Gospel: Mark 9:33-37 – a sermon from autumn 2018
A book I read this week suggested that Christians should really wear a sign around their necks. One that said: “Work in progress”. Or maybe: “God’s not finished with me yet”. Or perhaps: “you should have seen what I was like before”.
Last week, we had the most incredible baptism and confirmation service here, and it was such a joy to watch seven people take the next step of their journey of faith. But the reality is that all of us are journeying, all of us are that work in progress and all of us will be learning how to be followers of Jesus until the day we go to meet him.
When I was a junior doctor, many many years ago, there were some consultants I really wanted to be like one day. I would look at their wisdom and humanity and skill and think “That’s the sort of doctor I want to be.” But studies have shown that sometimes junior doctors and medical students actually learn best not from those at the pinnacle of their powers, but from the people just a stage on from them, people who are a little closer to where they are at. So, a junior doctor is actually better at teaching medical students, a middle grade doctor better at teaching the juniors. It is great a have a fantastic aspirational role model, but also it can be good to have someone just a few steps ahead of you whose example, whose successes and mistakes can be a lesson to you as you journey along.
I was reminded of this as we read this week and last week’s gospel passages. We have something to learn from Jesus, as our ultimate role model, as the one who teaches us about living life as a child of God, life in all its fullness. But we also have things to learn from the disciples too, fallible people, who only see things imperfectly and yet are the people Jesus chooses to begin his revolution of love in the world.
So, let’s look at what Mark is saying about Jesus in this passage. It is actually very reminiscent of last week’s gospel. Last week, we had Jesus teaching his disciples that he was going to be handed over, killed and then rise again. This week, we have Jesus teaching his disciples that he is going to be handed over, killed and rise again. Both times, they don’t get it. Then last week, Jesus tells his disciples that to follow him, they must take up their crosses, give up their lives and follow him. This week, Jesus says that to follow him, they must give up their status, give up their power, become as weak and vulnerable as a child. They are very similar passages.
Now whenever, I see passages close together in Mark which have this sort of similarity, I start thinking “sandwiches”. Nope, not BLT or cheese and pickle, but Markan sandwiches. The technical name for these is architectonic triads, but I am sure that you will agree sandwiches are easier. Basically, Mark will often put two similar stories either side of another key story and the three are meant to play off each other in some way. The way the stories are placed is meant to shine a light on each other. So, if this gospel passage and the one from last week are the bread in our sandwich, what is the filling?
Two stories sit in between the two gospel stories we have been looking at and are the meat of our sandwich. The first is the story of the Transfiguration, when Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a mountain to pray, and there they see Jesus in all his glory, speaking with Moses and Elijah. Then coming back down the mountain, Jesus heals a boy with an evil spirit that his disciples couldn’t drive out. Both these stories emphasise Jesus’ divinity. He is God. He does the things God does. He has God’s power at his command.
Peter was right. Jesus is the Messiah. But what sort of Messiah? The readings on either side – our bread – show that this Messiah is the sort who works in the most counter-intuitive topsy-turvey ways. That is why it takes a lifetime to learn to follow Jesus, because his ways are the ways that involve letting go to keep, giving to receive, exerting power by laying it down. It is a terrifying way to live. And as our epistle reading points out, it isn’t a way of life that comes easy to normal human beings who can be selfish and jealous and full of competing desires. The good news, the grace is that by the Holy Spirit working in our lives, the Holy Spirit that Bishop John prayed would be at work in those who were confirmed last week, we do, little by little, day by day become more like Christ. James calls it the wisdom that comes from above- a true gift of heaven. But it is a long job – we are all a work in progress.
So, what do we do in the meantime? Well, I am encouraged by the examples of the disciples. Boy, do they get stuff wrong. Peter puts his foot in it twice in as many passages. Jesus is talking about torture and death and the rest of the group are arguing about who is getting the glory. There must have been some red faces and uncomfortable squirming amongst the Twelve when Jesus put that child in the middle and started teaching about true greatness. How does he always know? Seriously! There was so much they didn’t understand. So much they only got in part. But they knew that Jesus was someone special, someone worth following, so they kept going. And Jesus, despite their mistakes and misunderstandings, never gives up on them. He keeps working with them, investing in them, loving them.
Now, I am not sure whether I can manage a sermon at this time of year without some mention of Strictly. Apologies to anyone who isn’t a fan, but it is an autumn ritual in the Vicarage. Please only phone between 6.30 and 8.30 on a Saturday night if the church roof has fallen in. Sorry, back to the sermon. The thing is, that these celebrities, who get up each week after only seven days to learn a completely new dance style and to perform it in front of several million people, and some rather critical judges, just have to go for it. They know their technique is not perfect. They know that there is a risk of landing on their backside. They know if their gambles don’t pay off they will end up looking foolish. But they know the only thing to do is to give it all they have got.
It is pretty much like that as a disciple of Jesus. We look at Jesus and his example of divinity and perfect humanity and know we are truly a work in progress, that God is far from finished with us yet, yes, that we are better than we were but a looong way from where we want to be. But we cannot wait until we are perfect to start doing the things God calls us to be and do. We have to be like those first disciples, imperfect and muddled and sometimes getting it wrong and… and give it all we have got.
Last week, Bishop John challenged our confirmation candidates to bring someone else to confirmation in the next year. There were audible gasps and chuckles at this – I think one of them may have been me. But the reality is…why not. Sometimes, it isn’t the so-called experts – us with the funny collars – that are best at helping people discover faith. Sometimes, it is the person just a few steps ahead, who can say “I am no expert. I am a work in progress. I don’t have all the answers. But actually, this Jesus… knowing Jesus makes a difference in my life.”
So why not. Why not give it all you have got? Why not invite that friend to a seasonal service? Why not begin a conversation about something that happened at Church with a friend? Why not offer to pray for a neighbour who is having a tough time. Don’t wait until you are perfect to begin. Bad news: that isn’t going to happen anytime time soon. Good news: it doesn’t matter. Give it all you have got.