Maybe you’ve noticed that in the Gospels, the disciples aren’t known for their brilliance! We see them falling asleep, running away, misunderstanding, mis-stepping, not getting Jesus at all. And yet he chose them. Not only that, he doesn’t fire them, he doesn’t give up on them. He keeps drawing them close, using every opportunity to show them God’s outrageous way of love.
In this passage from Mark’s Gospel that we have today, we hear Jesus telling them -- and not for the first time -- that he’s going to be killed, and rise again, whatever that means. “But they did not understand and were afraid to ask him.” It wasn’t easy news to hear. Sometimes, that’s our way, isn’t it, in the face of hard news … we don’t know what to say … we don’t really even want to hear it … so we don’t pursue it.
Meanwhile I have to wonder what might they have gained by wading in, by asking Jesus about it … about him, how he was doing in all of that … what it might mean for them. I have to wonder what they might have been given through such a conversation that would have been something to hold onto for the days ahead.
But they were afraid to ask him.
The next we hear, they’re arguing with each other about who is the greatest. At first we might wonder how did they get from there to here … except that it might not be so out of the blue if what they managed to take in is that Jesus is soon to die and they will be without him. So might they have wondered who then will take the lead? Who would be best suited, best equipped … who is the greatest among them? You can see it, can’t you, given wherever they go people are flocking to Jesus … drawn to him by hundreds, even thousands! There’s no denying there’s a kind of greatness about him. He heals the sick, he casts out demons, he restores people to life, back to their community, he feeds the crowds, he’s a compelling storyteller.
Maybe it’s not so out of the blue that their conversation would turn to greatness … except it seems they slip into this other kind of thinking, this other way of measuring, defining greatness that’s about rising to the top, passing over, shining above all others.
All it takes is for Jesus to ask them what they were arguing about on the way to realize their slip into conventional thinking. What they’ve seen in Jesus is greatness, yes, but a greatness born of solidarity … of connection, of drawing close to the messiness and suffering of people’s lives. It’s a very different kind of greatness than a greatness born of separation, of growing distance.
But Jesus, knowing what they were talking about, and sensing they know they missed the mark, he doesn’t correct them with words on top of words. But he doesn’t leave it alone either. He simply lands this paradoxical one-liner … another thing he’s great at!
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” he says.
And then instead of more words, he gives them something to see, a different vision of greatness. He brings a child into their midst --a person of no account, someone who won’t gain you any points, someone who is dependent, vulnerable-- and he gathers this child into his arms and all he says is “whoever welcomes one such as this, welcomes me; whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Riding my bike through the city these days, I’m keenly aware that we live in a “get-ahead world.” Of course there are other ways to be in touch with that as you know. For me it comes clear every day on my bike as I experience the aggressiveness of so many drivers … in the rush to get by, get ahead, to get to wherever we’re going first or faster, as though anyone in front is someone in the way. Heading down Shelbourne St let’s just say we are not fellow travellers on the road … but people in the way!
And even on my bike, I’m part of it too -- the rush to get by, get ahead. It smacks me in the face almost every time I come to the corner of Pandora and Cook, where Michael is often standing, leaning against the post, supported by crutches, hat out hoping for some change … and these days head down with the newspaper in hand as though to avoid eye contact … perhaps afraid to make eye contact.
I confess that I am relieved when I approach that intersection and the light is still green and I can sail on by … with a simple “hello Michael!” as I pass him by. And I confess there are days I move to the opposite side of the Pandora, remaining in the bike lane, so that when I get to the red light I’m over here and he’s over there. And I confess that on those days I don’t shift to the opposite side of the road, and I know that I will be alongside him -- no car to separate us … no protective bubble so it’s just me and Michael -- I confess to being anxious. What can I say? What can I say that’s useful … what can I say that won’t draw me more deeply into my sense of helplessness? What comes after “how are you Michael?“ and he says “not good.” There I am with those disciples afraid to ask him to say more. And I carry on my way. As though we aren’t all vulnerable people … where all it takes is one phone call, one slip in a wet floor, one missing pay cheque to upend our life.
As though we don’t all in some way have needs, and need each other.
So I look at Jesus and what I see is him serving life, through noticing, connecting, touching, enquiring, face to face.
So here’s what happened for me as I listened through to the end of today’s passage of scripture that I’m hearing like I haven’t heard before … “Whoever welcomes one such as this welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me.” I’m hearing that somehow in our welcoming, in our making room, making time, opening a door for, ok Michael, Jesus is part of the scene. God is part of the scene. This isn’t just me and Michael! but the presence of a great mercy, a great love being welcomed … given space.
So I’m not suggesting that the next time I approach that corner I won’t be anxious. But what if I trusted that Jesus is already there? As I allow myself to imagine that encounter, I see myself making time -- making sure I’m not rushing off to an appointment-- and maybe I’ve got a $20 bill and I wonder with Michael if this would make up for his lost earnings at the corner that morning and we could go for a cup of coffee and actually meet … maybe discover something more about each other. Maybe for me … maybe even for both of us we find ourselves somehow encountering Jesus.
I wonder who’s on your path? Who’s in your way who might be on your way … on your way even to a surprising encounter with Jesus, with love Divine?!!