September 23, 2018

On What Jesus Wants to Teach His Disciples

Passage: Proverbs 31:10-3, Psalm 1, James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a, Mark 9:30-37
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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.’
September can be an exciting time for students returning to school—a fresh start in a new academic year. I remember from University days that September was also the month in which you discovered the wisdom of your course selections; consequently September is also the time when a lot of students try to change coursers.

The most popular course in the history of American Ivy League’s Yale University was first offered in the fall of 2017—PSYCH 157: Psychology and the Good Life. Nearly one-fourth of Yale undergraduates registered for it. Laurie Santos, the psychology professor who teaches the course, says that she "tries to teach students how to lead a happier, more satisfying life."

One of Santos' principle lessons is that the things Yale undergraduates most associate with achieving happiness—a high grade, a prestigious internship, a good-paying job—do not increase happiness at all. "Scientists didn't realize this in the same way 10 or so years ago," Santos says. "Our intuitions about what will make us happy, like winning the lottery and getting a good grade, are totally wrong."

1. It wasn’t the course of study that the disciples wanted to sign up for yet Jesus insists they attend. Mark tells us that Jesus “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.” They were much more interested in studying who among them would be the greatest—as the argument that broke out among them following Jesus’ class on his coming death would reveal. Students go to class and take in the subject matter but what they are really interested in is often revealed by their conversations with one another outside the classroom

The popularity of this course on the good life by psychology professor Laurie Santos reveals, I believe, that there is longing of the human heart these students haven’t found satisfied in the many things that are part of their often privileged lives. And we must admit that the ability to attend university speaks of privilege when compared to the population of the world. How is it that we have so much yet remain so unsatisfied? C.S. Lewis was an Oxford University professor who became a Christian after years of professing atheism. In Mere Christianity Lewis describes where this dissatisfaction of life pointed. “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

The disciples would have been much more interested in a course of study with Jesus about their prestige and power and places of influence in the kingdom they imagined Jesus to be on the cusp of establishing—things they believe will make for a satisfying life. Notice that their focus (and ours) was on what brings satisfaction to me; as if it were God’s responsibility to deliver this to us. I am not saying that relationship with Christ is inadequate in any way to meet the longing of our hearts. But the focus needs to shift from me to him. Satisfaction for this longing we feel is a by-product of relationship with Christ.

If we know ourselves truly loved by someone there is a security we feel. The sense of security is a by-product of a love relationship. If we seek security only we often scare love of another away and the security we seek becomes elusive. In a similar way, it is in a love relationship with Jesus that we discover a satisfaction that we can’t describe fully but experience nonetheless. To seek only the satisfaction for its own sake turns this upside down and makes satisfaction elusive. To engage in love for Christ puts this in the right order. In hindsight we realize that in this relationship with Christ is a satisfaction full and free.

2. In Mark’s gospel he notes three times that Jesus took up teaching this course with his disciples. Mark wants us to understand that this became a staple of Jesus’ teaching cycle with his disciples—the teaching that “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.” This course of study goes to the heart of God’s mission to rescue and save. The cross of Jesus Christ is the prism through which his followers are to view life. Our sin has cut us off from the relationship with God who gives life and in the self-giving of our Lord the relationship with God has been set right.

The story we are considering in our gospel today is the second time that Mark notes Jesus’ teaching on his passion prediction. On the first occasion the disciples’ response is typified by Peter who rebukes Jesus for teaching nonsense which is followed by Jesus’ rebuke of Peter—“Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mark 8:31-33) On this second occasion Mark tells us “they (the disciples) did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”

Why are they reluctant to ask? On five other occasions in Mark’s gospel he tells us that the disciples readily asked Jesus for clarification on certain matters like the meaning of his parables, for example (Mark 4:10) So they are not reluctant to ask Jesus for clarification of their understanding of his teaching. Why are they afraid to ask on this subject? Is it possible they are afraid that the answer might be something they just don’t want to hear? Afraid that the answer would demand a response they aren’t prepared to give?

In his Confessions the great fourth century theologian Augustine admitted that he put off trusting his life to Jesus Christ because he wasn’t prepared to give up what he thought (knew) following Jesus would demand of him. He is not alone. If Jesus is willing to give up his life for us, go to any length to rescue us, then the right response is to give our all to him. So we hesitate. But what many who take the plunge to trust him have found is that these things we have clung to soon pale in comparison to affection for him.

3. I invite you to note the tense of the verbs in Jesus’ prediction of what is on the horizon for him. “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.” The present tense followed by futures, is a construction that emphasises that the future course of events is already decided. It carries the idea that is expressed on the first occasion when Jesus addresses this subject saying that he must undergo these things.

