Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 19, 2021

Mark 9:30-37 Commentary

Verses 30-37 in Mark 9 provide us a very clear picture of a human response to fear and confusion: changing the subject instead of taking the risk to look foolish. Who likes to look dumb? Worse yet, it was just last week when we heard Peter speak up and “question” Jesus, and where did that get him? He got rebuked and identified with the evil one!

As the Textual Point below explains, verses 30-32 reveal a pattern, or ongoing activity, between Jesus and his disciples. Rather than seeing them as isolated events, when we read about Jesus saying what is going to happen to him in the immediate future, the text cues us to the fact that these conversations were ongoing projects. Which means, as the disciples kept silent, the tension built and the discomfort was getting unbearable. They were in a state of fear about asking Jesus to say more about the awful things coming out of his mouth, but having to stay present to it was becoming an even worse feeling.

The source of their fear was manifold: not understanding and feeling ill-equipped for the challenge; worrying about what might happen if they ask for help; afraid of what it all meant… Very understandable, very human responses to the situation. In true human fashion, their response to being stuck by fear is to cope by distraction—by changing the subject.

Instead of grappling together at how they might face the challenge Jesus is depicting together, they jockey for superiority among one another. After settling into a house in Capernaum (houses tend to be used by Mark for key teaching moments with the disciples), Jesus asks them what they were talking about when he was trying to talk to them on the road.

“But they were silent.”

They got caught! Ugh. Worse than the fear they felt on the road is the shame they feel now about how they tried to distract themselves from that fear. For instead of being honest, they tried to make themselves feel better by trying to be “top dog.” Top dogs feel in control and secure—exactly what’s missing when someone feels confused and afraid. The disciples know it’s the wrong approach; you don’t need the scholars to tell you that they’re like school boys who have been caught mid-mischievous act and are now standing silent because they know they’re guilty and they don’t know how to get out of trouble.

“But they were silent” communicates quite a bit and speaks directly to all of our experiences. We all know the feeling of getting caught—both in our internal angst and confusion and wanting to escape from it, and in getting found out and having to face the fact that our coping mechanism is not healthy for us (and possibly disastrous for others). We all have had the experience of knowing it would have been better to just tell the truth from the get-go. But fear is fickle that way. Even though we know it, it is hard to believe and act the truth that voicing fear is not a sign of weakness or lack of faith.

Fear will not go away on its own, and it usually takes a community of people to surround us and help us work through it. Whereas our coping mechanisms tend to isolate us, the God-designed remedy for fear is to enfold us and help us re-orient our passions into a cruciform pattern.

This is what God does in our passage. When Jesus decides to give them an object lesson in verses 36 and 37, he isn’t just addressing their debate about being the greatest, he’s also giving them a communal purpose and focus that just might help them understand that the thing they fear (what Jesus is saying is coming for him) maybe isn’t all bad—that maybe, just maybe, it will be good for the world.

We might be tempted to read some emotion into Jesus taking a seat to teach this particular lesson—that he’s tired of having to go through this with them all the time—but in the gospels, when Jesus sits, it’s a sign of his authority. By including the detail here, I see Mark communicating in-between the lines, implicitly reminding us of Jesus’ authority over not only the external chaos, but over our internal confusion, fear, and coping mechanisms as well.

Jesus tells them that greatness is measured in service, in making less of what you deserve and more of what you will do to serve others. This is literally the meta-narrative of the Incarnation, as we hear poetically in Philippians 2… Then Jesus plops a child into the center, embraces the kid, and tells his disciples that the real task to focus on is welcoming those like this little human being.

We have to pause here for a very necessary caveat. We’ve come a long way in our view of children as part of the Christian community since the time Jesus spoke these words. In some ways, we’ve overfocused on children out of fear (!) that they will lose their faith if we don’t cater to their church experience. This is perhaps not the sermon to focus on that issue, but it does make it necessary to note how our context differs with first-century Palestine. Children at the time of Jesus had no legal status, no rights, and no ability to have self-determination. They were of the lowest status and part of “the least.” Like servants, they were the kind of people who “the greats” didn’t have to waste their time interacting with… even the people who did care for children (ahem, women and servants) were thought to be less important.

