Dear Sisters and Brothers,
“A young soldier goes into battle, and it is unlike anything he ever saw in a war movie. There is no story or plot. There is no-one telling him what it means. There is just rattled nerves, seeking cover, and doing what your superiors tell you. There can be noises that make your ears ring worse than they ever have. There are sudden scenes of violence, and things can seem like a disjointed nightmare, but you can’t wake up.”
I’ve been hearing war stories since I was a little boy. Friends of my grandfather with World War One stories, friends of my parents with World War Two stories. Some of my older friends had fought in Vietnam, and I’ve had deep conversations with folks who fought in Korea, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Once, when I was very young, I had a conversation with a man who had fought in Cuba the Spanish-American War of 1898. I was 14 and he was in his late 90’s. Many people have spoken to me about their war experiences in my role as their pastor or chaplain.
I have not served in the military nor been in battle, but the stories I hear always involve a variation of the story above. You usually didn’t make sense of the battle until later, if at all. A member of one of my previous congregations was a tank driver at the “Battle of the Bulge” in World War Two. He climbed from the wreckage of his tank and the bodies of two friends. He never found out what had hit his tank and he didn’t understand how he survived.
The word for many major experiences in our life is “disillusionment.” It is a negative sounding word that is usually associated with a loss of hope. But I remember one of my grandfather’s friends who had been a doctor at a field hospital in France in World War One, who spoke of it in a very positive manner. He said that disillusionment was painful, but helpful. “Disillusionment is when you lose your illusions,” he said. He had come back and had been a very successful surgeon and he stayed active in his church.
Part of the story of Mark is about disillusionment, but not in the negative sense of the word. We follow along with the disciples as they quickly have their illusions dismantled and cast away. The positive word for “disillusionment” is “unlearning,” but it is too vague and subtle.
The disciples didn’t believe things according to official Jewish belief as much as they believed in things that most common people believed.
Here are just some of the things (illusions) the disciples thought to be true:
- Most people of the world are our enemies.
- Pharisees are righteous people and Scribes know better than you (and are better than you).
- Rich people are rich because God has rewarded them for their righteousness.
- All sinners should be punished and many crimes are worthy of death.
- Poor people are poor because they are being punished by God.
- Sick people are sick because they have been abandoned by God.
- A warrior messiah will come who will lead a great army to rise up, drive out the Romans, and begin a new line of kings who will restore the kingdom of Israel as in the days of King David.
When Jesus called the disciples, they were not blank slates. The twelve were all young men who thought as other peasants of the time. Jesus needed to help all the disciples to get over their illusions and unlearn their common assumptions.
They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. He said to 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.” But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.
They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
The sentence, “they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it,” is a sign that they were afraid to look foolish. The truth was that the disciples were baffled by much of what Jesus said, and they often had done and said things that Jesus treated as foolishness.
The disciples were confused. Instead of telling them to gather up an army, Jesus was sending them out to heal people. Instead of behaving like a righteous Pharisee, he openly talks with women and men of other faiths and countries. They see Jesus showing kindness to people they thought of as enemies. They go with Jesus into houses of sinners and share meals with people they would have avoided in the past. This must have made the disciples feel disoriented. They trusted Jesus, but they imagined of the times to come, when he would take up the sword against the Roman invaders.
When the disciples are arguing on the road, they are trying to work out their places in the government Jesus will establish. Who will be the leaders of the army? Who will be the spokesman for the king? Who will be the advisers and ministers of state?
Jesus talks about his execution and they are baffled. They may even question his sanity. Who in their right mind would hand themselves over to executioners? And “after three days he will rise” seem to be meaningless words to them.
Jesus tells them something that contradicts everything they know: “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” Think about that sentence word for word. The word Jesus uses for “servant” is not the word for “slave,” but means something humble like “assistant.” Instead of giving them ranks in his new regime, Jesus is telling them to seek for opportunities of helping others. The greatest people are not commanders, but people known for their hard work in sharing of God’s love.
He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said 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.”
So, Jesus is saying, by showing love to what the world deems as unimportant, can be counted as love to him. Whoever loves others as a servant of Jesus Christ, is not only welcoming Jesus, but God.
Even in the world twenty centuries ago, people were judged as important if they owned property, commanded respect, and had an air of superiority. Jesus is turning the world upside-down, by saying that true greatness does not require wealth or any kind of superiority. This is the man who will prove his love for humanity by allowing himself to be executed in the most humiliating manner of the time.
Confused, but trying to understand, one of the twelve asks if he did right to stop someone from doing good in Jesus’ name.
“Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”
“Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.
This is also turning the world upside-down. The usual idea was, if they are not for us is against us, but Jesus says, if they are not against us they are for us. In other words, it was believed that all people were your enemies unless proven otherwise. Jesus says that all people are your allies unless proven otherwise. For some reason, this is still hard for us to accept.
Twenty centuries later, we are still disciples of Jesus Christ who are often confused and fighting each other for superiority or pecking-order. The church, from our Protestant point-of-view, is not an organization with a headquarters and leader, so much as a family of faith that is sometimes burdened with disagreements and old illusions. We know in our hearts that we should lift up examples of people like Mother Theresa of Calcutta, Bishop Desmond Tutu, or the Rev. Dr. Albert Schweitzer, but we usually lift up divisive television evangelists and wealthy church leaders.
We still need to be disillusioned. We still need to unlearn.
“Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
“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.”
Questions to Consider: “Does a person’s wealth necessarily say anything about their righteousness?” “How can each of us become better servants to others?”