May 22, 2018 - Tuesday in Proper 2
Sometimes, when I want to give my child one of those life-lessons that I hope she or he will hold onto forever, I pull that child aside and speak to her or him privately. That isn't because my words are some secret teaching--a Garner-family tradition--that no one else may hear. It is because I want her full attention and because I want to speak directly to her in a parent-to-child way that will leave an impression on her. Similarly, I wonder whether Jesus, when he pulls his disciples aside to give them a private teaching, is trying to tell them something that no one else will understand or simply something he wants them to hear in a deeper way.
In today's gospel lesson from Mark 9, Jesus is passing through Galilee, his home, with his disciples, but Mark tells us that Jesus did not want anyone to know it "because he was teaching his disciples" about his upcoming suffering, death, and resurrection. The way Mark introduces the encounter makes it feel like Jesus is teaching them something that he is trying to hide from everyone else. Mark loves secrets and repeatedly portrays Jesus ordering individuals not to tell anyone about him or the miraculous cure he had given them. But the nature of this teaching--this "The Son of Man is to be betrayed, killed, and, after three days, rise again" lesson--is so central to his identity that I wonder whether he might have a different pedagogical approach in mind.
Mark tells us that Jesus explained this to his disciples, but his disciples did not understand him. This was the second time Jesus predicted his passion and death. The first time came in Mark 8, after Peter acknowledged that Jesus was the Christ. That time, however, when Jesus predicted his death, Peter intervened, objecting and rebuking Jesus. We remember what happened to Peter--"Get behind me, Satan!"--and it doesn't surprise us that none of the disciples speaks up this time. But their lack of understanding is more than a failure to comprehend the fullness of what Jesus had told them. As the second half of this gospel lesson shows us, the disciples were on the wrong track in a bigger, deeper way.
When Jesus and his disciples got to Capernaum, Jesus asked them what they had been arguing about on the way. They never admitted the truth. They had been arguing about which one of them was the greatest. But Jesus, knowing in his heart (or perhaps his ears) what they had been discussing, sat the disciples down for another private teaching: "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." This is one of those "come-to-Jesus" meetings, when the master needs the disciples to be absolutely clear what he means. Jesus is trying to impart to them the kind of wisdom they are not able to find on their own, and that requires a full, intimate, face-to-face exchange.
When Jesus teaches us to become servant of all, he isn't giving us advice on how to have a good life. He's not telling us that this is a good way, a helpful discipline, to get closer to God. This is what it means to belong to him. In the same way that I tell my children, "This is what it means to be a part of our family; this is how we act," Jesus is telling his disciples and all who would follow him that our identity is to become servant of all. That's what the passion predictions are about. And I think, in part, that's why they come in secret--because Jesus wants us to know that this teaching is meant specifically for us, for you, for me.
What do Christians do? We love God and love our neighbor. We go to church. We say our prayers. We participate in the transformation of the world through the unconditional love of God in Jesus Christ. We do all of those things. Those are the habits of a Christian. But what does it mean to be a Christian? Who are followers of Jesus? We are those who suffer as Jesus suffered, who die as Jesus died, and who are raised as Jesus has been raised. We are those who become last, least, servants of all. Jesus wants his disciples' full attention. And he wants ours, too. Does he have it?