In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“They kept silent, for on the way they [had] discussed among themselves who was the greatest” (Mark 9:34). You have to wonder how that turned out. I mean, which of the disciples was able to convince the others that he was the greatest? Peter, maybe? Peter, who saw Elijah and Moses talking with Jesus in the glory of His transfiguration, and said, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here, and we will make three tents: one for you, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Mark 9:5)? But Mark tells us, “He did not know what he was saying, for they became terrified” (Mark 9:6). So, not Peter. James and John, then? Jesus picked those Sons of Thunder (Mark 3:17) to go up on the mountain as well. But they were as terrified as Peter; they just couldn’t open their mouths like Peter. What about the other nine disciples? Jesus left them in charge at the bottom of the mountain. But we saw in last week’s Gospel reading how that turned out. Nothing that the disciples had done so far even suggests that this should be the topic of their conversation. They continually misunderstood both what Jesus said and what He did. Theirs is the deeper blindness that Jesus intends to heal. But Mark is telling us something else as well. Immediately before this discussion, Jesus had taught them: “The Son of Man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him, and when He is killed, after three days He will raise Himself. But they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to ask Him” (Mark 9:31-32). The evidence of their misunderstanding is that they argue about who among them is the greatest. In fact, all three times that Jesus tells them about His approaching suffering, death, and resurrection there is complete misunderstanding. First, Peter rebukes Jesus for speaking that way; then the disciples argue about who is the greatest; and then James and John ask to sit at His right and left in His glory. The disciples are blind to the way on which they are walking. They are on their way to glory alright, but it is the glory of God hidden in flesh; the glory of shame and suffering, death and burial. They are on the way to where the glory of God will shine most brightly. But they do not understand the suffering and the dying and the rising; they are blind to the way of God’s glory in Jesus. They think that that glory will mean human greatness, and political power, and earthly authority.
These two contradictory ideas of glory are still with us. The Church, like the Apostles who taught her the Faith, very often pursues the glory of the world instead of the glory of God. We count the way the world counts. We measure the Church’s faithfulness by how many people we can see (or, by how many people we don’t see). Of course, we don’t really even like that invisible and uncountable word faithfulness; we much prefer that visible and countable word, success. Both pastors and people struggle against the temptation to base our faithfulness (or success) on the numbers we can see, rather than the faith we cannot see. Our priorities are skewed by our longing for glory—even in the Church. The death of Jesus is proof of false priorities based on human glory. He was delivered into the hands of men—our hands—in our flesh, and we, by our sin, did that killing. We glory in the convenient and the comfortable and the fashionable, while Jesus walks the lonely way up to Jerusalem and the cross. Our flesh did not want the cross then, and it does not want it now. But the crucified Lord has called us to follow Him anyway, and He is busy with His work of crucifying our flesh and making His Church what He says she is. We should not be surprised, then, the Church, like her Lord, is delivered into the hands of men and they do to her what they did to Him. The Church, Christ’s Body, is always hidden beneath His crucified shame. But this is more than just persecution by those who are openly anti-Christ, which many of our brothers and sisters around the world know far better than we do. It is also the false sons within the walls of the Church who, like Peter, oppose the cross of Christ with every good intention. They clothe the Bride in the fashion of fads and trends so that she will be attractive to anyone who passes her on the street. They advertise her services and promise physical pleasure to those who come through her doors. They sell her in every marketplace, to consumers who only want to use her for their own desires and felt needs and political agendas. They pimp her to the spirit of the age under the name of so-called “love.” They think that if people can be lured by her physical beauty, then eventually they will be interested enough to seek her inner beauty. Right; and people only read those magazines for the articles. As long as the signs and wonders continue, the crowds may come; but as soon as Jesus is seen for who He is, they will either fall down and worship, or go right back to their old gods.
Let’s admit it now—rather, let us confess: the disciples did not like the cross that belongs to the Church of Christ, and neither do we. We want only the pretty Jesus on glittering, precious metal; or, better yet, instead of Jesus on the cross, we could have flowers or a cute, praying child. Frankly, as much as I like that cross on the wall, it might be better to have a crucifix made of rough wood, with a Jesus who is clearly in agony and covered in blood and sweat. Maybe then we could better recognize His Church for who she is, rather than who we wish she was like for the sake of the world’s approval and respect. It is true that Jesus is risen and He reigns in the full glory of the Father with the Holy Spirit. But we can’t see that yet! His glory is hidden, even now, under the foolishness of the cross. Yes, we have been crucified and raised with Christ, washed and purified, but we do not yet see ourselves, the Church, as we will be in the resurrection. The full Reign of God has not yet been revealed to the entire creation. In this world, it is and it must be that the Church is made up of the little children who are mocked and marginalized and martyred. The little children who are counted as worthless and helpless. And still the world tells the children to grow up and get with it; go along to get along; be tolerant in order to be tolerated. Whatever we may be in the superficial sight of the press and the pundits, as soon as it is revealed that we are called by the Name of Jesus, they will view us as either an historical curiosity, a relic, along the lines of a statue in a museum; or else a dangerous threat to the stability of schools, communities, government, and the public good. Everyone who has ever tried to sell Christianity by making it attractive to the masses has either been conformed to this world or killed by it. That is the way of the glory of this world.
But the glory of Jesus is to become nothing, so that He can make something out of nothing. He has made the smallest and the least and the nobodies His own. He has made us His own. And there is no room among us, who are least, for divisive arguments about who is greatest. There is no room for us to seek our own glory and our own way and our own good. If Jesus was the least of all, rejected by every person He came to save—rejected under the shame of our sin even by His own heavenly Father!—then who are we to desire a different glory? We are what He is: each of us and all of us crucified with Him and raised with Him, all for the sake of this world with its pretend greatness and false glory. Whatever we suffer as His Church, we suffer as His icons. We serve the least whether they know what they are or not, because Jesus served us that way; we are not greater than our Master. In the midst of a suffering and serving Church, made up of the little and least, Jesus is doing what He has always done: taking up children into His arms (9:36), welcoming them all by water under the authority of His own Name. And by His Name He is “fiercely and faithfully holding on to every last sinner,” including you and me, “that his death might be the way that the least of all enter into the kingdom of God. Here, Jesus silences all argument and reveals the radical mercy of God, the hope”—our hope—“that lies hidden in his suffering, death, and resurrection and in the suffering service of all who follow in his way” (David Schmitt, Concordia Journal 35:3 [Summer 2009], 311).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 9/18/15