What Were You Arguing About on the Way?

What Were You Arguing About on the Way?

Text: Mark 9:30-37

Preacher: Rev’d David Tiessen

St. George’s Anglican Church, London, ON

16th Sunday after Pentecost (20 September 2009)

Jesus asks the disciples,”What were you arguing about on the way?” And they are silent.

This is an awkward moment if ever there was one. Imagine them all looking at their feet and shuffling from foot to foot: We’ve missed something again!

Jesus has just told them again that the road through Galilee on which they are traveling, the road to Jerusalem, is in fact a road leading to his own betrayal – to his murder — but also (most strangely) to his rising from the dead. The disciples’ response is bafflement. And fear. They are baffled over how this one who is called ‘Son of Man’ can possibly be killed and yet still be the ‘Son of Man.’ The image of the ‘Son of Man’ in Jewish Scripture is an image of everlasting kingship, of judgment, of glory, of triumph, of victory. So if Jesus is the ‘Son of Man’ how can he talk of being killed? And what does he mean by rising again?

Earlier in chapter 9 the disciples have been puzzling over these things, and here they are scared to ask for clarification. Perhaps they are scared simply because if Jesus dies, so do their hopes for the future; they have all hung their hats on the hope that this Jesus is truly the Messiah, and if he’s killed, what next? Or perhaps they’re scared because just a bit earlier in the chapter Jesus has expressed frustration with them, calling them a “faithless generation.” Even so, Jesus has carried on with them, and here he is patiently continuing to teach them the ways of God. The problem is, of course, that God’s ways are puzzling. God’s ways cut against the grain of conventional wisdom. In Jesus God is doing something new, something radical, something that just does not compute.

Every one of us here this morning knows just as well as Jesus’ disciples knew that kingdoms are not established by dead kings. Yet have the disciples not seen the works of Jesus — works of healing the sick, of feeding the hungry, works that free and transform people, restoring them to the life that God would give them? Indeed. Yet this is too much, this notion that the Son of Man will be killed, and rise again. So the disciples do not understand, and are too afraid to ask.

Instead, they turn to arguing with one another in the hopes that Jesus doesn’t really mean what he seems to mean. They argue as if the Kingdom of this Son of Man will be just like any other kingdom that we know in history. They argue as if there is no real difference between God’s Kingdom and a merely human kingdom. They argue as if this is all just a game of power — a game in which someone wins and someone loses. A zero-sum game of cut-throat competition.

So they argue over the simplest of things: They argue over what every one of us here this morning knows deep down as an argument that we belong to too: the perpetual human argument over who is the greatest. Not only is human history marked by this argument — pock-marked actually!, pock-marked by war, by strife of every kind over every kind of thing, but our own individual lives are marked by this argument. It takes many forms: Am I good enough? Am I smart enough? Will others see and acknowledge my brilliance? Am I better at this than so and so? (Yes, I am!) How come I did not receive that award? (I should have! / I wish I had! I must work harder — or at least be more crafty — so I can get it!).

There’s a wonderful illustration of this in the children’s story by Arnold Lobel about Frog and Toad. Toad dreams that he is on a stage playing the piano, walking a tightrope, doing all kinds of things. And doing them very well. Every time he does something, a voice booms out declaring Toad to be the greatest at whatever he has just done. In the audience is Toad’s friend Frog. Each time the voice booms out, Toad measures his greatness against Frog, and each time Frog gets smaller and smaller until finally he is too small even to be seen. Toad’s greatness has filled the room, and extinguished his friend.

Who, indeed, is the greatest?

In the face of Jesus’ question to the disciples, they could only be silent.

We are Jesus’ disciples. When we were baptized into Christ some key questions were asked and answered:

Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? >> I renounce them.

Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God? >> I renounce them.

The very question “Who is the greatest?” is a question that would draw us away from the love of God. Yet are we not creatures who know that question deeply? The quest to be the greatest is a quest which corrupts and destroys the creatures of God, whether those creatures be animate or inanimate, conscious or unconscious. The quest to be the greatest is a quest for power over others, a quest to dominate. It is a quest that hurts rather than heals.

So this morning perhaps we disciples of Christ at St. George’s Church can join with those disciples of Jesus in Capernaum and enter into that silence that fell upon them in the wake of Jesus’ question: “What were you arguing about on the way?”

No answer need really be spoken, for Jesus knows full well what they and we have been arguing about. We have been arguing about ourselves! And we have been arguing about ourselves because we (just like the disciples) find it difficult to believe (not just to believe, but to really get it, deep down, such that our lives are marked by it and soaked in it). We find it difficult to get that the Kingdom of God is truly to be found in the death and resurrection of this Jesus of Nazareth, because the very thought that glory and victory and triumph are somehow to be found in being handed over and killed is still just as shocking to us as it was to those disciples. The ways and wisdom of God just do not fit neatly into our understanding of the way things are. And so we, just like Jesus’ immediate disciples, find ourselves constantly reverting to ways and means that would draw us away from the love of God, and corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. The wisdom of God is foolishness to the world.

But let’s read on: He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’

There’s the rub — there is still a first! There is a victory! There is a triumph! It’s just that that triumph is hidden beneath the smokescreen of our human assumptions about the way things are. Where we and the disciples want to keep playing in a game with clear winners and losers, God is at work to render that game null and void. God is at work for the redemption of all creation, inviting all to join into a Kingdom that is marked by a reversal of all our usual assumptions. To be first – i.e., to follow the ways of God’s Kingdom, to know God’s wisdom — is not to be the greatest but to be the ‘least’. It is to be a servant, to welcome the one who is weak in the world; the child, who cannot do anything to help us get ahead in the argument we are having about who is the greatest.

But in telling the disciples this, he did not merely start them on a new kind of game in which they were now to rush around to see who could be the best servant, who could welcome the most children. Even a game like that will soon be corrupted back into yet another argument about who indeed is the greatest servant.

No. Instead: He sat down. He called them to himself. And he said.

Three simple things — he sat; he called; he said.

The disciples have fallen silent. They know they cannot justify themselves before Jesus. There is nothing to say.

And in the midst of that silence Jesus simply sits. In sitting, Jesus takes a posture of invitation, of conversation; sitting is a posture of vulnerability. So the disciples gather around this glorious Son of Man who sits, and they hear once again Jesus calling them to himself, to join him in sitting out of this human game, and simply to hear his Word to them: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Sit. Come to me. And listen. These are words of wisdom. Words of freedom. Words that belong to the Kingdom of God because they are words that are embodied by Jesus. For Jesus is the very Wisdom of God, the One who is handed over to the human argument, and who is killed in that game that corrupts and destroys the creatures of God . . . and yet who rises again by the power of God. And this power wields not violence and domination, but love, generosity, and welcome – even as it judges the human game.

Jesus is last. Jesus is the servant of all. And because of that we are freed from the argument and called to sit with this Servant of all, that we might, in the words of our Baptismal Covenant, persevere in resisting evil, repent and return to the Lord, proclaim and live the good news of God in Christ. May each of us here — with all Christ’s disciples — come to understand this the Wisdom of God, shown to us in this One who calls us to sit and listen.

download pdf version here