17th Sunday after Pentecost
17th Pentecost 17.21 “Greatest” Mark 9:30-37
One of the most wonderful things about the Scriptures, and especially the Gospels, is how they show the prophets, apostles, and children of Israel exactly as they are, with all their foibles and faults; and, for me, my favorites are the Apostles displayed for us in all their glorious cluelessness! Far from being super-heroes, religious geniuses, pious saints, the Apostles are exactly like us, only more so!… Which is pretty great, I think.
Jesus and his disciples are passing through Galilee—ancient fly-over country, like the US Midwest where I grew up. No one (except Jesus) stays there willingly for long—and Jesus doesn’t want anyone to know he’s in the area because he’s teaching his disciples (presumably the Apostles, the 12) giving them the down-low on how “the Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” A great and awesome mystery—how God himself can be killed and rise and why he would suffer this at all?!
But the Apostles do not see the greatness in it—at all. In fact, it is so bizarre to them to even imagine how God himself could die, that they simply do not understand it. Now, seriously: what part of “the Son of Man will be killed and rise from the dead after three days” is difficult to grasp? It’s a very simple and clear sentence. The difficulty must be the notion that the Messiah, the Christ, God’s only Son could suffer such a terrible defeat. By definition, God is the greatest and the greatest do no go down in ignominious defeat. In fact, the whole reason, it seems, the 12 tag along with Jesus is because he is Lord of Life and will keep them from dying!
The apostolic cluelessness speaks to me, deeply. And that the very next thing we see the Apostles doing (after failing to understand the most essential part of Jesus’ teaching!) is that they are caught arguing over which of them was greatest. It almost seems like they’ve given up on Jesus as some loser and are trying to decide which of them will take over the mantle as the greatest leader of Israel. For the exceptionally talented and brilliant to be a little arrogant is understandable. But for these guys—who are certainly no geniuses on the one hand, and yet not very nice or saintly on the other hand—to be arguing over which of them is greatest (by implication greater than Jesus!) just makes you smile, right?
Let’s contrast an Apostle with a popular, modern hero. Now, hmmm… which of the Apostles was the greatest, or the least dirty shirt in the pile? Andrew was first to follow and tell the others about Jesus. But he doesn’t really do anything else after that good start. John was the favorite, but he also does rather little except be likable. He’s hardly seen in the book of the Acts of the Apostles. It’s got to be Peter, right? He, along with Paul, is prominent in Acts. Jesus gives him the best nickname, “Stone” in Aramaic like the bass player from Pearl Jam. Peter does the coolest (and the dumbest!) things. He walks on water which is cool, and then denies Jesus, which is pretty dumb. Yet, the Church looks to Peter as the Prince of the Apostles, first among equals, because of how Jesus praises him in Matt. 16 as the first confessor of Christ. And he dies the coolest and most gruesome death, crucified upside down and cracking jokes on the way.
So, let’s say Peter is the greatest of the Apostles. And let’s compare him to a popular, modern hero. I’m going to go with Luke Skywalker whose popularity continues despite the almost unmitigated disaster that is Disney’s stewardship of the Star Wars franchise. There are some strong similarities: both Luke and Peter rise to greatness from very humble beginnings. Both are impulsive and headstrong and make some mistakes. Both wield some powers that are superhuman. Both are tempted and fall for a time to the dark side.
But their differences define them, and those are profound! Peter never rises to greatness of any earthly variety. He would have been happy to live his whole life on Tatooine, uh, Galilee, unlike Luke who can’t wait to escape that backwater dump. Luke thirsts for glory, adventures, yearns to be at the center of things, a hero. Peter becomes a shepherd because Jesus commanded him: “feed my lambs; tend my sheep”. Luke goes after Yoda in order to become a Jedi Master, exceptional, almighty—not to become a servant.
Luke’s mistakes are made trying save his friends, and so somewhat excusable. Peter’s denial of Jesus is from simple cowardice and fear—less noble or excusable. Luke is great despite his faults; he learns from them and transcends them gloriously. Peter is great because of his faults, which he never transcends but hates, letting them lead him to the cross. Luke fans the spark of greatness in him into a powerful flame. Peter sees his desire for greatness as the destroying fire of hell, as the reason to die with Jesus so he can be completely rid of all personal greatness and reflect only the glory of Jesus…
Luke’s Jedi powers are innate, a natural gift that he, by training and discipline, learns to wield for personal advantage. Peter’s apostolic gifts (healing the sick, walking on water, prison breaks) aren’t natural abilities. They are never his to wield at his own discretion. They are gifts God gives—only very occasionally—to better show the way of the cross and are used only when/how the Spirit directs for the advantage of others. Peter is a servant of the servants of God—never stops being a humble fisherman. Luke never stops being a Master. When Luke dies, he vanishes into Valhalla, no messy body. When Peter dies, his broken body’s buried in a tomb to await the resurrection.
Most important difference of all: St. Peter is real; Luke Skywalker is not (sorry if that comes as a shock to fans).
Luke Skywalker is a hero who appeals to our self-centered (gnostic?) dreams of greatness. St. Peter is a hero who is just like us, only more so! and leads us to the “quite disinterested self-abandonment of adoration” which is the worship of the Crucified Christ Jesus.
Which is to say Jesus shows his greatness not by Force leaps and lightsaber duels, but by humbly dying as a slave on the cross, who, even though he is God, same as the Father, lays aside divine power and glory and humbly, obediently, puts himself entirely in the Father’s hands to kill him and raise him up as the Father pleases. This is greatness that looks like total losereness and foolishness. The Apostles naturally don’t get it.
But they follow Jesus anyway—like starstruck kids! Which is why they’re so great! They’re just like us, only more so! They (reluctantly!) but faithfully fall into God’s hands entirely, to make of them whatever he pleases, finally, just like Jesus…
St. Augustine prayed: “Command what you will and make me love what you command.” Just so, Jesus, to show what the greatest looks like, takes a little kid in his arms and says “here you go!” Children have better taste in heroes than adults, I think. They are more intuitive and honest than adults. And they will follow their hero anywhere with a blind love (faith) that wants only to be like their hero. “Command what you will and make me love what you command” is the prayer of a little child.
When we receive that little child, in Christ’s name, we receive Jesus—just as he wills, at his command, loving whatever he’s pleased to give. By Word and Sacrament, you receive him now, sharing his greatness. In the Holy Name of Jesus Amen.