What does Jesus want his disciples to know? These things have to happen for the rescue that God has in mind. And this is a stumbling point for many. As the Apostle Paul noted “but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” (1 Corinthians 1:23) The idea that our Lord’s self-forgetful self-giving on the cross is all for us, that my sin requires such a self-giving is not something we want to believe about ourselves. Yet Jesus insists that we look here, that we know that things must be this way for our sakes.

I realize that there are many more appealing messages in our world promising a good and satisfying life. Book stores are filled with ideas of what makes for happiness and fulfilment. And just like the wisdom literature of the Bible this wisdom gets repackaged in our generation. But wisdom alone won’t save us. I note that Jesus does not drill down, with his disciples, on say a lesson on the Proverbs, as helpful as they may be for many aspects of life. Jesus keeps drilling down on this important world altering event. “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.”

Just as Jesus wants his disciples in Galilee to learn this story so too for us his disciples in 2018. It is a message the world needs to hear—this word of the love of God that will go to any lengths to save us from our sin. The message often heard in our world is that the answer to the angst we feel about life is to be found in strategies for crafting a satisfying life; Jesus indicates it is found in him and his self-giving on the cross.

Last July I had the privilege to take some time for a theology course as part of continuing education. A fellow student in that programme was a former Canadian diplomat who has served in Europe and we were talking about the political winds that were blowing and she asked me what I thought would make for peace. And the words leapt into my mind out my mouth, “the gospel”, I answered. I got thinking about that later and the subject of forgiveness and our Lord’s parable about the servant who was forgiven an impossible debt. The point Jesus was making is this; when we recognize the massive debt that has been forgiven us by God it helps us to forgive these lesser debts towards another. I think such an understanding can help communities and nations to do the same. My peace proposal may sound naïve, however, I do understand that this is where Jesus insists his disciples’ look.

It also should not escape our attention that this can’t be an easy message for Jesus to deliver given what it means for him. It is hard for anyone to share the difficult news of the diagnosis of a life-threatening disease. The disease of human sin costs Jesus everything. “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” writes the Apostle Paul. (2 Corinthians 5:21)

We are told in scripture that the love of God, the self-forgetful, self-giving that is without limits, is seen most characteristically at the cross as Father and Son give themselves for the sake of the world that has turned its back on him. Mark tells us that at this point in his ministry Jesus has drawn aside from the public spotlight so he can teach his disciples and the thing he wants them to learn about is his coming betrayal, death, and resurrection. At this moment the disciples cannot comprehend what this will mean for them but they will come to know and upon reflection can see that Jesus’ insistence on teaching this to them is so they will be certain of his love for them. So too for us, Jesus wants us to know of God’s unbounded love for us.

4. Mark tells us that the disciples did not understand what Jesus was saying with respect to his teaching about the fact he would be killed and after three days rise again; no only did not understand but were afraid to ask. But in the next episode recorded by Mark Jesus does teach them something of the implication of this event of his death and resurrection. In other words, Jesus’ self-giving at the cross speaks volumes about how life is to be lived.

I am not sure how to describe the disciples’ argument among themselves that follows—disconnect, obliviousness, cluelessness? It is an intimate moment when Jesus trusts his disciples with what has to be for Jesus a heavy personal load to carry—the news of his certain death. He has drawn aside with just them and tells them what is heavy on his heart. And a little while later these disciples are arguing over who among them was the greatest. They don’t understand Jesus on this point and soon carry on with the way they envision things. Not sure what all that “being killed” talk was about, but when the kingdom gets rolling boys surely I will be prime minister, opines Peter. And the argument in on.

Their thoughts turn to things they desire like power, position, prestige, influence, wealth. And before we dump too heavily on these disciples over such a disconnect think how we want Jesus to deliver the “good life” we perceive, how we want Jesus to make us successful in the common things the world around us defines as success.

Jesus asks them what they argued about and they are now too embarrassed to say. Jesus knew and isn’t his patience with them a testament to his unbounded love for them—the limitlessness of which will be on display at the cross. “He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’”

Isn’t the cross of Jesus Christ, where Father and Son pour themselves out for our sakes, the ultimate action of the first being last of all and servant of all? Jesus gives himself completely to serve us at the cross and this action has implications for how we are to live life. “And then he took a child in his arms.” When you hold an infant in your arms you hold a person who can do nothing for you but requires everything from you. Our world tells us that satisfaction is found in power and influence and fame and wealth. Consistent with his self-giving at the cross, Jesus stands before us holding a child in his arms, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Amen.