Today we are reading from Mark's gospel, chapter nine verses thirty to thirty-seven, which contain two stories about Jesus and his disciples. These are not parables, or straight teachings; they are accounts of Jesus and the disciples in private. They would have been even more fascinating for Mark's first readers, because very few people knew Jesus intimately when he walked the earth, and even fewer knew what transpired between the disciples.
The accounts we have are the best recollections Mark and others had. Mark and the other gospel writers likely drew from the oral history that was carried along by the early church. Remember that we did not have the Gospels till some thirty to fifty years after Jesus' ascension. No one felt the need to write the stories and teachings down, because they were told one to another, and the first Christians believed that Jesus would return any day. It was only when the first Christians began to die that it became absolutely necessary to have some written account that could be securely passed along to future generations.
So imagine what it must have been like to have a written account for the church to recall and imagine these stories that had been passed along. I can imagine that some of them said, "Oh, is that how you remember it? I thought it went like this…" That's why each Gospel has its own emphases and variations.
But to get into the culture Jesus had with his disciples would be utterly fascinating. And we have so little information, even within the gospels, about what it was like to walk the roads with Jesus. What it was really like to speak with Jesus informally, how he behaved in private, or what his preferences may have been. Verses thirty to thirty-seven pull back the curtain a little bit, and let us see into their world.
I want to focus on just the first two verses we've been given, 9:31-32. Let me read it to you again, "Jesus and his disciples went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, "The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again." But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him."
There is no way to experience the kind of fear the disciples felt on the road that day. We know the story far too well. Even the original hearers of Mark's gospel understood that the placement of this story in the overall plot of the gospel is an obvious foreshadowing of the end. The intention of it is—at least on the surface—very clear: that Jesus believed that he was going to be betrayed and killed. He also believed, according to Mark, that he would be raised from the dead. The reaction of the disciples makes a lot of sense, because Mark's depiction of the disciples is always as a bunch of lost balls in tall grass.
"They did not understand what he was saying, and were afraid to ask him."
They understood his words, surely. They understood the literal meaning of betrayal and death. What they did not understand was not the words. They didn't understand Jesus. And I would suggest that even though we know the story very, very well, we still do not understand Jesus. Jesus was and is a mystery.
A large part of that mystery is how he was able to live among us, doing what he did, constantly and consistently offering himself, and all the while believing that the story was going to end with his violent and ignominious death. Yes, he believed he would rise. But the resurrection does not erase the horror of the torture and death that was coming.
Jesus knew that what he was doing would arouse the suspicion of both the political and religious establishments. He must have known that in order for him to be obedient to the Father would mean that he would become a marked man. The disciples saw Jesus moving about the people with ease—teaching, curing, performing miracles—and it must have seemed at times that he was larger than life itself. How could he possibly come to harm?
Surely no one would want to kill someone so unfailingly righteous. If we are going to have a messiah, this is what a messiah should do. He is fulfilling all the commandments and then some. He enjoys the favor of humanity—clearly the favor of God is upon him. If he comes into any trouble at all, surely all he will have to do is reason with them.
They didn't understand the words in this context. If you put Jesus in one column and try to add betrayal, plus arrest, plus death…let's see here…carry the two…it doesn't add up. And it certainly doesn't add up to "rise again from the dead." That continues to be almost unimaginable.
But the disciples have seen so many things that they cannot explain. Walking on water, five thousand people fed with a little boy's lunch, sick healed—even people born blind. He was out on the boat and a storm came, and he stilled the storm. Even the wind and sea obeyed him. (Pause.) But to rise from the dead..? (Pause.)
"They did not understand what he was saying, and were afraid to ask him."
They were afraid. I don't really blame them at all, especially when I think of their proximity to him. If they're coming for Jesus—and he's going to be killed—what's going to happen to us? We're his disciples; they know that.
They don't want to ask, because they're scared. They may even be so scared that they don't want to know. The little child watches the scary movie—too scared to watch, too scared to look away. It's a strange thing fear. It holds your attention when you most want to look away.
But, if you stay scared and don't ask, there can be a comfort in the time elapsing. Just hold tight and wait. (Pause.) And the clock continues to tick…
Maybe he'll say something else and you can move on from this. Maybe he just had a stomach ache and wasn't feeling well, and you know… You're not the same when you don't feel well, or you're tired. Maybe he's just tired…?
You know, you can feel off some days. It seems likely that that might have even happened to Jesus. He was a human being, too… He must have had the occasional bad day. Everyone knows what it's like to want to lie down for a few minutes, but you can't, so you keep hammering on through the afternoon, and long about four o'clock, you start to think "What's the point? Why bother? Let's just chuck it in and call it a day."
It's that malaise that comes on you when you've been out in the garden pulling weeds and you look around with sweat coming down the sides of your eyes and you've still got a billion more to go, and you throw you hands in the air. "What's the point? They'll just grow back."
Was this a hard day for Jesus? No, I don't think so.
But here's what I'd like to know: if he really believed that this was how his life was going to end—even though he believed he'd be raised—how did go about his life with that hanging over him?
Most of us walk around will a very clear understanding that we're going to die. I remember exactly where I was when I learned that I would die one day. It was just after my grandmother had died—it was the first death in the family I'd experienced—and I was sitting on the porch steps, talking across the street to the girl who lived there.
Her name was Kathleen. She was a couple years older. (Actually, she still is!) I was talking about my grandmother's death, and I said, "I sure hope that doesn't happen to me." She said, "Of course it will happen to you. Everybody dies, Alexander. In time it happens to everyone."
And it was like Eve gave Adam the apple of the tree of knowledge and I bit into it, and realized I was naked. That's how it feels—to realize that you are vulnerable when you thought you were safe.
Most of us go around with either a conscious or unconscious awareness that we are going to die. I just recently read and interview of an author who is 97 years young—he is still writing books. And the interviewer asked him what his biggest fear was, and he said, "Well, I'm 97, what do you think?"
We know it's going to happen. Obviously we hope it will be with an absolute minimum of suffering. And we go around washing our hands, looking both ways before crossing the street, being as careful as we can reasonably be, because we know that bad things can happen. We worry about it. We worry that a sickness will get worse before it gets better. We worry about decisions large and small that may affect our quality of life and our quantity of life.
Jesus walked around believing in his heart that he was going to be betrayed, and killed. And the disciples didn't understand, and were afraid to ask him. The whole thing is scary. The betrayal, the death... What does it all mean?
And that's a question that time and faith have never taken away. What does it profit that we grow old and die, or that we are killed, or that something happens that robs our innocence and our life. What are we headed towards?
And the answer Jesus gives is that he will rise again. The Son of Man, the human being, will meet an end of the road of life—sooner or later—in sickness or in health. It may be awful, or it may be peaceful—even beautiful. But no matter how it happens, it won't be over.
Jesus will rise again. You and I will rise again—from whatever it is. Whether it's the actual death, when the heart ceases to beat and the organs shut down, or the little deaths of sin and misbehavior, humiliations endured at the hands of others, injuries, sicknesses. Whether it's the big death or the many little deaths that come to human being over the span of a life, it doesn't end there.
How it happens, when it happens, I can't tell you; but it is the Church's proclamation that any death—large or small—does not really end the human life. Christ is risen. We shall be risen with him. We continue not to understand it, and we continue to be too scared to ask, but we also continue to walk beside Jesus, praying, believing, and I would hope above all trusting that it will make sense to us when it comes.
If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving to the church where you feel most at home.
The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.