September 19, 2021 – Don’t Be Afraid to Ask
Rev. Amanda Highben
Text: Mark 9.30-37
What if the disciples hadn’t been afraid to ask? What if rather than allowing their fear and confusion to get the best of them, they had asked Jesus, “What do you mean, teacher? What do you mean when you say you’ll be betrayed, killed, and after three days rise again? Why would you say that and what does it mean?” What if the disciples hadn’t been afraid to ask?
And here’s another question: why were they afraid to ask in the first place? Mark writes “they did not understand what [Jesus] was saying and were afraid to ask him.” I used to assume this meant that because the disciples believed he was the Messiah, sent by God to liberate Israel from Roman oppression, that he could not possibly be killed. He could not be humiliated and betrayed. God’s chosen one could not go out like that. Therefore the disciples couldn’t understand Jesus’ prediction of his death; or maybe more to the point, they couldn’t and wouldn’t accept it. So, in the face of their confusion at such a ludicrous prospect, they kept quiet and were afraid to ask what he meant.
This is what I used to believe what happening here, and I still do, to a degree. A murdered messiah was too awful and absurd to consider, so they fell silent and dumb, unable to ask Jesus for clarification. But I think another kind of fear was at work in the disciples, a fear all too common and human and one we’ve all known from time to time: the fear of looking stupid. And not so much looking this way in front of Jesus, but in front of one another. Of being afraid that their peers would think they were dense. Of being afraid that the others would snicker at them and roll their eyes. That from now on the one who dared to ask a question would be the butt of all the jokes.
Of course, Mark never says this specifically about the disciples, but immediately after their silence in response to Jesus’ prediction of his death, they are silent again, only this time it’s because Jesus is apparently the only one who’s unafraid to ask a question: “What were you arguing about on the way [to Capernaum]?,” he says. “But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.”
And now it all makes sense. Now we can see why they were afraid before this to ask Jesus to explain himself. Because the one who’s the greatest doesn’t need to ask questions; he already knows it all. He already understands things perfectly well, which makes him the greatest and smartest and very best and favorite disciple. The last thing the greatest disciple would need to do is ask questions. Because to ask a question, to admit you don’t understand or are afraid or need help, is to also take a risk. And to take such a risk, to risk looking vulnerable or weak, is a hard thing to do indeed. Whether you’re a disciple of Jesus, a pastor, a student at the university that was just ranked ninth best in the country, or just a person who is trying to make their way in this crazy, chaotic world: to risk vulnerability, to admit you don’t have all the answers or even some of the answers for that matter, can be a very hard thing to do indeed.
But what if the disciples hadn’t been afraid to ask? What if instead of being so wrapped-up in being right and being the greatest, they’d said, “Tell us more teacher. We don’t understand. We want to. We want to follow you, to know what it means to be your disciple. But we need your help.”
As it is, Jesus knows they need his help. He knows they don’t get it and are far too concerned with what everyone else thinks than to wrestle with what it means for the messiah to suffer and die. As it is, Jesus is a good teacher, a very good teacher. In fact, think of the best teachers you’ve had or maybe have now. You know they’re wicked smart, but they never make you feel stupid for asking questions or try to intimidate you with their knowledge. They welcome your questions, all of your questions, because they genuinely care about your learning and growth. And so it is with Christ. Instead of rebuking them for their petty squabble, he says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then, just in case they’re still confused, he takes a little child in his arms and says again, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Children, you see, had no standing in ancient society. They were the last and least, the most vulnerable of all with no rights of their own. At best a male child could carry on the family’s name; at worst, children were considered property and another mouth to feed when most people were inescapably poor. But “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” Jesus teaches the twelve. To be great is to welcome, receive, and embrace those who have no standing. To be great is to stand together with and alongside those with no status, no rights, no special protection or privilege. And in doing to risk becoming last yourself. To risk suffering for those sake of those who suffer. To risk pain for the sake of those who know only pain. To take up your cross and follow the crucified one who so loved the last and least that he became one of them…betrayed, humiliated, forsaken on the cross.
This is what “greatness” looks like in the upside-down world of the Kingdom of God, Jesus teaches his disciples. Forget about being afraid to ask a question because you might look silly in front of your friends; ask me instead, he says, what it means, what it looks like, how your life and your relationships and your priorities are changed entirely when the Son of God calls to you and says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
And now it’s your turn to ask some questions because, unlike the disciples, we should not be ashamed or afraid to ask. On the contrary, questions are signs of a vibrant and healthy life of faith. God can handle your questions, dear ones, and your doubts. Followers of Christ are called to question, ponder, think critically, and admit that we are far from having all the answers. So, with that, I’d like us to divide into a few small groups to reflect on two questions that I left open-ended in the sermon. First, who are the “little children” in our world today…specifically, the “little children” in our nation/communities and even on Duke’s campus or in Durham? And second, how are we as Jesus’ disciples/as the body of Christ called to welcome, receive, and serve them?