Sep 23, 2018

“Wanting to Be First” 9-23-18

Mark 9:30-37
18th Sunday after Pentecost
September 23, 2018

Sometimes when we read the Gospel narratives we feel like saying, “How about those disciples!”  Not in admiration, of course, but in incredulity--much in the same way we might say the same thing of our favorite football team when they find another creative way to lose a game they should easily win.  How about those disciples, indeed!

In the text, we are confronted with what appears to be an unaccountable disregard for troubling news.  Jesus had told them that he must be betrayed and killed and rise again.  They didn't understand and were afraid to ask.   It certainly appears that they had taken Jesus' rebuke of Peter at Caesarea Philippi to heart.  They learned from Jesus' response to Peter not to challenge him on this point.  So, their reticence to ask is understandable.  However, Jesus' words on this occasion now introduce the prospect of betrayal into the equation--something that would involve someone within the disciple band.  But even this new piece of information was not enough to prevent them from holding fast to their own rose-colored assumptions about how the future would unfold.  Calvin remarks, "So great is the influence of preconceived opinion, that it brings darkness over the mind in the midst of the clearest light."

Here it is perhaps it is wisest not to try to overthink how this could be.  Surely the point of the text is not to drive us to explain how this sort of retreat from troubling information happens.  Instead, the point of the narrative is to confront us with how tenaciously we cling to our deep-rooted assumptions about the kingdom, even when there is plenty of compelling evidence to contradict them.  Quoting Calvin again, "And if the apostles so soon forgot a discourse which they had lately heard, what will become of us if, dismissing for a long period meditation on the cross, we give ourselves up to indifference and sloth, or to idle speculations?"  We can see, in the disciples, our own need to be converted.  We can see in the disciples our need, as it were, to let Christ shatter our cherished notions about how church and mission should unfold so that we can engage the mission with wisdom.

Though I do not wish to make this the main point of the message, I cannot move on without expressing my conviction that the church in North America today tends to engage in the same sort of denial.   Like the disciples, we hope that what sounds like really troubling news will just go away.  Nothing seems to be more evident that the ground has shifted dramatically beneath the feet of the church over the last generation or two.  As you go down the generational cohorts of western society, church attendance falls off dramatically.  The fastest growing group of people in North America, in terms of religious affiliation, is labeled the “nones.”  North America has become the world’s largest English-speaking mission field.  Everywhere I have been as a transition pastor over the last twenty years I have seen churches engaged in some sort of calculation or strategizing about keeping the doors open.  Sometimes these strategies involve risk taking; sometimes they involve belt-tightening and hunkering down.  But there is an underlying awareness that the trend is against church life as we have known it in the past.  What is common in all the strategic responses is a commitment to church as we know it, apparently because it is the only form of Christianity that “counts.”  

I have a friend who worked for over ten years as an executive presbyter, trying to lead declining churches into revitalization.  He reached a point, though, where he decided to take early retirement from the ministry.  He explained that he had come to realize that he was not really accomplishing any revitalization, but was, in reality, providing hospice care for dying churches.  Almost invariably, when congregations would reach the point of seeing how revitalization might be possible, and what changes might be required, congregations would pull back.  If going forward might mean selling property, or reorganizing staff, or disbanding some long-standing program to make room for something different, congregations almost always would adopt a strategy to keep things as they were for as long as possible, hoping that things might someday—particularly if they got the right pastor!--return to the way they were.
I recall that in Scotland, where the church is much farther down the path of decline than in North America, the Church of Scotland will often merge a congregation with hundreds of “members” on its rolls with another struggling congregation with hundreds of “members.”  After all, it costs a lot of money to keep big old church buildings heated and lit and in reasonable repair.  Since even hundreds of members can often not afford this, the church strategy is to consolidate.   The reason, of course, is obvious.  For these Christians, the only form of church that “counts” is church that meets in a tall steeple building.   Now there are all sorts of ways for congregations to sustain a very dynamic congregational life and ministry apart from a preferred style of building.  But, like the twelve disciples, people get so locked into a vision of the kingdom that they cling to it, even when there is compelling reason to question its continued validity or viability.

Churches, like people, have a life-cycle.  Now my personal life-cycle is absolutely going to run its course.  As much as I might like it to, there is no way that I can restart my life-cycle and regain the physical energy and mental acumen I had in my prime.  By God’s grace, of course, my life cycle will get an everlasting “re-start” at the resurrection.  Churches, however, by God’s grace, can experience the renewal of the church life-cycle before the resurrection.  There are churches that manage to move from decline or recline back to incline.  Often this happens by shifting the vision horizon.

I had the privilege of serving as the transition pastor of a couple of church plants.  Church plants are very different than established churches.  Their vision horizon is firmly fixed on where the life of the church intersects the community.  They concentrated their energy and resources on developing ministries to engage the community—like volunteering in schools, prioritizing hospitality, building friendships with non-Christians in their neighborhoods.  They realize the world has changed.  They try all sorts of things to build relational bridges to our non-church-going society, but the emphasis is on relationships.  They are willing to accept failure as a part of adaptive learning.  Now worship was central in the life of these church plants, but building a building was not a priority.  Meeting space and programs always served the mission, not the other way around.  Now I will not minimize how hard church planting is.   The majority do not survive.  But even the ones that do not ultimately survive bring more people to Christ than established churches.  The main difference, again, is in the vision horizon.  The more established churches can shift a vision of what “counts” as church to its engagement with the community, the greater the possibility of “rebooting” the life cycle.  Service is intrinsic to the vision.

