Take my lips, O Lord, and speak through them. Take our minds and think with them. Take our hearts and set them on fire. Amen.
It has been said, “Fear is such a powerful emotion for humans that when we allow it to take over within us, it drives compassion right out of our hearts.” For an extended season of our shared human experience, we have faced many challenges of suffering, transition, uncertainty, and vulnerability that have often led to a sense of fear within us. It is with this understanding that we bring ourselves to the gospel reading today to explore this most human emotion that frames so much of our common life as a society. Fear in Mark’s gospel is the paired opposite of faith. For example, earlier in Mark 4, during the calming of the storm, Jesus asks the disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” In Jesus’ statement in Mark 5 to Jairus about his daughter is similar, “Do not fear, just have faith.”
Faith in Mark is not intellectual ascent to a series of ideas or articles to be believed. No, faith is more about what is in the heart. Today, we find that Jesus is once again trying to explain to his disciples the true meaning of God’s kingdom. They are still hoping for Jesus to take Israel’s throne, as David did in the old days, and bring political freedom and economic prosperity back to the people of Israel who were suffering under oppressive Roman occupation. Jesus is continually inviting the disciples into a deeper understanding of his life, his mission, and vision of the kingdom of God. Jesus begins to teach about suffering. He talks about weakness, and being betrayed, and about being killed. The disciples are shaken by this. They had watched Jesus feed multitudes of people, they had seen healings, learned unexpected lessons in unexpected ways. But this message they would rather not hear again. What strikes me about our gospel is that Jesus and the disciples are on a journey. They are literally moving through Galilee to Capernaum, but more importantly, they are on a faith journey and such journeys are never simple linear paths. They require struggle, and wrestling, all complicated by our own messy truths, our desires, ambitions, doubts, and fears. What we know is that every journey involves stages. It’s a process. And as Jesus moves toward the cross, the disciples must work through their own worries and fears.
We are told that they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. Why don’t they ask? Well, if you recall, the last time Jesus taught about suffering, death and resurrection, Peter rebuked Jesus, and then Jesus rebuked Peter with the startling, “Get behind me, Satan.” And so, when Jesus teaches again about his forthcoming suffering and death, the disciples are afraid. They don’t understand why Jesus would need to suffer, but they’re afraid to ask him. And again, based on past behavior, I’d say they’d have reason to be just a little afraid or hesitant and tentative. They remember what happened last time. But is there more? When I channel my seventh-grade self, I also wonder, did they fear they might appear to be confused before their teacher? Did they fear that they might not appear informed, that they may seem clueless or dense yet again? Did they fear that they might appear even unfaithful? Or did they fear that they may get answers to what they did not want to hear, or not ready to hear?
It must have occurred to them, even for a fleeting moment, that the fate of the leader often falls to the followers. I believe that most of us have to admit to being like the disciples, whom Jesus was trying to bring from blindness and ignorance, to insight and understanding. Like them, we are often afraid to ask for explanations when we fear that we won’t be able to deal with the responses we receive. We so often choose to live in a state of denial. If you don’t really want to deal with reality, you find another way to cope, which leads us directly into discussion that follows by the disciples. Rather than asking questions and facing their fears, they begin to argue. Even with all they have experienced with Jesus, what Jesus is saying does not fit with their expectations of the Messiah. So, they engage in an alternative narrative for Jesus’ mission. And they imagined that they would be right there with him, his closest companions and most trusted advisers, likely arguing about which of them would be chief of staff, or press secretary, or secretary of state, or secretary of defense. You get the idea.
It is no surprise that they are silent when Jesus asks about this conversation. They may be silent, but Jesus knows. And using this teachable moment, instructs them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all, and servant of all.” The disciples are being challenged to move from self-absorption, to self-awareness, to wholeness, and perhaps eventually, taking on the far more difficult commitment of truly being a follower of Jesus. One thing you have to appreciate about Mark’s gospel is how the behavior of the disciples is presented. It gives me hope because even after they are clueless and messed up, even after they missed the point and have to learn the same lesson, time and time again, even when they fail, they continue to be disciples. Because Jesus never gives up on them.
How often in our faith journey do we feel like we are starting over? Trying to understand the best way forward yet getting distracted, misunderstanding, becoming frustrated, or even lost? Yet as he did with the disciples, Jesus points us to a way of love that requires the living of life as a servant. Beloved to have the vulnerability that Jesus modeled and yes, ask of each one of us who has chosen to follow him. We have to move beyond our fears and false sense of self. You see, theater can consume the heart and strip away love. It narrows options and constricts our vision of the future. Fear depletes hope, and it strangles imagination. Fear destroys possibility. And in this sense, fear in some ways, even more than death, is the opposite of life. More importantly, fear prevents us from seeing Jesus in a different way from our limited expectations. And that is challenging because if we see Jesus in a different way, we begin to see each other in a different way as well. The truth is that when Jesus breaks into our lives, he is always going to challenge us, challenge our assumptions, change our world, and change us, as we are called to journey more deeply in faith and into the life of discipleship. Sometimes that means asking the hard questions. Sometimes it means challenging and helping to change the answers when they serve to do justice and mercy to any of God’s children. Jesus changes our whole way of thinking and of being. He helps us to see things as God sees things. This is the true wisdom James writes about in his epistle, that we see this world and our lives through the eyes and the lens of God. Jesus, again, challenges us to be servants, to think of others instead of ourselves. His teaching is that we don’t need worldly trappings in order to be the first in God’s kingdom. In fact, in order to be first, we must be willing to be last, willing to be a servant.
What we need is a willingness to see the needs of those around us, the most vulnerable. And to work to make their lives better. Jesus wanted his disciples, then and us today, to move beyond fear, yes, to have faith and to offer our lives and service in the building of God’s kingdom. Jesus continues to teach what real discipleship is all about by telling us that greatness in the kingdom means becoming the one who serves. Jesus isn’t interested in who we say is the greatest, or even those who claim to be the greatest, or may appear to be great by worldly standards. Jesus is interested in who acts with the greatest grace, the greatest compassion, and the greatest love. Beloved, that is our charge today. And may God grant us the wisdom and courage to be servants of all. Lay down your fear.