Sunday, September 20, 2015
Moving on without Jesus:
Greatness, the Disciples, & Mistrust of the Cross
In Sunday's gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that, "The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again." Moments later, the disciples are on the road, arguing among themselves about which one is the greatest. It's a bizarrely abrupt string of events. Even for the disciples, to pick this moment to size each other up seems like an unprecedented case of "not getting it." This particular plot-flow has always been perplexing to me.
But today I heard it differently. The disciples may not have understood what Jesus was on to, but I think I understand now what the disciples were on to. Jesus is about to die. He told them so. They don't follow the logic of it, but they take Jesus's word for it; the disciples believe that Jesus will die. So of course they're talking greatness. They're lining up an heir apparent. The disciples are arranging the next successor in the Jesus movement.
That the disciples are planning for life without Jesus explains their embarrassed silence at his question, "What were you talking about on the road?" Being caught in gossip about greatness is one kind of embarrassment. Making plans post-Messiah is an embarrassment of another order altogether. Most civilizations in human history have called it treason. Can't they find the decency to wait until he dies?
For his part, Jesus seems less offended and more concerned that the disciples have missed the boat regarding the character of the kingdom of God. The disciples are looking for a leader greater than Jesus, which is just to say they haven't yet accepted that the cross might be anything other than a colossal failure. Theirs is a fair concern. But Jesus is adamant. "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all."
In other words, the form of Jesus' life is more than incidental to his Messiahship. In the words of the Wisdom of Solomon (and I encourage a slow re-reading of the entire passage), "his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange." Thus gentleness - of all things - becomes a witness to the nearness of the Lord (Philippians 4:5). Both the Wisdom of Solomon and James' letter say as much today, with the former concluding that mistrust of the life that leads Christ to the cross is to "not know the secret purposes of God," and therefore not to hope "for the wages of holiness, nor [discern] the prize for blameless souls."
To hope for holiness and prize the blameless soul, to "call the last end of the righteous happy" - these are hard sells to exchange for the ambition and envy that come so easily to us and our world. But the reminder today is that there is no leadership in the kingdom that can be exempt from trust of the One who goes to the cross. There is, in this kingdom, no not needing the crucified Christ. There are no shortcuts but to seek and follow the one his own disciples would replace - the one who,
"though he was in the form of God,
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