A sermon on Mark 9.30-37
19th September 2021
The disciples didn’t understand what Jesus was saying and were afraid to ask him.
Reading today’s gospel passage reminded me of school chemistry lessons.
I was often confused by chemistry, but I was afraid to ask questions because the teacher was always annoyed at my lack of ability.
I didn’t want to look stupid in front of everyone or be told off for not getting it, so I kept quiet and scraped through.
I wonder, though, what might have happened if I had asked questions?
And what if the teacher had shown a little more patience and explained a little more kindly?
Would I now be a chemistry expert?
Jesus’ apostles also had trouble understanding, although I don’t know if they had chemistry lessons.
Just before the reading we heard today they tried to cast out an evil spirit but failed, apparently because they didn’t pray enough.
Then they set off with Jesus to Galilee, and Jesus tried to explain what was going to happen to him: that he was going to be betrayed and killed but then rise again.
Sadly, this did not compute!
The disciples had no idea what he was talking about.
It’s easy for us, with the benefit of hindsight, to know exactly what Jesus was talking about.
It’s at the centre of our faith after all: Jesus died for us and rose again to save us from our sins.
But at the time this was a radical idea.
From their earliest years, the Jews were taught and believed, quite rightly, that God was all-powerful and all-knowing.
They believed that when God’s Messiah came he would crush everyone and everything that stood in his way and rule the world through his mighty power.
The idea that God would let himself be betrayed, tortured and killed was incomprehensible and an insult to his name and power.
So when Jesus said he was going to be betrayed and killed, the disciples, knowing him to be God’s Messiah and therefore expecting him to storm the palace at any moment, didn’t understand – and they were afraid to ask him to explain.
It’s not just that the disciples didn’t understand some piece of information.
They didn’t understand the very heart of the Incarnation.
How is it possible for the Son of God to suffer and die?
And why should it happen?
So why didn’t the disciples simply ask Jesus to explain?
Maybe they were still embarrassed by their failure to cast out the evil spirit and thought Jesus was cross with them.
Maybe they just didn’t want to look stupid, each one thinking they were the only one who didn’t get it.
Besides, the closer we are to Jesus, the more we are supposed to know about religious stuff, right?
But what if they hadn’t been afraid to ask?
OK, Jesus is sometimes tough, but is he really the kind of person who would meet a sincere desire to understand with annoyance?
Do we really need to be afraid to ask Jesus to help us follow him?
In short, is Jesus really like a not particularly good chemistry teacher?
This isn’t a problem confined to those first disciples: no one wants to look uninformed, confused or clueless.
We withhold our toughest questions from one another and from God, pretending we don’t have them.
Yet the deepest mysteries of life do indeed escape us.
Why do good people suffer?
Why are people cruel to one another?
Why does evil succeed?
Why does God let the world go on like this?
But we withhold such questions at our own peril.
When the disciples were afraid to ask, to reveal that they didn’t know everything, they began arguing with each other, squabbling among themselves over petty issues of rank and status.
There is a direct line from verse 32, when the disciples didn’t understand, to verse 34, when they started arguing about who was the best.
When the disciples avoided asking hard questions, they focused on posturing about who was the teacher’s pet.
They fell prey to the very human tendency to try to cover up insecurity and weakness with bluster and arrogance.
We’ve seen this too often in the history of the Church: Christians fighting each other over things neither side fully understands but with a burning determination to be right, to be the best, to be God’s favourite, and above all to not be seen as lacking in understanding or getting things wrong.
Going back to our gospel story: how might it have been different if the disciples had asked Jesus their questions?
What kind of conversation might have taken place between Jesus and the disciples?
What kind of relationship might have grown up between them?
And how might our stories be different if we asked our questions?
What kind of conversations might we pursue?
How might our life together as disciples be different as a result?
Might we become more understanding, gentler, humbler and wiser if we became more willing to show our vulnerability to God and each other?
We don’t need to be afraid of questions, misunderstandings, confusion or curiosity in the presence of God, whose “perfect love casts out all fear”.
The good news is that Jesus welcomes us even when we don’t understand or don’t know or are just plain wrong.
The good news is that Jesus welcomes honest questions.
This story closes with Jesus embracing a child, the ultimate symbol of not knowing, not understanding, of being immature and undeveloped, with much to learn – yet loved, welcomed and honoured by Jesus.
May God help us all to cast off fear and ask our questions, knowing that in this way we can grow closer to him and each other.