Rev Dr Lynn Arnold AO

Morning Sermon

21 October 2018


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

This year the book of Mark has been the focus gospel in our lectionary; and this will be the fifth time I have preached at a morning sermon specifically on that gospel. The other times being February 4, when I preached on Mark’s report of the open tomb [Mark 16:1-8]; on February 25, when my topic was Jesus’ question to Peter ‘Who do you say I am?’ [Mark 8:29]; June 24, when I treated with Mark’s report on Jesus calming the storm [Mark 4:35-41]; finally, the most recent was on 5 August, when I dealt with Mark’s story of the Transfiguration [Mark 9:2-12]. This morning, our gospel reading from Mark [10:32-45] has dealt with some internal rivalries amongst the disciples in the wake of Jesus once again having forecast his death and resurrection and of Jesus’ call to servant leadership.

Let’s consider the elements of the story we heard this morning. As the reading opens, we find Jesus having walked ahead of the disciples, leaving them talking amongst themselves. Once he rejoined the group, he told them in quite dramatic, even gory, detail what would happen to him in the coming days and weeks. James and John were the first to respond with a request of Jesus. Jesus responds by turning the question back on them. At that point the other disciples joined in by getting upset at the presumption of James and John and totally ignoring Jesus’ actual response. Finally Jesus defined the servant nature of true leadership; the narrative makes no reference to any reaction by the disciples.

In my earlier sermons, I have spoken about the crispness of Mark’s gospel – how, compared to the other gospels, he used so few words to cover the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. This comparative brevity means that we need to look carefully at how Mark described key moments and the ministry of Jesus. But most of all, we need to appreciate that everything Mark wrote in his gospel was intentional and focussed on one key message. In those previous sermons I quoted Kyle Harper on this very point. He has written that the overarching message of the whole of Mark’s gospel, was:

To convince his audience that the Messiah was actually a sacrifice that had been sent to suffer and die.

This qualitatively different messianic focus thus becomes the key message that we are to take from Mark’s gospel.

When we study what Mark wrote, we do well to consider the chance words and phrases that he used despite his brevity, expressions which sometimes didn’t appear in similar narratives in the other gospels. Two of those chance expressions that stood out to me in today’s reading were – “(the) disciples were amazed” and “the ten … began to be angry with James and John”. Once identifying such expressions, a task for the reader is to ask why Mark had put them in or kept them in whilst dropping other commentary contained in similar narratives in other gospels.

Taking those expressions and the general narrative of this morning’s reading, I want to suggest that Mark intentionally wanted to convey the impression that the disciples, far from being an impressive group of devotees, were in fact something of a wayward gaggle of hopeful but somewhat hopeless people who weren’t quite sure what they were doing there, following this deeply spiritual and articulate rabbi around the countryside.

In a sermon given on October 23, 2012, Rev Emmy Kegler, pastor of the Grace Lutheran Church in Northeast Minnesota said:
If there were a subtitle for the gospel of Mark, it would probably be: “Really?”

On the face of it, today’s reading seems a wonderful evocation of that ‘Really?’ Let me paraphrase our reading this morning in a different but still, I hope, accurate way. It starts with a solitary Jesus, walking ahead of the disciples, seemingly wanting to be alone and, one can assume, deep in prayer. The disciples walking behind knew that Jesus was in a very private place so they dared not intrude – for we are told they were ‘amazed’ and ‘were afraid’. But then Jesus did rejoin them; and here was the first apparent ‘Really?’ moment. Jesus had, in the certain observation of the disciples, been in some especially spiritual place; but at that very moment what were the disciples doing? They were discussing their own precedence, with two being pushier than the rest. “Really?” Jesus might well have thought.

So, when Jesus told them about the awesomeness of what was to take place – the degradation, the condemnation, the execution of the person they had chosen to follow, all this then to result in a resurrection from death that would have been beyond their ken, what was their reaction? In the wake of all this, Emmy Kegler put it this way:

So then James and John come forward and say, “When you are glorified, give us the best seats, next to you.” Naturally, right?  That’s the obvious response to someone telling you they’re willingly walking towards their own suffering and death.  To say, “Oh, okay, cool.  But we get your car, right?”

‘Really?’ was what Emmy Kegler speculated must again have been the thought in Jesus’ mind at that point. After all they had gone through together – the calming of the storm, when the disciples asked: ‘Who is this who calms even the storm and the waves?’ [Mark 4:41]; through Jesus’ questioning of Peter with: ‘Who do you say I am?’ [Mark 8:29]; and onto the Transfiguration where they saw their leader speaking with apparitions of Moses and Elijah [Mark 9] – after all this here at least two of the disciples seemed to have no greater appreciation of the significance of all that had taken place; what it amounted to for them was that they simply wanted the best seats in the house.

