars from various rabbis that would travel around the nation presenting their teachings and hopefully recruiting students.
They had heard about the Messiah their entire life. They thought they knew what to expect, yet Jesus is telling them things that no one had ever mentioned. Sure, some of the prophets spoke about the suffering servant, but that was glossed over for more important things. Things like the Kingdom and the restoration of Israel. And Jesus takes this suffering thing to a different degree than they are comfortable with and they do not know what to think about it, and they were too afraid to ask.
Why were they afraid to ask? If we look at the life of Jesus, we would see that he was extremely approachable. Multitudes of people would come visit with him while he toured the country. Even when he entered the areas not normally traversed by religious leaders people came to see him. So many would visit, that even his own family, his mother, had trouble getting to the table to eat with him when he came home. This angered the religious leaders who felt that they deserved favor according to their status, but for the common people it was amazing.
The sick would come to seek healing, even leaders of the occupying military forces would come to seek answers for their problems. Yet those that opposed Jesus’s teaching often found themselves as the illustration of a parable. And Jesus even likened his closest friend as Satan, when Peter attempted to challenge what Jesus presented.
What caused this approachable teacher to become so unapproachable? I thought about this as I studied this week. What causes us as humans to hesitate in our approach to Jesus?
Pride is often the cause of hesitation. We believe that we can do all things. We believe we have enough in ourselves to accomplish what we desire. We believe this to such a degree that we often do not even question our desires. It is what we want to happen, so we proceed as if it has a divine anointing. This belief in ourselves produces bitter fruit of envy, jealousy, idolatry and more. We place ourselves in the center of our spirituality instead of Christ.
This is the dilemma of the disciples in today’s passage. They did not understand what Jesus was speaking about, and they were too afraid to ask, so they just went on with what was on their mind. They did not ask because they did not know. They missed an incredible opportunity to learn the significance of God’s abounding love and mercy, from God incarnate. Imagine if just one of them would have asked, “Um, Jesus, can you explain that again? You lost me at the part where you said they will kill him.” But at this point even doubting Thomas was too afraid to express his doubt.
When they get to Capernaum, Jesus confronts their lack of discussion. He knows that they did not understand what he was saying. He knows that they had other things on their mind. They were still caught up in this cultural interpretation of who the Messiah was to be, and each of them were debating where in this hierarchy they would find themselves in. “What were you arguing about on the way?” Jesus asks. And the disciples fall silent.
Mark informs us that they were discussing among themselves which of them was the greatest. Can you imagine that discussion? Twelve men listing off their strengths and twelve men pointing out their weaknesses. Each one insisting that they have a right to be greatest because the Messiah personally called them to follow him. And each one in turn being told that all the others were called as well. Then there were those that were called first, and those that had better connections, those that had unique skills, and those that were young enough to avoid worldly corruption. This was such an intense debate that they let Jesus walk ahead of them and did not even attempt to listen to what he might have to say, even though they were supposed to be following so close to him to be coated with the dust kicked up from the rabbi’s feet.
Consider what this argument is about. Why would someone want to be considered as having a higher status? It is selfish ambition. It is a desire for power and control. It is all about who they are and their relationship with the one who bestows the control. Their focus is on themselves. They may say that it is for the good of Israel, they might even say that it is for God’s glory, but when we seek positions within a community it is almost always because we feel we deserve more than we are getting, and we want others to know that we deserve better.
I struggle with this personally. I have desires. I have gifts that I feel are not being fully utilized and have sought out vocational opportunities that might utilize them in a greater way. I have even rejected opportunities that did not also involve compensation that I deemed adequate for the services rendered. I told you last week that I had a job interview and I did take a different job. Was this wrong? It could be. The question is was Christ at the center of the decision, or was I?
Jesus looks at the disciples as he asks them what they were arguing about. He then calls the crowds closer to him as he begins to teach. They gather in close. Some are most likely elbowing their way to the front, while others take their place behind them. There are children among the group, they are most likely doing things that kids do. They are laughing and talking in voices that resemble a yell more than a whisper. They see something that attracts their attention and they might run after it to the dismay of their parents and the annoyance of the other attenders. Jesus observes all of this as they gather.
He sits down among them, and as he sits he gets the attention of one child and this child comes to Jesus. Jesus the Messiah, the future king of Israel, the one that will restore the throne of David and break the chains of bondage from Rome. This man that has the potential of greatness, who is surrounded by worthy men of character, motions a child to approach. If we were to look at the complete gospel account, we would find that children like everyone else found Jesus to be very approachable. They wanted to be near him, and often to the dismay of the adults, Jesus called the children to be near. Jesus calls the child over to him, He gathers the child in his arms, and he says to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
All the arguments at this point should stop. All the pursuit of power and success should cease because this one statement turns everything in the world upside down. In the world the focus is on self, but in the kingdom, Jesus is ushering in it is others that are most important. And not just others, but the children. Why are they so important? It is because children are hungry. They are on this seemingly never-ending quest to fulfill their hungers. They run around exploring the world. They can spend hours following a dog around and giggle with glee every time the dog takes a drink. They follow because they are curious, they have a hunger for knowledge and if we direct them in the ways they should go our efforts will be repaid. The child is only a symbolic example. The reality is that we should invest in those that seek. We should be investing our time and energy in training those of immature faith and encouraging them to grow. And as they grow we should train them to train those of younger faith as well.
When we welcome those of immature faith and walk with them, we are participating in the very life of Christ. It does not matter who we are, what success we have in our worldly communities, it does not even matter what position we have among the religious leaders. What matters is if we are willing to learn from our teachers, and if we are willing to teach and encourage those without that learning.
The disciples are very human, they like us often find themselves acting just like everyone else. They have pride, and ambition. They seek fortune and influence. They also have a hunger to learn and to grow or they would not follow. There is nothing wrong with success in this world. It is often the wages of a well lived life, but if all we seek is to become successful in the eyes of the world we are missing the point. It is not about us. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. The kingdom is like a sower scattering seeds on various soils. The kingdom of God is like so many things, but the kingdom requires something. The sower must scatter seed for it to grow. The seed must sacrifice its life and become a plant so that it can bear fruit. We must die to self and focus on those outside ourselves if we want to participate in the kingdom. Just as Jesus taught his disciples to pray. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” For this to happen we must become a people who loves God with everything we have and loves our neighbor as we love ourselves. We must become a people loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. Because with out that we are just a bunch of windbags arguing about nothing and getting nowhere.
As we enter our time of Open Worship and communion as Friends consider what it means to welcome the children. Consider the children we have running around our Meetinghouse and how we encourage them? Are we annoyed by their desire to play the drums for worship, are we irritated at their whispers and laughter, or do we see them as ways to welcome Christ among us? Let us now center our lives on Christ and honestly say thy kingdom come thy will be done right here as it is in heaven.