+Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
Isn’t it amazing how a simple question can leave us speechless? I can’t tell you how often I ask my older daughters Evelyn and Isabelle what they’re up to and hear nothing in response. (I don’t want to tell you how often my wife, Katie, asks me a similar question and my selective hearing conveniently kicks in; I think that’s a topic for another day.) In any case, I think we’ve all had the experience of a well-timed question stopping us in our tracks, whether it’s from a friend or a family member or someone else that we love and respect. In this evening’s reading, Jesus asks just such a question of his disciples – What were you arguing about on the way? – and it has an almost immediate effect: a deep silence permeates a group of people who, just minutes earlier, had been engaged in a boisterous debate about how they stacked up against one another. At first glance, that question seems pretty straightforward, nothing more than a request for information. If we dig a little deeper, however, we find that Jesus was asking them to reflect on something much more profound, something that gets to the core of what it means to be a disciple.
Just this past Sunday, we read the story of Peter’s confession and Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain, but we also read Jesus’ first prediction concerning his ministry:
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again… Then he called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will find it.”
Tonight’s reading repeats that theme again:
Jesus and his disciples went on from there and passed through Galilee He did not want anyone to know it, for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”
In these difficult teaching moments, Jesus declared that he was setting a path before his disciples, a way that they were being called to follow. That language of journeying with Jesus became so important to the early church that, by the time of the writing of the Book of Acts, members of the church were sometimes referred to as “those who belonged to the Way” (Acts 9:2, NET) If we come back to the text before us tonight, we can see that Jesus’ question is a much broader and deeper one that it seems at first glance. “What were you arguing about on the way?” becomes more than a simple request for information about a one-time event. Instead, it represents a question about the path that Jesus has laid out for those who wish to follow him.
As we enter the season of Lent, I wonder how we might answer that question if Jesus was posing it to us. Given everything that Scripture teaches us about what it means to live well before God and in relationship with others, what kinds of things do we continue to feel compelled to argue about “on the way?” Perhaps some of us are still carrying on the argument of the disciples, comparing ourselves to one another and – consciously or unconsciously – making our own assessments of how we rank among our peers. Perhaps some of us still argue about the reality of our mortality, choosing to ignore or deny that, as the prophet Isaiah says, “all people are grass” that withers and fades. Perhaps some of us argue about what is central to our lives as God’s people, seeking opportunities for division and dissension rather than ways to be reconciled and restored to relationship. Perhaps some of us still argue about what it means to welcome others, especially those who differ from us by virtue of race or ethnicity or religion or gender or any other category that we can use to separate ourselves from others. Perhaps some of us still argue about the reality of God’s grace, believing either that we don’t need it or that we can’t possibly have received it because we still don’t deserve it (even though part of us knows that that’s the whole point of grace in the first place).
However you or I might answer that question, it is a good one for us all to ponder, especially as we enter this time of self-reflection and turning toward God. What things in our lives make us anxious and cause us to lash out at others? Who are the people who rub us the wrong way, and what does our reaction to them say about us? What keeps us up at night with worry and distracts us from stepping boldly down the path that Jesus sets before us? How can we fix our gaze on the one who leads us forward and leave behind the things that keep us from following Jesus in our calling to be last of all and servant of all? I invite you consider these questions – not so that we can wallow in guilt over how we stray from the way, but so that we can be more attentive to the one who calls us to go on this journey alongside our brothers and sisters in this community and throughout the world.
The same motivation lies behind our practice of receiving ashes as we begin this season of Lent. Yes, they remind of us the terrible realities of brokenness and mortality that are part of our existence as human beings, but they also remind us of the cross, which alone has the power to free us from our sin and from the fear of death that threatens to keep us from living abundantly. Our awareness of our condition before God and our brothers and sisters is not intended to induce guilt. Instead, it allows us to reckon honestly with how that condition affects us, our relationships, our conduct, and our lives, so that we can seek grace and strength in the one who has marked us with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit and who came to dwell among us so that he could be our guide on the path that leads to life.
Dear friends in Christ, today we begin anew our journey on the Way. As we step forward together in faith, let us pray that God will open our eyes to all that distracts us and causes us to follow other people and things down other paths. Let us pray for the courage to be last of all and servant of all for the sake of our neighbors. Finally, let us pray that in the sign of ashes we might find renewed hope and clarity of vision on the road ahead. Thanks be to God! Amen.