I don’t know about you, but the bits of the Bible that tend to give me most difficulty, especially in writing sermons, are the passages that seem very familiar. The problem is, I think, actually hearing what such passages are saying, in their time and also in our time. It’s just so easy to simply say
“Ah yes that bit where the disciples are arguing about who is the greatest and Jesus gives them a ticking off”.
It’s in such passages that we need to be most attentive, most aware and really listen to what’s going on. Marcus Borg wrote a book with the intriguing title “Reading the Bible again for the First Time” and if you think about it, that’s what we need to do every time. It’s, for this reason that I prefer to listen to, rather than read the Bible passages, especially the Gospel, and by doing so, perhaps hear them again for the first time.
Taken together, today’s readings are about spirit-centred relationships. They challenge us to see beyond our own or our nation’s self-interest. In them, if we are brutally honest, we might catch a glimpse of ourselves. Of course we don’t rate possessions or status above people or success before our relationships with those around us, do we?
So what’s going on in our Gospel this morning? Earlier in the chapter, Peter, James and John have accompanied Jesus up a high mountain, where He was transfigured in dazzling white and Elijah and Moses appeared with him. This event mystified the three disciples and when, on the way down the mountain, Jesus talked about rising from the dead, they didn’t understand what he was talking about. Now this morning, Jesus is trying to teach a larger group of His disciples some pretty difficult ideas –
“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.”Mark 9:31
Unsurprisingly, they don’t understand and after the public ticking off that Peter received when he effectively told Jesus not to be so silly, in last week’s Gospel, none of them has the courage to admit that they didn’t have a clue what He’s talking about and ask for explanations.
They don’t understand what Jesus is talking about, so what do they do? Well they start arguing about who’s the greatest, who’s the best. Now of course none of us do that sort of thing do we? We don’t do it at home, we don’t do it at work, we don’t do it is our recreational activities, and such a thing would never ever take place anywhere near here would it?
This Gospel is the second of three attempts by Jesus to get the disciples to engage with his coming death and resurrection. The disciples don’t understand and are just a little bit upset that He’s speaking like this. So instead of listening to Jesus they’re arguing about their role in the kingdom and what will happen to them. Will each of them have a high status, a special position and a designated role?
As Jesus explores the anger and denial of his disciples He also addresses us – What concerns are closest to our hearts? Do we, too, worry about our status, our authority or the perks we think we deserve? Do we engaged in the disciples’ game of comparison and oneupmanship?
The summer’s a time of competition – Wimbledon, the Olympics and Para-Olympics and of course the US Open tennis and that amazing achievement by Emma Raducanu. Does our Gospel today frown on such things?
No, it isn’t that we shouldn’t strive to be good at things, even when we might well fail to be the best. It’s how we react to our successes and failures, how we deal with them and how we treat others who’ve been more or less successful than us. Without doubt, Jesus was a great deal better at many many things than you or I could aspire to be. At prayer for instance. It’s not in trying hard, in failing or in being good at something where the devil lurks. It’s in how we treat others in their success and failure and especially their success and failure relative to our own.
Jesus is frustrated by the fact that whilst He’s nearing the end of His time on earth and trying to prepare the disciples for coping with what is about to happen and for life without Him, they’re just arguing about who’s the best, and quite frankly none of them is doing particularly well. It’s, as James reminds us in our Epistle this morning:
“For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?”James 3:16 and 4:1
Envy and jealousy are powerful motivators – just look at some of the spats between nations that we’ve seen in the last week or two. There’s a serious crisis looming for our planet and instead of all pulling together, we’re engaged in trying to be the greatest, in envying what others have, in competing for scare resources and in not giving sanctuary or support to refugees, migrants and those displaced by disease, war, famine, flood and drought or sharing our vaccines with them.
Jesus is asking His disciples and us to see things afresh, to become more fully aware and attentive to the everyday, the ordinary and the things that really matter even though the world thinks are unimportant – the socially and culturally invisible, the marginalised and everything that’s happening to God’s Creation. Jesus is saying to us and our leaders:
“‘What were you arguing about?’ But they’re silent, for they are arguing with one another about whois the greatest. He sits down and says to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he takes a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he saysto them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’”Mark 9:33-37
In November World leaders and many others will be gathering to discuss how to address Climate Change. Into their midst, young people are converging on the COP26 conference in Glasgow. And those in power may well think, even if they don’t actually say,
“What would they know about it? Who invited them, they’re just children?”
Well maybe it’s Jesus who invited them and maybe these young people do have something important to say. Young people with, no learned degrees, no office staff and no special expertise, haveeverything. And they’re going to be there to ask the politicians the question:
“What sort of planet are you lot going to leave for us to inherit and for us to bring up our children on?”
“God, grant me heavenly wisdom which is pure, peaceable, gentle and willing to yield…”Prayer from James 3:17