St Peter the Apostle Church in Naples, FL
Wisdom 2:12, 17-20 + Psalm 54 + James 3, 16-4, 3 + Mark 9, 30-37
Again the location is important. It is Capernaum. We are in the home territory now, and the mood is quiet and intimate. I find it interesting that Jesus does not rebuke or even complain that the apostles are talking about their privileges while he speaks of being handed over to death. Ancient tradition has proposed that the influence of Peter upon Mark’s Gospel can be noted throughout this Gospel. I suspect this is one of those incidents that has Peter as its source. How else would Mark know this since it was away from the crowd and in the privacy of Capernaum that this scene takes place? The silence of the Apostles when Jesus inquires about their discussion is remarkable. It would be easy to dismiss this detail by suggesting that they were embarrassed when Jesus inquired about their lively discussion. On the other hand, I would like to suggest there might be another reason for their silence. Why not imagine that finally what he was saying to them was really beginning to sink in, and they were simply silenced in awe and wonder and perhaps feeling some fear.
He has been challenging their ideas about God and about a Messiah continually. His whole life has been one constant revelation of his Father, and this “Father” is not living up their expectations, and they are beginning to catch on. They may not know what lies ahead, but this God Jesus calls, “Father” is not much like they had imagined. Then comes the final blow to their old ideas of power and privilege as he calls for a child and in a rare and tender gesture, he puts his arms around the child and proposes that God is like a child! “Whoever welcomes a child welcomes me, not me, but the one who sent me.” God is like a child! That proposal is enough to leave you silent.
No more talk of power. No more images of a distant ruler with a big stick and a book of rules. No more talk of wrath and punishment. No more hiding out of fear or running away because a gentle shepherd is always searching, and this “father” is always waiting with a ring and robe. The contrast between their old ideas and what Jesus reveals is almost too much for them and perhaps for us as well. We like to hang on to those old images and expectations of God because that is a God we made or made-up. It is a God far too much like us instead of a God who is with us. We like that old idea of God because it justifies our hiding and our denial and fear and it excuses too much of our behavior when we are judgmental and comfortable with alienation. This God Jesus reveals is a God who serves and provides, a God who wants to forgive offences not punish and take revenge.
On the way to Capernaum, Jesus said to those who were with him: “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men who will put him to death.” When we fail to seriously explore the mystery of Jesus Christ and what it reveals about God, death, and resurrection, we are left to think that Judas is the one who delivered Jesus Christ in the hands of men. But that is not so. Neither Judas nor the Chief Priests delivered Jesus Christ into the hands of men. God did. God sent his son, his only son, into this world to be delivered up. When that truth sinks in something within us must shift and change when we begin to think and imagine God. At first it may seem cruel, but that is a remnant of the old idea that the apostles were clinging to. In truth, it is act of love and compassion that reveals to us how desperately and totally God enters into the human condition.
Making this shift or embracing this revelation moves us from thinking that God is some powerful fixer or frightening judge to discovering that God is with us in all things good and bad; living with, suffering with, and rejoicing with us always. Failing to grasp what is being revealed by this little child image Jesus proposes is what leads people to give up on God or get angry with God when a tragedy strikes. When I hear people say things like: “How could God let this happen?” or “Where is God when we need him?” I know they are like the apostles who have not yet understood the image of the little child Jesus embraces. The cry of someone holding on to that old image of God looks at the faces of those thousands of refugees fleeing the violence of Syria today and wonders how is it possible for a good God let this happen again and again. “Why doesn’t God do something?” they wonder. While the revelation we get from a little child in the arms of Jesus is that God is among those refugees waiting for us to do something. What we do for them, we do for God. The mother of a three year old refugee child washed up dead on a beach cries out in anguish, and that cry is the voice of God crying out over the conditions that caused them to flee in fear to begin with. We must get deep into this wonder of the Father Jesus reveals.
One way to do that is to listen and learn from the prayer of Jesus himself in the most dramatic and tragic moment of his life. In the garden on the night before he died, his prayer tells us everything about his relationship with his father: “Let this cup pass from me, BUT ( and there is the important part of the prayer ) Thy will be done.” It is a prayer of surrender, but not surrender to violence, but a surrender of the old and inadequate image of a God who is going to come riding in a put things right. It is, at the same time, a witness to the God Jesus reveals, a God who has taken on the entire reality of human life, a God who is never closer than when we are in trouble or afraid. In this truth we find the hope that can lead us though the darkest of hours.