The Distinguishment of Discipleship
By Rev. Dr. Kristin Philipson
Mark 9:38-50 – Season of Creation, Proper 21
September 26, 2021
This is a passage full of a lot of complicated images that work to ask a very simple question: Who is the ideal kind of disciple? What do they look like? What do they act like? What distinguishes a person who follows Jesus? These are the questions the text wants us to ask today. I know you probably to this service with a whole bunch of other questions on your mind, but the text wants us to focus on what it means to follow Jesus, what it looks like to be a disciple. Today the story brings us into a small room in a bustling house and asks us to listen while Jesus speaks to those who would follow him – about the same number and similar to those of us who are gathered now. I know we have all kinds of things that press upon our minds this morning, but the story asks us to consider the importance of this one issue – discipleship – as if nothing could be more important to our immediate circles, to our workplaces, to our neighbourhoods, to our cities, to the world then what distinguishes discipleship.
John makes a statement on behalf of the whole group who have gathered in the small room. “Teacher,” John says to Jesus, “we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” I think he’s hoping Jesus will applaud him, shush everyone else in the room and say, “Wait, did you all catch that? In case you’re wondering what discipleship looks like check out exhibit A. Someone was casting out demons in my name and John tried to stop him because he was not following us.” John is hoping Jesus will say, “that’s the definition of discipleship.” John is waiting for Jesus to say that the truest disciples are those who most closely follow the teacher and so it would make sense that all who were sitting in that little circle were the ones who really epitomized discipleship. It was a distinction that mattered to John.
John and his brother James had been fishers, like their father. The family fishing business was a prominent one in their village, good enough to support their families, productive enough to be able to require hired hands to help. John and his brother had apprenticed with their father since they were young; getting to the seashore when the sky was still pink, spindly arms untangling the nets. I like to imagine the villagers calling them “Pisces” because “Pisces” is the Latin name for fish and they were always together, like twin fish in the constellation. They were a distinguished pair, these brothers, poised to take over a thriving business from their father.
One morning they were out preparing the nets, as usual, when Jesus approached and painted a picture for them of an even greater distinction – follow me and you’ll catch people, he said. So they did, they left everything. According to Mark, “they left their father with the hired men and followed him.” John wants some assurance that he hasn’t left everything for nothing, that there is some distinction in following Jesus, that not just anybody can simply act in Jesus’ name and be considered a disciple – even that guy over there casting out demons – that this is work reserved for special somebodies.
We want it to be clear that there are certain standards required for following Jesus, that not just anybody can do it the right way. “When are you reopening your church?” old friends and extended family would ask as we caught up this summer. “Well, hopefully this fall,” I would say, “when it’s safe.” There are standards for those who want to be considered disciples. You see, us here, we’re the ones who’ve got discipleship right. Our congregation is not like those congregations over there that you hear about on the news, the ones who think that because they call themselves a church that the science of epidemiology doesn’t apply to them, the ones who think that they can meet without masks or distancing and somehow be immune to a spreading virus. We don’t want people to confuse us with them; they’re not following us. And don’t confuse us with the Catholics either. I had a lot of conversations this summer about reconciliation and the legacies of the Residential Schools in the days and weeks after the country reeled from the evidence of mass graves of Indigenous children at the former school grounds. No, don’t confuse us with those Catholic churches. The United Church of Canada apologized to former students of residential schools, along with their families and communities, in 1988. There are standards for those who want to epitomize discipleship. Those Catholics, they’re not following us.
The text today wants us to think again about how we distinguish ourselves as followers of Jesus. It wants us to rethink what epitomizes discipleship. It wants us to think about all the times we pointed to that person or group over there to say, “they may be acting in Jesus’ name but they’re not like us; they are not following us.” We carry these standards, these markers of what we think it should look like to follow Jesus and whom we consider to be the kind of people who best embody it. But Jesus in this passage says our standards can become stumbling blocks. “If any one of you puts a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” He’s using a strong image because he wants to make a strong point. Discipleship is not about meeting a certain standard, it’s about responding to the call to serve. What distinguishes a disciple is how they serve, what they serve, who they serve, why they serve.
When this story occurs at this point in Mark’s gospel, Jesus knows the end is near for him. He’s been trying to tell the disciples – twice now he’s broached it – that when they get to Jerusalem it won’t be triumph that awaits for them. “The Son of Man is going to undergo great suffering,” he said; following Jesus is not about being distinguished because you meet some standard or ideal. The distinction of discipleship is this: are you among your fellow human beings as one who serves? Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” “Salt is good,” he said and he meant that all of us, as disciples, are like salt – that ancient preservative; we help preserve the things that matter – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control –not because you stand apart but because, like salt, you serve a purpose. “Have salt in yourselves,” Jesus says,
“and be at peace with each other.”
Over the summer I read a book called A Hidden Wholeness by Parker Palmer, a renowned writer and educator who for many years ran a Quaker Retreat Centre called Pendle Hill. One part of the book describes his experience with a deep and debilitating depression. For many months he was incapacitated by it, bedridden. Certain Christian friends of his would come by to visit and he could always sense, you know, that they were simply checking off a box on their “to-do” list, so they could carry within them the distinction of having visited Parker when he was sick and so preserve their image of themselves as followers of Jesus. Oh, they’d encourage him in all the ways they thought he needed, encouraging him to rally, to snap out of it, but none of them really served him with their time or their presence.
Now Parker had another friend who decided he would simply show up every day. He sat at the end of Parker’s bed, and rubbed his feet – for the 20 minutes or so that he was there he just gave him a foot massage. And then he’d leave. He didn’t say much of anything. He was simply with Parker as one who serves. It was a gesture that Parker recalls as the one that finally helped him to regain a sense of wholeness. To serve is not to indenture yourself to another person but to offer them a glimpse of a world and reality that their current circumstances make difficult for them to see. Perhaps you’ve been on the receiving end of true discipleship. I remember the first time I left home. I was on a year-long exchange to France. I had an image in my head of what it would be like and, of course, my image and my reality didn’t mix once I arrived. My dorm room had once been a closet, the femme de menage told me. I would go out with the other exchange students and not know what to say. One night I spilled a whole glass of red wine on a chic girl’s white jeans. I grew profoundly homesick. One day a letter arrived – a card – from my former youth leader at the church where I grew up. There was no reason she would have known what I was feeling but I guess she had an imagination and she was a disciple – she lived as one who serves. In a few words she helped me to see a reality that had been hidden from me.
The realm of God wasn’t an abstract concept for Jesus but something he knew to be real. He may have lived in the Roman Empire, but he knew himself to be the subject of a different realm – God’s realm. When he was bringing good news to the poor, releasing people from what was holding them back, opening people’s eyes, freeing people from what oppressed them, it was like he was parting a curtain to show people a reality he knew was already there – a reality where people were whole, well, free, loved and forgiven and our planet lush and healthy. To be a disciple is to have the deepest faith in this realm and to treat people with as God’s reality intends them to be treated – with dignity, a sense of preciousness, and worth.
I know discipleship may not have been on our minds when we first gathered but maybe we can appreciate our text making such a big deal of it. We remake the world when we help others to see it – and themselves – through God’s eyes. I can’t think of anything our neighbourhood and our city and our world needs more right now than people who can serve this deeper reality. A disciple is simply those who live as ones who serve. And what is more distinguished than that?