I think one of the greatest temptations for you and me is to try and make the relationship between Jesus and his disciples much simpler than it actually was. For instance, we like to think the disciples were kind of thick-headed because it makes us feel a little less bad about the fact that we get it wrong so much of the time. And conversely, we like to think that Jesus was always on task and on message because it’s so much easier to follow someone who’s consistent. The problem is that our desire for simplicity can sometimes lead us to a rather flat image of what the life and ministry of our Lord was like. Which is precisely what makes the story from Mark’s gospel that we read this morning so illuminating.
It seems to me that each of the 12 men we know as apostles were called to discipleship by Jesus because he discerned in them the potential and the qualities needed for the tasks at hand. They knew how to work hard, and they already pursued careers that required resourcefulness and discipline. Although we don’t know exactly what every one of them was up to before being called, we know about enough of them to see that they brought a variety of experience. Even if fishing does seem a little over-represented in their collective resumes, they did represent a variety of experience. Back in Epiphany season, we listened as Jesus summoned his disciples…sometimes singly, sometimes in pairs. We heard that, on occasion, those first called went and sought out others they knew, their friends, inviting them to come and see as well. This process went on until there were 12 men drawn into that inner circle who accompanied Jesus throughout his ministry. But if that’s what we can “know” about Jesus and the 12, what I want to invite you to do now is engage your imagination around what we might intuit about them even if we can never “know” it for certain. So let’s imagine.
Let’s imagine that Jesus has finally gathered this little band of followers. They eat and talk and travel together. They get into and out of scrapes with the authorities together. And I’m thinking they also wonder and worry sometimes about what’s going on back home in their absence…all 13 of them, not just the 12. Do you think they maybe laughed together in amused consternation about the things people sometimes said and did? I wonder how many times they retold the story of those dudes who had the chutzpah to knock a hole in the roof in order to move their friend to the front of the healing line. And then there was the seemingly endless cheekiness of the scribes and Pharisees…always pushing and carping about stuff that just didn’t matter. I don’t know about you, but I can imagine a kind of familiar fondness growing among them over time as they shared experiences, escaped dangerous situations, and experienced the love and yearning and gratitude of the crowds who came out seeking, seeking, seeking something they could hardly put a name to. Shared experience is a powerful bond, and that bond was surely deepened and strengthened in the times that they spent alone with Jesus as well.
Which brings us to that part of the story this morning which suddenly seems fraught with pathos. They’ve already been through so much together. Jesus has learned to trust them just as surely as they’ve learned to trust him. And so he begins to talk about the harder stuff. With a forthrightness that Peter, at least, finds close to intolerable, Jesus begins to paint a picture of the future and it is not very rosy. This scenario includes suffering and rejection and death. Oh yes, and resurrection too…though that part seems to get a bit lost in the heat of the moment. What I invite you to notice is that there’s a kind of tender care in the way that Peter draws Jesus aside to rebuke him. There’s a kind of thoughtfulness and respect in the way Peter refuses to “correct” him in the hearing of the others.And here’s where the story captivates me. Notice that Mark doesn’t tell us exactly what Peter said, only that it was a rebuke of what Jesus had said. But before Jesus rejects Peter’s intervention in the strongest terms possible by calling him Satan and telling him to get the hell out of his way, he turns and looks at his disciples. I find myself wondering what did he think in those few seconds as he looked back before he responded to Peter. How did he feel? Was he torn by a deep love for them that had grown through their life together? Did part of him yearn for this shared ministry and the camaraderie it offered to go on indefinitely? Was the temptation that made Peter, the rock upon whom he would eventually build his church, suddenly become Satan blocking his path…was that temptation a deep desire not to lose something that had become very precious to him in this life, the love and affection and companionship of his brothers? Is this not the very same thing that tempts you and me to turn aside from the things God calls us to do and the way God calls us to be?The power of the words of Jesus that follow, words addressed both to the rest of the disciples and to the larger crowd, find their depth and authenticity in that moment of looking back. The cost of discipleship that Jesus requires of you and me is no more and no less than the cost he required of himself. Jesus was no stranger to self-denial. Jesus didn’t turn tail and run from the burden of the cross. Jesus held his life dear for the gift that it was, and then he let go of it willingly in obedience to the Giver of that life. Maybe, if you and I are really serious about our own discipleship, what we need to do is stop and look around at all that is precious to us. Maybe we need to take a good long look at the people and places, the history and the future that make our lives so dear. Maybe if we can really be honest about just how deep a hold this life has on us, we can finally begin to hold it more lightly, move around, in, and through it with greater and more faithful agility, and when the time comes, relinquish it with the grace and courage of the Savior.