This past week I was flipping from one channel to another on the TV, when up on the screen popped Masterchef. I had never seen the programme before and food always interests me, so I watched on for a few minutes while the three chefs prepared their delicacies. Now if you ask my wife Karen, she will tell you without a moment’s hesitation that her husband is no master chef. I do cook the occasional meal, but it is painful for her to watch on when I do. I’m slow. I make a mess. I use far too many dishes. And usually by the time the meal is on the table, something is too spicy or underdone or overcooked.
So I watched on with amazement as the three cooks prepared perfect cheese soufflés and a couple of other dishes, all with flawless timing. Then I began to think: Imagine the pressure. Always under the eye of the camera. Constantly being critiqued by the judges. Never knowing whether your dish is going to come out the way you hoped—whether you’ve achieved exactly the right combination of flavours, how you will score on presentation and a host of other unpredictables. Always on the knife’s edge. Always just one soupçon away from being eliminated.
Now take a moment to imagine what it would be like if the Christian life were like that. Sad to say, there are some people who think that way and we meet with them in this morning’s Gospel reading.
Jesus and his disciples were on their way to Jerusalem. Jesus had already told them that this was to be their final journey together—that “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again” (Mark 9:31). Now for a second time he warns them: “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.”
A great mystery
“But,” Mark informs us, “they did not understand …” Of course they didn’t understand. There is a sense in which the cross of Jesus will always remain a mystery. Somewhere among my books that I am still unpacking there is one with the title, Why the Cross? And I can’t tell you how many times over the course of my ministry there are people who have asked me, “Why did Jesus have to die?” The apostle Paul wrote to his friends in Corinth, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing… Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” (1 Corinthians 1:18,22,23). Even Pope Francis has confessed that “the mystery of the Cross is a great mystery for mankind, a mystery that can only be approached in prayer and in tears”.
So we really can’t blame the disciples. The apostle Paul and Pope Francis both had the advantage of hindsight. Like us, they could look back on the events of Calvary from the perspective of Jesus’ resurrection. For those first disciples all of this was completely unexplored territory. Now wonder they didn’t know what to think!
But it is Mark’s next comment that I find really revealing. “They did not understand what he meant…” And then he goes on to add, “… and they were afraid to ask him about it.” What made them so afraid? Was it the fear of losing this man who had come to mean so much to them, whose words had become for them the word of life? Or was it the fear of just appearing to be stupid or ignorant? I know there is a great deal of that kind of fear in me. Or should we call it by its proper name—pride?
I’m not good about asking for directions along the road, even when I’m totally lost. When people offer me help, my first inclination is to thank them and say, “That’s OK. I can manage on my own.” We call it independence. Yet so much of what we call independence is really just pride going by another name. And I have a sneaking suspicion that part of the disciples’ unwillingness to ask Jesus what he meant also rose out of pride.
We don’t like people to think we’re ignorant or foolish. I remember many moons ago in my teen years rowing lazily up a little river in Maine with my three brothers. It was getting hot, so I decided to jump in for a swim. As I was enjoying myself in the cool water, some canoeists paddled by and one of them shouted over to me, “Do you realize you’re swimming next to a sewage outlet?” “Of course I do,” I replied, and waited until they were out of sight before scurrying back into our boat to row as quickly as possible back to our cottage and leap into the shower. Now that’s pride with a capital “P”!
Striving to be the greatest
But let’s move along in the gospel story. Jesus and the disciples arrive in Capernaum, the lakeside village that was home to Peter and Andrew and James and John. A chilly silence filled the air. At this point you need to realize that the roads in that part of the world were hardly what we would call roads today. In fact, they were little more than footpaths. And so it was not possible for a dozen or more men to walk along all abreast. They would have been strung out in a long line, singly or at most in twos and threes. While he had not been able to pick up the words of it, Jesus knew that the conversation among some of them earlier in the day had not been pleasant. So he asked them, “What was it that you were you arguing about along the way?” No answer—only an embarrassed silence. I suspect that none of them dared look Jesus in the eye, because they had been arguing about which of them was the greatest. Once again the gremlin of pride comes into the picture.
The word for “great” in the New Testament is megas. You hear it again and again in English. A big personality on TV or in the movies is a star. And we call a really great star a superstar. But an even bigger star is a megastar. So it was that these men weren’t satisfied with just being ordinary disciples of Jesus. They were set on being mega-disciples. Their problem was that somehow they had come to think of following Jesus in terms of Masterchef. It had become all about performance, trying to impress Jesus, all the time constantly worrying as to whether they’d done enough or done it right. And part of that would inevitably have meant comparing themselves with the others around them. Following Jesus had become a competition.
What happens next is as though Jesus took a hand grenade, ripped out the pin and threw it into their midst. He was going to blow their whole world of pride and self-achievement apart. “Anyone who wants to be first,” he said to them, “must be the very last, and the servant of all.” Did you get that right, Jesus? Did I really hear you correctly? Let’s listen to those words again: “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” And that is the pattern of discipleship as we find it in the New Testament.
You can see it in the life of the apostle Paul. Early in his ministry he describes himself in this way: “I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle”. A few years later, this is what he has to say about himself: “I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people.” Then, finally, as he nears the end of his life, he describes himself as “the worst of sinners” (1 Corinthians 15:9; Ephesians 3:8; 1 Timothy 1:15). “If I must boast,” he writes elsewhere, “I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” And why? “So that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Corinthians 11:30; 12:9).
John the Baptist recognized this as he stood on the bank of the River Jordan. Of all the ministries in the Bible, his has to have been one of the most privileged—to have baptized the Son of God. Our Lord Jesus even pronounced that “among those born of women there is no one greater than John”. Yet John said of himself, “He must become greater; I must become less” (Luke 7:28; John 3:30). And who would you say is the greatest figure in the Old Testament? I have no doubt that Moses would rank high on anyone’s list. Yet the Bible tells us that “Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3). “Of all garments,’’ wrote Bishop J.C. Ryle 150 years ago, “none is so graceful, none wears so well, and none is so rare, as true humility.”
The servant of all
Just in case the disciples haven’t got the point, however, Jesus reaches over and brings a little child into their midst. Holding the child in his arms, he says to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”
It is difficult for us to understand how radical Jesus’ words would have been. It’s not that children were not loved by their parents in those days, but they certainly did not enjoy the privilege that they have in our society today. They were taught; they helped with the chores; but by and large we could say they were invisible. So for Jesus to focus attention on a child in this way and to tell the disciples that to welcome such a one was their duty and privilege would have been something altogether new.
It was not that different from the time when he had honored Mary in Bethany for sitting among the men to listen to his teaching, or when he accepted the offering of the sinful woman who had anointed him with her tears (Luke 10:38-42; Luke 7:36-50). What Jesus was saying was that those whom we regard as the “least, the lowest, the last and the lost” all have their place in his kingdom and in his family. Here there is no status, no competition, no arguing about who is the greatest or the best. We are all here to serve one another and to serve the world in Jesus’ name.
And that brings us back in a circle to the opening words of our passage this morning—Jesus’ words, so puzzling to the disciples, about being delivered into the hands of men to be killed and after three days rise again. Here we have the very Son of God, the King and Lord of all creation, stooping down to share our human frame, to suffer and to die for you and for me on the cross. In the words of St Paul,
Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a slave… And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
There on the cross the first became last. On the cross Jesus proved himself the true servant of all, to the point of taking the stain of our sin upon himself. He trod the path of humility to become the servant of all. And now he calls you and me to follow in his steps.
 Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: Mark, 187