Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost
Sunday, September 23, 2012
The Rev. Kealahou C. Alika
Our Gospel lesson for today, like the lesson from last Sunday, is addressed to those in the first century who were struggling to understand who Jesus was and what that meant for their lives. The lesson last Sunday included two questions that Jesus addressed to the disciples. The first: “Who do people say I am?” (Mark 8:27) The second and more personal one: “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29)
The disciples were quick to respond to the first question. They answered Jesus, “There are some who say you are John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” (Mark 8:28)
When the second, more personal question was asked it was Peter who responded without hesitation: “You are the Messiah.” (Mark 8:29) Jesus, in turn, responded to Peter without hesitation. He sternly ordered him and the others not to tell anyone about him. Immediately afterward Jesus began to teach them that he must undergo suffering and rejection, be killed, and after three days rise again. (Mark 8:31)
Today’s lesson from The Gospel According to Mark, like the lesson from last Sunday, is addressed again to a community that was struggling to understand who Jesus was and what that meant for their own lives. If we affirm with Peter that Jesus is the Messiah, then what difference does Jesus make in our lives if we say we are his disciples?
If we want to follow Jesus it will take more than inviting and accepting him in to our hearts as the Messiah. The question for us is not “When did you invite Jesus into your heart?” but “What did you do with him once he got there?” (Reflections on the Lectionary, Sunday, September 16, 2012, Mark 8:27-38, Christopher A. Henry, Christian Century, September 5, 2012, page 19)
That question that now begs a response: “What did we do with Jesus once we confessed him Lord and Savior; Son of God and Messiah?”
Our lesson this week reiterates Jesus’ fate (Mark 9:30-32) and the consequences for the early disciples. (Mark 9:33-37) After leaving the villages of Caesarea Philippi and on their way through Galilee, Jesus reminded the disciples a second time that he would suffer and be killed and rise again “but they did not understand what he was saying.” (Mark 9:37)
They were afraid to ask him to explain himself. Their fear may be reason enough for us to speculate that they were troubled that Jesus was not the Messiah they expected and desired. How could it be that he would be rendered powerless?
It may be that they saw the power of Jesus to heal and transform the lives of so many slipping away; that any notion of pain, suffering and death was anathema to that power. It is no surprise then that Jesus caught them in an argument about who among them was the greatest.
But Jesus points out to them that the greatest among them would be the “servant of all.” (Mark 9:35) The Greek word for servant is diakonos.
Over time, the word came to refer to a person in ministry. But in Jesus’ day and in the early church, it meant “someone who was the lowest in rank of all the servants – the one who would be allowed to eat only what was left after everyone else had eaten their fill.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4, Bartlett & Taylor, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2009, page 95)
Jesus makes to the disciples that if they want to be great it will come through a life of service. Therefore, if we confess Jesus to be the Messiah as did Peter and others who were him that day long, long ago then a life of service is what is required of them and of us.
It is a life of service to those who are most vulnerable. When Jesus put a little child among the disciples and embraced the child he did so aware that the Greek word for a “little child” was synonymous with the word “servant.”
Servants and children were both held in low regard. As such they represented a shocking depiction of what God values and that is the worth and importance of every human being.
We live in a time when power, wealth and prestige are front and center in our thinking and in what we value. The competition for such power, wealth and prestige were evident in the Roman Empire and in all of the empires that have come and gone. They are evident in the empires of our own day and in the ways we have convinced ourselves that the greatest among us will always be first – first in power, wealth and prestige; first in everything.
But the God we have come to know in Jesus Christ says, “ʻAʻole. No.” The greatest among us will be the least among us. The greatest among us will be the servants of all.
It is not the way of the world. But the Rev. Dr. Nathan G. Jennings at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas reminds us that “radical servant leadership is not just for the church; it is also the witness of the church to the world.” (Ibid., page 97)
In 1976 a track and field event was held in Spokane, Washington. It was a Special Olympics event.
A runner stumbled and fell during a race and one of the other athletes turned back to help the one who had fallen. They crossed the finish line together in last place. Everyone there that day remembered them and the memory of the one who crossed the finish line first quickly faded away.
My cousin Julia was a Special Olympic athlete from Kona. At the time that we were told that she would be competing, we knew very little about the Special Olympics only that it was children and adults with disabilities.
Today the movement has 4 million participants in 170 countries. I am certain that like my cousin Julia, they all know the Special Olympics oath: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” For Special Olympians and for ourselves it is not the winning that matters but running the race; the race not necessarily to be first in crossing the finishing line, but to run the course.
The writer of The Book of Hebrews puts it this way: “ . . . let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2)
We know Jesus as the Messiah. We also know him as Servant. May we run the race in being servants in the service of others - first in our caring; first in our compassion for others.
Thanks be to God. Amen.