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Dumbing Down the Disciples
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Our Lenten sermon series “Jesus the Stranger” has been looking at the ways in which various people responded to Jesus as he went about his ministry in first-century Judea. This week we explore the relationship between Jesus and his disciples, the people who were seemingly closest to him, and yet also simultaneously the most clueless about him. At least that’s the impression we get from some of the Gospel narratives.


Mark in particular seems to be a little hard on these guys. If Mark was the earliest of the Gospels to be written, his pattern of three predictions of Jesus concerning his death and resurrection, followed by three dumb responses by his disciples, gets picked up by Matthew and Luke as reinforcement that the Twelve were not the sharpest knives in the drawer. Generations of Christians have preached through (and shaken their heads at) the myriad ways the men who saw Jesus do miracles, raise the dead, teach the crowds, befuddle the critics, and even stand on a mountain with Moses and Elijah in all his glory, failed to understand just who Jesus was.


The more time I have spent in these narratives over the years, however, the more sympathy I have gained for these guys. We have the benefit of hindsight, as did the Gospel writers, only two of whom, Matthew and John, were actually part of the group if the naming of their Gospels is correct. We know how the story ends, with Jesus going to the cross and then triumphing over the grave. They had no categories for such things, and it would take Jesus himself explaining it over and over again (even after his resurrection, according to Luke and John) for them to get what was happening.


When Jesus called Peter, James, and John from their fishing nets or Matthew from his tax booth, they no doubt thought they were going to ride the coattails (er, tunic?) of a great man (the Messiah!) all the way to the halls of power in Jerusalem. Jesus was already a celebrity when he called them, and like fans who take a selfie next to modern-day celebrities, they believed some of his fame and credibility would rub off on them. We can’t blame them for being a little star-struck. What they didn’t realize was that Jesus wasn’t leading them up the social ladder but rather down that ladder to the lowest rung and that the throne he was moving toward was indeed in Jerusalem, but it was in the shape of a cross.


Actually, I’m not sure we’ve progressed much more in our understanding of Jesus than they did as they followed him around Galilee and on to Jerusalem. Some might think they were kind of dumb for not getting Jesus’ constant references to the cross, but we’re still trying to have a crossless Christianity even today. Some preachers have used Christianity as a path to celebrity, while others simply want a faith that secures them for the afterlife while avoiding suffering in the present. For many, the cross is just the means by which those who are saved get to heaven when they die; it’s something Jesus has done for us.


What the disciples missed, and what we often miss, is that the cross is actually the way of life to which Jesus is calling us. We’re not called to ease, success, celebrity; we’re called to suffering, servanthood, and self-denial. That was a realization that slowly dawned on the disciples and somehow it seems to be slow in getting through to many of us as well. We’re going to explore that reality on Sunday and I’ll offer some insights into how we can identify with true discipleship–not by dumbing it down, but by picking up a cross.


See you Sunday, and if you’d like to catch up on the previous sermons in the series you can do so on our TLUMC sermons page.

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