In the Know

Mark 9:30-37

“Leaving there, they went through Galilee. He didn’t want anyone to know their whereabouts, for he wanted to teach his disciples. He told them, “The Son of Man is about to be betrayed to some people who want nothing to do with God. They will murder him. Three days after his murder, he will rise, alive.” They didn’t know what he was talking about, but were afraid to ask him about it. They came to Capernaum. When he was safe at home, he asked them, “What were you discussing on the road?” The silence was deafening—they had been arguing with one another over who among them was greatest. He sat down and summoned the Twelve. “So you want first place? Then take the last place. Be the servant of all.” He put a child in the middle of the room. Then, cradling the little one in his arms, he said, “Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me—God who sent me.””

Prayer – Gracious God – we come this morning as those who have heard your call upon our lives and have come forth to walk your path as best we can. And yet, Lord, sometimes we are confused by you. There are limits to our ability to understand and fully comprehend you. In so many ways, your son, Jesus the Christ, is different than we expected and want. Your way is often counter to the way we wish we could walk. Be patient with us, Lord. Keep leading us, teaching us, so that we might indeed know. Help us to be honest about our doubts, fears, and questions so you might lead us closer to you and your truth – amen.

Have you ever been to a talk or lecture and at the end of the session, the moderator asks, “Are there any questions?”  How many of us have thought, “Questions? Where on earth do I begin?” And yet, we remain silent; uncertain, afraid of being seen as just not very smart.  Who wants to look dumb before a group of people? Have you ever been in a situation where you ventured a question only to have everyone in the class laugh at your silly, stupid question – to which everybody else, it appears, already knew the obvious answer?  Have you ever been in that situation?

It’s particularly galling when the teacher or lecturer says, “Now what I’m going to explain to you is so obvious, so easy to understand, that anybody, no matter how thick-headed, can get it. I hesitate even to take valuable class time to explain so obvious and self-evident an answer.”  You think I am going to ask a question then and reveal to everybody just how thick-headed I am? Not going to happen.

It takes a great deal of security to ask for help in understanding.  To ask a question is to admit we don’t get it, that there is some gap between what we are attempting to understand and what we actually understand.  And if we have had a moment or two when we pondered a thought and missed out on another important message, then asking the question leaves us looking rather ignorant and having failed to pay attention.

Children seem to arrive among us with questions.  Where did I come from? Where do butterflies go in the winter?  How long before Christmas? Does God have a big toe? Sadly, as children grow older, their questions grow smaller.  Eventually children learn to be careful in asking questions. They don’t want to look stupid any more than you or me.

The gospel of Mark is well known for the depiction of the disciples as being close confidants and yet filled with a lack of understanding.  The incomprehension of the disciples is remarkable because they comprise Jesus’ inner circle. They may be Jesus’ closest friends, but they are frequently clueless all the way to the end of Mark’s gospel.  

Now once again, Jesus is telling his disciples, his people, that he will be delivered into human hands – they will kill him.  What is the disciple’s response to Jesus’ words? “They didn’t know what he was talking about, but were afraid to ask him about it.”  The disciples were afraid to ask Jesus questions because they didn’t want to reveal how confused Jesus made them. “Son of Man” is not a designation for a failure, a victim for evil people, and the disciples are unable to wrap their heads around Jesus’ redefinition of the term.

Perhaps the disciples were afraid to ask because the last time Jesus asked them a question in Mark’s gospel and Peter answered, Jesus rebuked Peter for his response.  Or maybe the disciples are afraid of what Jesus might say to them. Why is it that we are often afraid to ask theological questions of God, of ourselves, of a minister?  Is it because we may be rebuked, or laughed at, or made to feel ashamed for not knowing? Why is it that the hard questions of life so often don’t have easy answers when an easy answer is really all we want?  

Perhaps one of the reasons we show up at church each week is that we want to be ‘in the know.’  We want to learn and deepen our understanding of God, of the redeeming work of Jesus, of just how we learn to walk that path as a follower.  We want to get the facts straight about the Christian faith. To be sure, there is much confusion in the world about Christianity – how one group of Christians believe a certain way and another group of Christians can believe something that is totally opposite.  How observing those who espouse Christian faith and virtues can seemingly turn an innocent eye to what the world would label as inconsistent, incongruent, even faith-less actions. Is it any wonder how the world can look at Christians today and say, “Not so sure about them.”

One of my takeaways from seminary was the notion that part of being a pastor was to be able to provide answers to some of life’s most difficult questions.  I learned during my chaplain training that belief was really a crock of . . . well you know what I’m not saying. It was in the hospital where I walked with patients and families each and every day that I learned the very difficult lesson that there is no answer to the question of theodicy – why bad things happen.  What I learned is that the best way to be ‘in the know’ was to acknowledge “I just don’t know.”