Let’s return then, to the rest of the passage.   Jesus uses this occasion to teach the disciples more of the secret of the Christian life.  There was an aspect of Jesus’ teaching that involved revealing “secrets.”  The parables, for example, were a way of disclosing truth to the disciples while leaving others in the dark.  But, more fundamentally, the Christian secret refers to that which is paradoxical, or completely counter-intuitive.  Last Sunday we heard the call to self-denial and cross bearing.  This call to a kind of dying, however—paradoxically, surprisingly—proves to be the call to genuine life.  The one who tries to save his life will lose it; “the one who loses his life for my sake and the sake of the gospel will find it.”  That is the Christian secret.  Human wisdom will not discover it.  This is part of the foolishness of God which is wiser than men.  In the same way, Jesus uses the argument about greatness to teach more about the paradox of the Christian life.  The one who wants to be first must be last and servant of all. Jesus takes a child and essentially says, “Do you want to be known as a person who associates with the great and the powerful and influential? Start here with the children.”  Do you want to be first?  Jesus says that true greatness is found, serving, as it were, at the back of the line.  As it turns out, that is where God is at work.  That is where we can find ourselves rubbing shoulders and hobnobbing with those of the weightiest glory.

Jesus’ teaching on the Christian secret has always struck me as a kind of teaching by “conundrum.”  Though it strikes our ears as confusing, it was a valued approach with roots in Hebrew wisdom.  Our problem-solving, scientific culture likes to subsume everything under the scientific method and have a clear solution.  Hebrew wisdom realized that life was not so simple.   Proverbs 26:4-5 is a wonderful example of conundrum learning.

Do not answer fools according to their folly,
    or you will be a fool yourself.
Answer fools according to their folly,
    or they will be wise in their own eyes.

There is no happy outcome to responding to a fool.  But, fools absolutely cannot be allowed to go unchallenged.   So, what will you do?  Well, you will have to take a risk and say something.  There is no way of resolving the issue ahead of time.  In fact, there is no satisfactory solution.  But, in responsibility, you have to summon your best wisdom and hope for the best.

Jesus’ teaching on being first is a different, hopeful conundrum.  (In fact, it is only an apparent conundrum.)  On the face of it, of course, aiming to be last in order to become first appears to be an exercise in hypocrisy.   I cannot genuinely aim at being last in order to be first, since aiming at being last should imply abandoning the ambition to be first.  But there is the conundrum.  Is Jesus’ really inviting us to abandon the aspiration to greatness?  Does he want us to aim at less?  Should we aim at mediocrity?  The secret, of course, is that greatness in the kingdom is reckoned by a different standard than the world’s standard.  Greatness in the kingdom is reckoned by humble service.  It is modeled preeminently by Jesus, who did not come “to be served, but to serve, and give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) 

Even as Jesus challenges our views of greatness, he extends a kind of invitation to greatness.  In chapter 8 he said, “If anyone wants to follow me...”  In doing so, he challenged easy views of discipleship, with the call to self-denial and bearing the cross.  But still, he leaves the invitation open.  In the same way he says in 9:35, “If anyone wishes to be great...” and challenged a false notion of greatness.  But still, he invites his followers to pursue greatness by kingdom standards. 

There is similarity between the “being first” conundrum and the “answering a fool” conundrum.  One has to step into it.  One has to answer a fool in order to learn how to do it best.  One has to step into service in order to take leave of ambition.  There are those, of course, who serve and simply add to their own pride in themselves and their works.  But those who step into service in the way of Christ soon forget themselves.  They discover that it is more blessed to give than to receive.  They discover the companionship of Christ and their fellow saints in deeds of caring that only the Father may notice and reward.  They discover that being “last” is a great place to be, a destination worth aiming at.

I sometimes tell people that if I couldn’t be a minister I would aspire to be a deacon.  That is a bit tongue-in-cheek on my part since “minister” and “deacon” are just different translations of the same Greek word, diakonos.  But, it is not entirely tongue-in-cheek.  For example, in several of the churches I have served, the deacons have operated a bus or van to bring people with mobility challenges to church.   They go to peoples’ homes, wheel them in their wheel-chairs into the van, and on to church.  From time to time the deacons would let me take a turn.  I have to confess that there is an aspect of that kind of “deaconing” that is much easier, and more rewarding, than standing up here week by week and speaking with fear and trembling. 

The Christian secret, losing life to find life, becoming last in order to be first, can only be discovered through faith and obedience.  One must have enough faith to step obediently into the paradox.  As the Psalmist says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding.” (Psalm 51:10) Unlike the meaning of the parables, the Christian secret is an open secret.  It is the way of Jesus Christ in which demonstrated his love for the Father and his love for us.  We step into the conundrum then, not as a leap in the dark, but as a step of faith in union with the Savior.  We step into a place where vision can reorient itself to the horizon of those lost and broken ones for whose sake Christ has called us to be his church.


Pastor Paul Copeland
Faith Presbyterian Church
West Lafayette, IN 47906