Sermon from May 3rd, 2015. The text for this week’s sermon was Mark 9:30-37.
What Were You Arguing About on the Way?
The first sentence in the book of Mark declares that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. But it isn’t until about halfway through the book that Jesus explains to us what that means. In Chapter 8, verse 34, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it…” he continues, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father and with the holy angels.” From this point on, Jesus has turned his face toward Jerusalem and the cross, and he will not swerve to the right or to the left.
The disciples are on this journey with Jesus, making their way towards Jerusalem, but they don’t fully understand where they are going. As they are passing through Galilee on the way to Capernaum, they get into a heated discussion about which one of them is the greatest. And when they arrive in Capernaum, Jesus asks them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” And the disciples have nothing to say.
The disciples have nothing to say because they know they’ve been caught talking about what they’re really thinking. Jesus has been showing and telling them for years now, that the Way that he is proclaiming involves making yourself low. He is explaining that he is on his way to be betrayed, handed over, and executed as a terrorist. And the disciples are jockeying for position. What were they arguing about on the way? They were competing with each other and ignoring where they were going.
There’s an old Adam Sandler movie called Billy Madison. I don’t know if any of y’all have ever seen it, and it’s pretty juvenile so don’t count this as a ringing endorsement or anything. The idea is that a worthless playboy has to go through K-12 education and graduate in 4 weeks in order to prove that he should inherit his father’s company. So he has to retake all the grades. And while he is in first grade they go on a field trip to a farm, and when it’s time to come back, Billy notices that one of the other students is missing. Billy finds him hiding behind the barn because he’s had an accident, and he doesn’t want the other kids to see. And Billy sees this kid and the embarrassment that he’s about to experiment, and he runs over to the water pump and splashes a ton of water on his pants. And when they get back on the bus, Billy walks in first, with water all down his leg, and the kids look at him and say “Did you just pee your pants?” and Billy says, “Yes. And you know what it’s cool.”
He made himself a fool, so that his friend wouldn’t look foolish. He made himself low, so that his friend wouldn’t have to experience humiliation. In a nutshell, this is what Jesus did. He knew the law and the Torah and he was a good and righteous Jew but he ate with tax collectors and sinners, the outcasts and the dirty people and the marginalized of their society. He could have been great, but he made himself low. He made himself low, to reject the artificial hierarchies of who is great and who is not, and who is worth loving and who isn’t.
But making yourself low is hard work. As Christianity turned from an outlaw religion into state religion, being Christian no longer required the sacrifice of aligning yourself with the marginalized. Christians became parts of the structure of power, and you could be powerful and a Christian. For most of American history, being a Christian was a prerequisite to power. In colonial times, Christians set themselves above others, and guarded the keys to the kingdom zealously. Christians were good, respectable folk, and anyone else was a no-good wastrel. And Christians had to go through long and intense interviews in order to prove their faith to the church.
And even now we struggle with this issue. When we talk about Christianity we often equate Christianity with righteousness, which leads us to assume that as Christians we are more righteous than everyone else. When we talk about avoiding temptation, we talk about surrounding ourselves with people of faith, which often means avoiding exactly those people whom Jesus sought out.
I struggle this when I hear people say negative things about Christianity. I want to defend the church, and so I find myself arguing against those people rather than listening to them. Trying to protect our reputation is what leads to people covering up the Church’s mistakes instead of trying to resolve them.
And even within Christianity, I find it easy think of myself as better than other Christians, because I believe the right things and they don’t, or I adopt certain behaviors that others don’t, or I support the right causes, and they don’t. I get in facebook arguments with people, which is never a good look. It’s easy to feel superior because I agree with myself, and surround myself with people who agree with me. And so I live in my smug little world and congratulate myself for being right and argue that my way is better then everyone else’s way, mostly to people who already agree with me.
But this isn’t what Jesus demanded of us. He didn’t walk around talking about how he was better than the temple priests; he touched lepers instead. He didn’t scorn tax collectors because they took advantage of the people; he loved them and shared with them so that they wouldn’t take advantage of the people. He didn’t stand in the Temple all day arguing to score points against the Pharisees and the Sadducees and the Herodians. He put a kid in his lap and said, “Be more like him.” He looked at his disciples arguing over who was the best, and said “What were you arguing about on the way?”
What is fascinating about this particular question is that phrase, “The Way.” Before Christians were known as Christians, back when they were just groups of people meeting in homes to eat bread and drink wine and recount stories of their Lord, they referred to themselves as followers “The Way.” The earliest self-designation of Christians we have is this phrase, “The Way.” In Acts, Saul gets permission to go to Damascus to persecute followers of The Way before his conversion. In the earliest known catechism, called the Didache, or the Teachings of the Twelve Apostles, the first sentence describes two ways, the way of death and the way of life.
In other words, “The Way” isn’t just the road to Jerusalem, it is the whole endeavor of trying to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. The Way is the path that Jesus followed, a path of resistance to domination by not trying to climb up the ladder but making himself low. Jesus said if we don’t fight each other but fight for each other, then we might have a chance to overcome the forces of human sinfulness and corrupted power and dwell in the Kingdom of God. It isn’t about becoming great, it is about making greatness irrelevant.
And my great fear is that the time of reckoning will come. And I shall see my Lord face to face, and my Lord will say, “What were you arguing about on the way?” And I will have nothing to say for myself.
I'm the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pitman, NJ. I love camping, rhetorical criticism, and classic movies. I'm passionate about God's love, and the messy, beautiful ways it shows itself in our communities every day.
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