Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, Virginia
Text: Mark 9:30-37
17 Pentecost (Proper 20), Year B
Our gospel lesson today has made me think about endings. So I’ve thought of a couple of examples.
Maybe you are at your doctor’s, and when she comes into your examining room you notice she has papers in her hand. You’re there to hear the results of your recent biopsy. “Cancer,” she says, “and it’s bad.” You wonder how long you have left to live, but you don’t ask, and she doesn’t say.
Or maybe you’re at home. The hour is late, very late, and your spouse isn’t home yet. “Working late,” you’ve been told, “again.” You know better, but when he appears you don’t ask.
In a way, each of these situations are a bit like the one Jesus’ disciples faced as they walked toward Jerusalem. As we heard last week, Jesus had already told his followers about the ending that would await him in Jerusalem, and what he had told them wasn’t good news: He would suffer, be rejected by everyone with power, and be executed there (and oh, by the way, pop back to life on the third day). And Jesus had ominously told them if they wanted to come, they had to “pick up their cross and follow him.”
In our gospel lesson TODAY, Jesus told them AGAIN about the ending that was awaiting him in Jerusalem. This second telling was, in essence, like the first, but a bit more graphic this time, a bit more pointed. This second time Jesus was talking to only his disciples, and he said that:
- He would be betrayed into human hands;
- He would be killed; and
- He would rise again after three days.
Mark tells us that the disciples didn’t ask Jesus any questions about these revelations, didn’t confront this coming reality, and didn’t even want to think about what Jesus was telling them.
But maybe my examples earlier didn’t quite capture the situation. Let me try again:
Maybe your spouse, whom you love dearly, tells you that the results of her recent biopsy were very bad, that she has only weeks to live. But you don’t ask her any questions, or in any way even acknowledge the information she shared.
Or maybe your child, for whom you would do anything, calls from far away and tells you he has been imprisoned falsely for selling child pornography. But you don’t offer to visit, just change the subject.
Or maybe… You get the idea. Something just isn’t right about the disciples’ responses to Jesus’ revelation about his fate. Mark tries to help us out. HE said that the disciples didn’t understand what Jesus was saying and that they were afraid to ask any questions.
So what were the disciples afraid of?
- Were they afraid that they, too, would be killed? Undoubtedly, as the gospels make clear that they all knew the danger of going to Jerusalem.
- Or were they afraid of the “after three days rise again” part that Jesus kept saying? Maybe they thought that this would be some sort of zombie apocalypse.
- Or were they just afraid that things would change, would be radically different in new and unacceptable ways?
These are not exclusive answers, so maybe the disciples were afraid of all these things, and more.
Maybe we can forgive the disciples. After all, a basic human response to impending loss is denial. Our psyche shuts down our ability to comprehend and accept really bad news until we can deal with whatever the bad news is.
But don’t you think that the disciples turning to a conversation about “who’s the greatest” was cold? Jesus, their teacher and friend, had told them he was going to die, and they proceed silently, then begin a discussion about who’s the greatest?
Our Bible study this week helped me out on this point. Someone brilliantly pointed out that the disciples must have heard and believed the part about Jesus dying. “Maybe,” she said, “they were talking about who was the greatest to get a head start on who would become leader after Jesus was gone.” OK, there nothing wrong with planning ahead, but Jesus wasn’t even gone from their midst and they already had forgotten to pray, had forgotten to trust God, had forgotten to even show compassion toward Jesus.
I wish that the disciples had asked Jesus some basic questions while they had the chance, questions like:
- How is it possible that you could rise from death after three days? and
- What will you be doing in those three days that you will be dead? and
- Why must the Son of Man die?
Knowing Jesus, though, can’t you hear his answers? “With God all things are possible.” And “I’ll be doing what my Father sent me her to do.” And “I go to prepare a place for you, that where I am, you might be also.”
But the disciples didn’t even ask any questions. Ever the teacher, though, Jesus turned the occasion into instruction about HOW to be the greatest:
- The first shall be last, he said.
- Whoever wants to be great must serve others, he said.
- When you welcome those whom the world counts as inconsequential, then you welcome me, he said.
This sounds a lot like what we heard last week: If you lose your life for my sake, then you will find life. In Jesus’ calculus, go to the bottom to get to the top. In Jesus’ calculus, deny yourself to promote yourself. In Jesus’ calculus, endings are but new beginnings.
T. S. Eliot, captures this divine logic in his poem Little Gidding. “What we call the beginning,” he says, “is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”