Another issue related to this idea of questions and doubts is that many have swallowed the church espoused belief that asking God why is somehow being unfaithful.  I don’t know where that belief began but it isn’t biblical at all. Throughout scripture humankind has asked the why question time after time after time. No one died for asking that question of God.  Yet, I think the ‘church’ has used fear-based teaching to convince folks in the pews that asking why is somehow being faith-less. As I recall, the might before Jesus was betrayed, he spent most of that night in the Garden asking God why can’t he be delivered.  And while hanging on the cross one of Jesus’ last words was “WHY have you forsaken me?” If Jesus can ask that question, then so can we.

I have been pretty open with you about my faith journey in recent years and how I have intentionally been examining just what it is that I believe about God and this person we know is Jesus.  I had been to seminary; had learned all the theology they prescribed and thought for sure that I was ‘in the know.’ And yet, many of the theological tenets that are foundational for the Reformed faith just have not worked for me as I have grown deeper in my faith.  I have had to discard things that I have believed for many years because they no longer “fit;” they just didn’t work for me any longer. It wasn’t necessarily that I doubted God or Jesus, but I have certainly doubted many of the tenets espoused by the Christian church – things like atonement, heaven and hell, original sin, and God’s grace had to be earned, it wasn’t freely offered.  Those things just didn’t work for me and my journey anymore. So I began to explore, question, wrestle and finally began to put some theological notions together that actually hung together. That doesn’t mean that my reconstructed faith is right or better, it simply means that it works for me – and so I have shared it with you.

Frederick Buechner famously said that honest doubt is essential for growth in faith, not the enemy or the opposite of faith.  “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith – they keep faith alive and moving,” said Buechner. Similarly, the great theologian Karl Barth said that there is a sense in which the closer you come to Jesus, the more you think you know about him, the more distant he becomes, the less you know.  Jesus is a great, unfathomable mystery. He keeps challenging us to grow in our understanding of him not because he delights in being arcane and elusive, but rather because he is none other than the Son of God. Perhaps, when it comes to understanding Jesus, the truth is that any God we can fully grasp and completely understand couldn’t be God.

The gospel writer of Mark told us up front, in the first verses of this gospel, that he is presenting us Jesus Christ, the Messiah, God’s Son.  And we, like the disciples, thought, think we know what that means. Jesus is coming to fix what’s wrong with our world. Jesus is the answer to all of our problems.  Jesus is the fulfillment of our heart’s desires. It’s a jolt to our expectations of the Son of God to be told that this Messiah, this Human One, is not a wonder worker, a solution to all of our problems, etc.  

So as I read through this passage for today and pondered the paradox of what it means to have knowledge and yet be afraid to ask, I wondered what it is that made the disciples afraid to ask for clarification when they were confused or didn’t comprehend what Jesus was talking about.  Why are people in the church today afraid of doubts and questions? What is it about NACCP that celebrates questions and wrestling while so many other churches demand blind faith and an unwillingness to consider questions?

I can’t begin to tell you how liberating it has been for me to ask questions, to wrestle with doubts about theology.  It has allowed me to imagine that God is much bigger, larger, mysterious, unimaginable even. Which, perhaps, is what God should be – bigger, mysterious, unimaginable – rather than thinking and acting that God thinks and acts just like me or you.  

Many scholars have noted in Mark’s gospel, the source of our passage this morning, the disciples don’t come out looking very bright as if they have all the knowledge necessary to be followers.  Rather, they come across as misunderstanding, uncomprehending knuckleheads who never, never get the point. They have been wrong so often about Jesus, now they are afraid to ask a question. And yet, if you are a person who is full of questions, then perhaps this is the gospel for you.  It’s encouraging to know that, from the beginning, the people who were closest to Jesus had questions, lots of them. They had difficulty getting the point, figuring out who Jesus was and what he expected of them.

Perhaps the takeaway from our passage this morning is less about knowing and more about asking, seeking, embracing the journey.  I think too often we focus on the destination of ‘being in the know,’ that somehow we miss the learning that takes place on the journey.  I think Mark’s gospel wants to tell us that it is okay to not be ‘in the know,’ that is okay to ask questions, to seek answers.

So go ahead, don’t be afraid to ask questions, to wrestle with your doubts and fears.  A God who unconditionally loves us will not reject us for our questions any more than Jesus rejected his first disciples for their fear to ask questions.  Bring your doubts, bring your questions, and celebrate that the life of faith is intended to be a mystery, a journey, much more than it is about having all the answers.  Perhaps it isn’t about being ‘in the know.’ And that is pretty cool – thanks be to God – amen.