Sunday, September 16, 2012

Last of All and the Servant of All. A Homily for MARK 9:30-37


Homily for 9.23.12
MARK 9:30-37  (see below)
Year B









SERVANTHOOD MEANS DYING

The Lectionary Gospel reading for today continues this new teaching of Jesus' from last week concerning his understanding of what awaits him in Jerusalem -- suffering and death. Of course, this new teaching is very strange to the disciple’s ears, as is the complimentary new direction of Jesus ministry. Notice the similarity between last week’s text and this week’s:

From Mark 8 (last week’s text):
He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days. He spoke this openly.
From Mark 9 (today’s text):
He was teaching his disciples and telling them, "The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise."
You will recall last week that Peter -- probably making a declaration for all the twelve -- attempts to prevent Jesus from speaking about suffering and death, but in response Jesus accuses Peter of being in league with the satan (N.T.Wright). Thus, having been so soundly rebuked before, neither Peter nor any of the twelve dare disagree with what seems to be Jesus’ newest, settled teaching. Even so, neither do they understand it:
But they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to question him.
Jesus sees what these men cannot, that the inevitable will happen to him in Jerusalem. He knows the political forces swirling around the nation at this moment will not, could not, tolerate a voice so popular or a life so powerful. He knows they must decisively stop him, and stop him for good. (Ah, will it really be for good, though?) But, could it also be true, perhaps, that Jesus being so alive with the Holy Spirit perceives the sinister forces of darkness and evil swirling around him as well, closing in on the hunt as it were?

One thing is surely true: Time is running out. Jesus must prepare his team as much as humanly possible for the next, dark, turn of events. Hence, he teaches them one-on-one, taking them away from the press of the crowds. They must quickly learn that those early days of momentous popularity are quickly fading, and coming on the heels of acclaim will follow the crisis-juncture of rejection and death. Were the disciples ready for these crucial events?


PREPARING THE UNPREPARED

Apparently not.

The text reads:
They came to Capernaum and, once inside the house, he began to ask them, "What were you arguing about on the way?" But they remained silent. They had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest.
What would prompt such a strange discussion and why at such a acute moment? Was it because of what St. Mark tells us occurred earlier in Chapter 8, that only Peter, James and John were taken up on the Mount of Transfiguration? Did this cause jealousy among the others and prompt such an altercation?

R.T France, in his commentary on Mark’s Gospel offers another, interesting possibility. He writes:
“...they [the disciples] have already grasped sufficient of what Jesus has been saying to realise that his death is a real possibility, which then leaves the pressing question of who is to take the lead after he is gone.” (Pg.373)
Whatever the reason for this present argument -- which actually continues well after this set-down by Jesus (Mk.10:35-45) -- the Master uses the occasion to pointedly explain one of the most difficult disciple-lessons to hear and heed:
Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, "If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all."
Again, we are prompted back to last week’s text. Do you recall the end of Jesus’ rebuke of Peter, when he attempted to dissuade Jesus of suffering and death? St. Mark writes:
Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. At this he turned around and, looking at his disciples, rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do." (Mk.8:32b-33)
Here, I want us to especially zero in on Jesus’ statement:
“You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
This takes us to the very heart of the challenge of discipleship. Somehow they, and we, must come to see our calling as disciples from GOD’s point of view and not from our own worldly, ego-driven understandings.

I know, personally, that finding this new point of view is as difficult for preacher-types as it was for the disciples, both of whom are offered multiple opportunities for ego driven experiences. Pastors stand before the people and preach, we administer the LORD’s Table, and we stand by sickbeds and graveyards. This lends itself to self-admiration and the applause from many, but Jesus sees this for what it is and will have none of it. Self-aggrandizement will not be accepted, not from the twelve and not from us.


SERVING THE LORD BY SERVING ALL

Said differently, there is a tendency to elevate those who give leadership within the church, but we must learn here the lesson from Jesus that the real position of leadership and the real position for a leader is to become a servant instead. And, in reality, aren’t these the ones whom we regularly recognize as the “greatest,” those who serve us and those who help us? This means that the idea of some sort of “position” in the church must be understood not as coming with power and glory, but rather carrying in its heart both sweat and tears.

Further, the idea of the position of the pastor or the deacon -- or any church-type vocation -- actually means we serve the LORD by serving the body of Christ. Be sure to notice the order here, which is very important. Ministers -- pastors or deacons -- do not serve the church, they serve the LORD by fulfilling the vocational calling given to them by Christ to help and uplift and encourage the church.

Sometimes ego can get in the way of this vocational ministry, and even block the calling of service. This is especially true when we experience ministerial success, for success destroys more ministers and deacons than failure. Failure often does its good work by turning us back to the LORD, reminding us that we are weak and broken and need the Holy Spirit to minister through us if we are going to accomplish the work of the ministry. While success often leads us to believe that the rules do not apply and ultimately can turn our attention away from the LORD and toward ourselves, a simple formula for disaster.

But, let’s be clear. Even as we apply Jesus’ teaching on servant-leadership to the pastors and deacons, we are surely not just describing pastors or deacons are we? No, we are characterizing how all members of the church are to minister. That is, what must be true of the vocationally called ministers and deacons should be true of all who name the name of Christ. When Jesus says:
"If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all."
he is depicting for all his followers the ideas of self-effacement, simplicity of heart and especially a Godly wisdom that allows us to see people from GOD’s point of view. And, further, he is calling all of us to follow what is essentially a description of his own life-pattern, or what I call the Jesus-way

Jesus, daily, lived-out the lowliness of heart found in the servant. We will see this no more better portrayed than him in the upper room washing the disciple’s feet even as he offers the new covenant meal, and later hanging on the cross, offering himself for defeat death, darkness and the rule of ego -- the self-life -- which he so decisively reviled in today’s text.

LOWLINESS OF HEART

At the deepest level Jesus’ idea of service --  humble servanthood -- reminds us that none of this is about us! It’s not about our ego. It’s not about how much we give, how much we work, how many hours we minister, or how early we get to the office. Discipleship is not about our wants and needs, or what we think others must do for us, including -- dare I say it -- even Jesus!

Service, instead, is silently following the way of the cross toward the deepest point of agony, all for the sake of the world. It is following the other and helping them through this broken, bloody trail of tears. It’s binding the impoverished of mind and heart and body. It’s absorbing the suffering of a world at war with itself by sharing our life -- our time, our resources and our gifts. It’s building-up the other so that this true, new humanity, now being created by the living, risen Christ, vividly displays the reality of the King and his Kingdom for all who care to see and to come along.

______________________________

MARK 9:30-37
Jesus and his disciples left from there and began a journey through Galilee,
but he did not wish anyone to know about it.
He was teaching his disciples and telling them,
"The Son of Man is to be handed over to men
and they will kill him,
and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise."
But they did not understand the saying,
and they were afraid to question him.

They came to Capernaum and, once inside the house,
he began to ask them,
"What were you arguing about on the way?"
But they remained silent.
They had been discussing among themselves on the way
who was the greatest.
Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them,
"If anyone wishes to be first,
he shall be the last of all and the servant of all."
Taking a child, he placed it in the their midst,
and putting his arms around it, he said to them,
"Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me;
and whoever receives me,
receives not me but the One who sent me."