Jesus taking a child and not only centering it by putting the child in the middle of the twelve disciples, but also giving the child a hug, taking the time to acknowledge and include and value the child, is a huge statement, an embodied example of the welcome he wants them to engage in.

Jesus repeats the word “welcome” four times in one sentence. Do you think it matters?

The disciples tried to ignore their fear and thought it would go away if they could feel more secure about their status. Jesus, on the other hand, shows them another way through: by giving up their status and welcoming those who have been left off the edge, they will know the welcoming presence of God in their midst. The presence of God is the best antidote to fear. Instead of clinging to things of this world, Jesus, as God, is inviting them to enter into his way by becoming like God and welcoming others through service and sacrifice. Which, it bears repeating, is the literal work of Christ in his life and death, and is also the thing that makes the disciples the most afraid.

If we consider some of the sins of the church, we can see how fear, an unwillingness to speak up, a lack of centering and welcoming people on the edges, really boils down to the fear of losing status, and perhaps worse yet in our modern world, control of the narrative (what we want to be true). I live in Canada, where some of the church and its members continue to struggle to do the work of reconciling with past sins against First Nations and against God. We wish to cling to the narrative that we had good intentions or that we personally have nothing to do with the sins of the past, but as we listen to the stories of survivors (which is their legal status in Canada) of residential schools (both government and church run), it is impossible to use the word “welcome” to describe what we did. We did not center and embrace these children, nor did we seek to value and give them status just as they were, instead thinking that we needed to “take the Indian out of the child” so that they would be more acceptable; like us. Lord in your mercy, forgive us. The fact that we continue to argue about these matters, deny the realities and debate amongst ourselves, even as thousands of unmarked graves are uncovered at the site of former schools, shows our fear. If we trace the story of other past sins, racism, misogyny, sexual abuse, greed, we’ll find the same pattern.

As it was in our text, the invitation through the fear is to welcome God into it, to welcome others into the center of importance. To surround them with service. To remind ourselves of what we have already heard from Jesus in the gospel of Mark: to ruin our lives and our status for Jesus’ sake by giving or using it for the sake of others—and not just “others” who are like us, but those who are forgotten, de-valued, or perhaps even make us nervous (i.e., a little afraid). See the Illustration Ideas below for some examples of how this is happening in some faith communities.

It is important to remember who Jesus is giving this message to. He is not speaking to an individual, he is speaking to the disciples, a community of believers. We can each take up our crosses as individuals, but there is also a calling on the collective body of Christ to reckon with its fear and to not stay silent. To confess when we’ve been caught in our sin, and to take up the task of repentance by centering those we have pushed out—whether we meant to or not.

To do unto others as Christ has done for us.

Textual Point

Many of the verbs in verses 30-32 are in the imperfect tense. That means, as R.T. France points out in his commentary The Gospel of Mark, we are supposed to understand them as an ongoing activity in the past. To highlight just one example: Jesus was teaching his disciples about the immediate future. (p. 371) We get a sense that he was in the habit of talking to them about his passion. The verbs describing the disciples are also in the imperfect tense. They were not just unable to understand in this moment, but were in a state of confusion about what Jesus was telling them to the point that they had become afraid to ask him to explain it. Did they think Jesus had talked so much about it that it would be bad to ask him about it now? Did they feel ashamed—as though they should understand what he was saying? Or was it that they didn’t want to understand it because the cost of doing so was too high? Maybe combination of all these (or others)?

Illustration Idea

Centering people, as Jesus did with the child, is more than having a ministry that serves them—though that’s a great start. “Welcoming” is much broader than that.

Though it is not enough, my denomination, the CRCNA in Canada has three Urban Indigenous Ministry Centres “where Indigenous people can feel safe, valued, and respected to use their gifts and to grow.” Learn more about them through links on this page: https://www.crcna.org/indigenous/urban-indigenous-ministry-centres

To work through our fears in order to serve those who have no status is truly a difficult one. This article talks about one church’s attempt to welcome members into their church from the Living Water Ministry Network (a ministry that helps men paroling from prison reintegrate into the community):

https://www.crcna.org/news-and-events/news/congregation-takes-journey-ex-prisoners.

If you watch the video about this story, you’ll notice that what we gain from welcoming is a greater understanding of grace. As a bonus, the video has the story of this church and alongside another one seeking to be a community of welcome: https://vimeo.com/178634280.

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