What are we arguing about on the way? Mark 9 30-37

Rev'd Sarah
Sunday, September 20, 2015 - 9:30am

What were you arguing about on the way?  Asks Jesus, of his disciples.

You can almost hear Jesus sigh as he asks the question.  Jesus has just explained to his disciples for a second time, that as they journey towards Jerusalem they are approaching his imminent suffering, death on the cross and glorious resurrection. How do the disciples react to this momentous news for humanity?

Their immediate reaction is simply to shrink back into awkward silence. No probing questions to gain understanding. Just fear perhaps of answers Jesus might give which would turn their world upside down; disrupt their plans; disrupt their expectations of how their messiah would win victory.

After their initial silence, the disciples’ reaction to the most important news to hit humanity, is to start arguing amongst themselves about who is the greatest.  And not only are the disciples arguing, they are consumed by their human disputes and differences whilst walking ‘on the way’ – the phrase which denotes living a life of self-sacrificial discipleship. They are walking with Jesus on the path to Jerusalem, on the way of the cross and resurrection, whilst they argue about which of them is the greatest.

Yet Is this really what the disciples are longing for in the depths of their hearts – are they really longing to discuss and determine which of them is the greatest, or are they just slipping into a human default position of avoiding what seems difficult or risky or most meaningful? Just fitting into acceptable debates in their communities - basically resorting to discussing anything but the things which matter most to them and to others? 

Don’t we recognize this typical human response so clearly in ourselves, in our churches and in our society? We might fear exposing our vulnerabilities and disrupting things closest to our hearts, or looking stupid, or unsettling our steady lives. So we stay silent perhaps on things which matter most. We settle for the social norm and the default position for our focus – perhaps not as blatantly as the disciples by arguing who is the greatest, though that would make a lively PCC agenda item at tomorrow night’s PCC meeting perhaps! – But often we narrow our attention to our pet plans, problems, solutions, and activities. Might God be calling us to lift our eyes higher, to see deeper?

Jesus asks, what are we arguing about on the way? What is the focus in our lives?   Turning the disciples’ worldly human perspectives upside down, as always, Jesus uses the disciples dispute about greatness to teach them about servanthood!  Whoever wants to be first must be a servant to others. Jesus puts the value and honour on the very least in society. A child in the ancient world wasn’t regarded highly as today, but had very low status and was at best ignored. We lift up in our world what is of God, when we help the child in our midst, when we focus our lives towards the vulnerable, the ignored, the invisible in our society, the excluded, the unattractive and the difficult in our world.  Following Jesus involves a completely new way of thinking and seeing.

What are you arguing about, debating, planning, preoccupied with on the way? Jesus asks us. Our life, our church and our world expands, deepens, and is raised up if we focus on that which is of God as we journey forward on the way with others. We don’t need to struggle to be the best, but just to lift up the least; and nurture the fullness of life and love in our world.

This week we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, where over 1,700 German aircraft and 915 British fighters were destroyed in the months between July and Sept 1940. And in the Bomber Command campaigns in the months before, over half of the 125,000 Bomber Command lost their lives, and between 300-600,000 people died in the bombing of Dresden and other German cities. We remember the immense courage and self-sacrifice of those who served and risked and lost their lives for others. The courageous Bomber Command pilots heading into those skies, are only now been honoured in British history with a spire memorial being unveiled in Lincoln next month.  As we remember the bravery and self-giving of those following orders into battle, we also remember the suffering of families and communities shattered by loss and destruction – those bombing and those bombed. We continue to pray amidst the traumas of our world today that horrific human disputes will cease, that we’ll learn from the sacrifices of so many, that humanity will turn its focus to the heart of what matters – the enabling of all human flourishing.

What were you arguing about on the way, asks Jesus, did it lift up the child in your midst? Did it make God’s love visible? I’m also always struck, at the many funerals I attend by the conversations people have - whether they were intimately close to the person who has died, or more socially linked.  How often does a eulogy and other conversation at such times, take us closer to the heart of the life of the person now lost to us? We are struck not only by what matters at the time of death in this world, but also what really matters in life.

We as individuals and as the church can’t help but make plans, give ourselves direction, motivation, shape, and worth.  But if we sit lightly to our own focus, let ourselves be free in the vastness of God’s grace, let ourselves be remolded and re-routed, we might make more visible in our world the unconditional love of God. We might recognize more often a glorious arrival at our starting place – at that which is of God. As TS Eliot says in Little Gidding:  

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time. 

So what are we arguing about on the way? Have we got our focus right? Might God be calling us to lift our eyes higher, to see deeper, to risk disruption in our narrow lives as we turn our focus to the heart of what matters for others and for ourselves; as we turn our focus to following Christ on the way.