Not that James and John were alone in missing the point, for we heard from the reading that ‘when the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John’. Why were they angry? Surely not because the remaining ten understood how misguided the two presumptuous ones had been; on the contrary, they seemed to have felt annoyed that those two had beaten them to the punch – James and John had beaten them to the head of the queue to meet the pop idol. You can just imagine Jesus once again thinking – ‘Really?’ However he didn’t raise his eyebrows at the disciples,  he simply concluded the discussion with these words:

Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

After all this had happened, we may well be wondering if Jesus was considering whether he had recruited the right lot to follow him. The Australian HR Institute defines Recruitment best practice as:

The purpose of the recruitment process is to find the widest pool of applicants to provide the greatest opportunity to select the best people for the required roles in an organisation.

So how had Jesus fared as a recruitment manager for Kingdom building? At the start of his ministry, he had randomly wandered around the countryside calling people to him who were notable for their lack of worldly credentials. It wasn’t as if there hadn’t been alternative candidates whom he might have considered. The Pharisee Nicodemus, for example; he certainly seemed very eager to understand Jesus’ ministry; it wouldn’t have taken that much to recruit him to the team. And time after time the gospels tell us of instances where people came to learn more – from the rich young lawyer to the five thousand; these people had not come to benefit from a miracle of healing but out of a desire to understand what Jesus was all about. From the HR best practice point of view, there would have been a great many potential disciples amongst them who might have fitted the bill better than the motley lot Jesus had actually chosen.

Even long before the best practice statement of the Australian HR Institute, the apostle Paul himself had laid out a schema for best use of skills in Corinthians [1 Cor 12:27-29] and again in Romans [12:6-8]. Skills of prophesying, serving, teaching, encouraging, giving, leading and being merciful were highlighted. How many of these boxes would the disciples have ticked? Before the Resurrection, very few.

On the journey from his baptism by John to his crucifixion, Jesus might have been excused for creating a few redundancies along the way to bring in some more suitable replacements. But he didn’t. He had made his initial call to this disparate group who sometimes exasperated him, sometimes disappointed him but nevertheless he persisted with them. Not only did he stay with them, he thought it worth the effort to continue teaching them.

In our reading today, Jesus’ teaching had consisted of two key elements at the start and the finish of the episode – his prediction of his crucifixion and Resurrection and his call to servant leadership. What are we take from this?

Firstly, we can heave a huge sigh of relief. For surely any of us would be no more a motley a crew than that lot. So if Jesus could put up with them; thank goodness that means he can also put up with us.

Secondly, while we might assume that on that day Jesus had kept on teaching in spite of the fractiousness of his disciples; in fact he had kept on teaching them precisely because of it. He knew they were still a long way from understanding his messianic mission. There were other times reported in the gospels where we read of Jesus’ exasperation with his motley crew, [Jesus’ criticism of their catering mistakes in Matthew 16:8-11; or his rebuke of their anger at the recalcitrant Samaritan villages in Luke 9:55; and then his chiding their sleepiness in Matthew 26:40 amongst others] but this was not one of them. In this reading, we see a very patient Jesus using the ignorance of the disciples to lead them on. He did not answer them with ‘Oh Really?!’ but with a loving sense of ‘Come on, nearly there’.

So important are these points to be understood that perhaps these messages are significant enough for my sermon to end there. But I’m sorry, there’s more.

Of course, we can take enormous heart that the disciples could be as hopeless a lot as any of us; but that they didn’t finish that way. And of course, they did become true servant leaders not obsessed with their own personal status.

But it was how all these end results happened that warrants our attention. Richard Hooker [1554-1600], arguably the first Anglican theologian, who lived in C16 wrote this about this motley group of disciples chosen by Jesus:

If I wish to gain true understanding, whom shall I seek to teach me? Shall I get me to the schools of the Greeks? Why? These men who have worldly wisdom are dumb because they have rejected the wisdom of God. Shall I beseech the scribes and interpreters of the law to be my teachers? How can they be wise when they are offended by the cross of Christ? I must have a true teacher because it is death for me to be ignorant of the great mystery of the Son of God. Yet I would have always been ignorant were it not for one of these Apostles of Jesus, a poor fisherman, unknown, unlearned, recently emerging from out of his boat with clothes wringing wet, who opened his inspired mouth and taught me: ‘In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God.’ These apostles, these poor silly creatures have made us rich in the knowledge of the mysteries of Christ. [p108]

Now the beautiful poetry of Hooker’s words glide too easily over the fact that there had been a very difficult journey between these poor silly creatures emerging from their boats wringing wet to the point where they uttered inspired words; but the gist is valid because of one seminal event along their journey – the Cross.

Before the Cross, these poor silly creatures had missed the point, after the Resurrection they would say, as with Thomas: “My Lord and my God.” [John 20:28]

So for us to take full comfort from the example of the disciples, we too have to confront and accept that fundamental event in our comprehension of the real significance of Jesus’ ministry.

When our gospel reading finished this morning, we were told ‘This is the Gospel of the Lord’, to which we all responded ‘Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ’. As we said these words, how might we imagine Jesus reflecting upon our response? Might he say ‘Really?’ or ‘ Come on, nearly there’?