Last week, when Jesus announced that he was going to suffer and die, our friend Peter retaliated with a fire-storm of rebuke. Peter was not about to stand by and let Jesus spout nonsense. If Jesus was indeed the Messiah, then it was complete foolishness for Jesus to be talking about his death. From Peter’s perspective, Messiahs don’t die. Messiahs live forever. Messiahs are rescuers and deliverers and they usher in the end-times and they bring about the age to come, which of course, lasts forever. And so it is inconceivable that a Messiah should die.
But when Peter rebuked Jesus, Jesus retaliated with a fire-storm of his own! Jesus accused Peter of playing the role of the devil, which is the most horrible insult that anyone could possibly give or receive. Call me anything you want, even late for supper, but don’t call me the devil. Like Peter, I firmly believe that I am in the employ of God. And, to make matters worse, Jesus accused Peter of thinking like a human being. That’s a real tough one that requires the attention of every one of us here this morning, because in context of Jesus’ rebuke of Peter, being the devil, and thinking like a human being seem to be pretty much the same thing. Both seem to be opposed to God. And that can be rather unsettling, especially if we give some attention to it by pondering it. There may be some hope for us when we come to talking about the little child later on in our passage this morning.
But for now, we and the disciples have got to listen to Jesus talking about his own suffering and death yet again. Now notice just how intelligently the disciples are behaving: We often accuse them of acting rather stupidly, and they are often worthy of that description. But not today. Jesus is hammering away yet again on this suffering and death thing, but the disciples aren’t saying a word! They’re not responding at all. They’ve learned their lesson and they’ve learned it well. None of them wants to risk the kind of dressing-down that Peter received when he spoke up and challenged Jesus. Mark says that Jesus’ disciples did not understand what Jesus was saying and they were afraid to ask him. That pretty much sums it up. We don’t know, so let’s not ask. Besides, we don’t agree with Jesus about this suffering and death stuff anyway. If Jesus really is the Messiah, none of it makes any sense.
And so the disciples have decided to have a conversation of their own. In a movie, this scene would be stunning. Picture a long desert road between the mount of transfiguration and the town of Capernaum. At first, the disciples are excitedly gathered around Jesus in a tight circle. They’ve just seen the most amazing thing that they’ve ever experienced in their whole lives. They’ve just seen Moses and Elijah and Jesus in all of their heavenly glory. If that vision didn’t confirm Jesus’ Messiahship in the disciples’ minds, I don’t know what else might have. It’s a pretty profound vision, even for those of us who didn’t make it that day. And the lesson is the same: Jesus is the Messiah. And so at first, in our little movie clip, there’s this enthusiastic clot of disciples hovering around Jesus. But then Jesus guides the discussion to the suffering and death thing, and the disciples are quickly losing interest. The thought that a Messiah could also suffer and die is a terrible paradox to them and so they do what most of us do, they ignore the connection. It is certainly safer that way. And so now the little clot of disciples separates itself from Jesus, and they’re falling farther and farther behind him. Jesus is plodding on ahead, but he’s discovered that no one is listening anymore.
When the disciples are certain that they are out of earshot of Jesus, they begin a conversation of their own. And it starts out quite innocently. If Jesus is the Messiah, then he’s going to need some co-regents, some deputies and some cabinet heads to assist in administering his kingdom. And of course, since Jesus has chosen the twelve of us to be his disciples he will also choose us to be his cabinet heads, and deputies and all that stuff. We’re all in line for a pretty big promotion. OK, so who’s gonna be the top dog? Who’s gonna be Jesus’ right hand man? Who’s gonna get the glory? Who’s gonna be the greatest?
But before too long, the conversation stopped being a conversation, and it deteriorated into an argument. And it deteriorated into an argument because the disciples were beginning to think like human beings; the very thing that Jesus had accused Peter of; the very thing that is so opposed to the ways of God.
Somewhere along the road in my movie clip, the argument must have died out. All arguments eventually do that, because if they stay an argument, there is never any resolution, and so there is no reason to continue; and of course a dead, unresolved argument always results in a wound that will not heal. And so, in utter frustration, the disciples eventually go silent.
But Jesus has a habit of kicking things up that need a resolution. Jesus has a new way for human beings to live together and to relate to one another that goes way beyond normal human thinking, and brings an element of the divine into it.
And so when they get back to Capernaum, Jesus says, so guys, what’s the all fuss; what are you arguing about? And of course, being very wise and very intelligent, the disciples say nothing. It has been their habit lately to avoid outbursts from Jesus, and they’re completely comfortable with continuing in that pattern.
And so Mark fills us in. They’ve been arguing about which one of them was the greatest. That’s a huge problem for the disciples and it’s a huge problem for us. The attitude that the disciples displayed on the road to Capernaum is the weapon that is absolutely destroying our society. It is thoroughly human and it is thoroughly demonic. There is nothing of the divine in it. My new favorite thing to say is that most of the people that we know are the most important person that they know. It is cute, and it is a little bit funny, but it is also true, and that makes it absolutely frightening.
And so if the disciples are struggling with the paradox of a Messiah who suffers and dies, Jesus throws another paradox right into their faces. He says: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And just like Peter, we reject that. We refuse to consider it. It is as foolish as a Messiah who suffers and dies, but it is also just as necessary. We can successfully avoid neither.
And so Jesus takes a little child and he places it in the midst of the disciples. Jesus has just added an insignificant little child into this group of men who are convinced that they are the most significant people on the planet. What an insult to the disciples, especially in the culture of the 1st century! Children in the 1st century had no status or standing at all. We don’t often speak of the 13th disciple, but on this day, that is exactly who this child was. Twelve grown, self-important men at complete odds with one another, and one insignificant little child. I hope the lesson wasn’t lost on the disciples. “Who ever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
And then Jesus deepens the lesson, and demonstrates and even deeper paradox. If a small child can be an equally participating disciple of Jesus, then the disciples had better be paying more attention to those whom they believe to be less significant than themselves. Because when Jesus took that little child into his arms, he did nothing less than identify himself with it. He and the child are one. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Can we fathom that? Can we stretch it even further to acknowledge the two step lesson that Jesus taught to his disciples and to us on that day?
When Jesus placed the small child into the circle of the disciples it was clear that Jesus was making the child a fellow disciple; that the child was elevated to the status of these self important, self absorbed wannabes. But it was also pretty clear that Jesus was saying to his disciples, dispense with your self importance, and become like this child, for “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” But then when Jesus cradled the child in his arms and identified himself with it, he essentially said, “I am this child, I am the One who is making myself the least.” And if you welcome this child, you welcome me. And so quite paradoxically, the child in the circle of the disciples is not just a disciple, he is Jesus himself. So follow the child, for a little child shall lead them. It is necessary that we ponder these things, for we must learn to set our minds less on human things and more on divine things.