Rugby, Reality & Religious Rivalry (Mark 9:31-34)


Yesterday was a great day for this community.

Yes, I’m talking about the Newtown-St George Rugby game at Telstra Stadium, where our team, trailing by 2 points with only five minutes to go, ran in two tries to win by ten and get themselves a spot in next week’s Premier League Grand Final.

Being there yesterday, with a small crowd of die-hard supporters, was quite an experience. I confess that I did say a little prayer when our boy tried to kick the equalizer … and missed! I wasn’t sure at that stage what the Good Lord was up to! But it all became clear a few minutes later when we scored under the posts!

And I couldn’t resist leaping to my feet and cheering, and I confess that there was a bit of a tear in my eye, and I looked across at my mate Terry, and I could swear I saw a bit of a tear in his eye, and it was just a great moment.

And then I went home … and started work on this sermon, and I couldn’t help but think, ‘there’s not a lot of moments like that in the New Testament!’

And I’m not referring to the paucity of references to Rugby League as such. Indeed, I think I’m right in saying that none of the football codes actually gets a guernsey (so to speak) in the Bible. No, I’m thinking specifically of that experience of oneness with your mates, as you celebrate your team going in to score. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of that in the New Testament, does there?

You get the feeling with Jesus and the disciples that they’re never really on the same wavelength. Indeed, you get the feeling that if the group were there together at Telstra stadium yesterday, Jesus and the disciples would have been supporting different teams (Jesus would have been supporting Newtown of course).

Do you know what I mean? Whenever you see Jesus on his feet cheering in the New Testament, you can almost rest assured that the disciples are sitting down silently with their arms folded across their chests. And whenever the disciples are cheering, Jesus is booing!

It’s true, isn’t it? Whenever you see Jesus partying, the disciples are standing around grumbling,“that party stuff could have been sold and the money given to the poor”. And whenever the disciples are getting excited, saying, “look what I got!”, Jesus is saying, “Hey, go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor!”

Nowhere is that misalignment more clear, I think, than in the dialogues that take place in our Gospel reading today, where both the disciples and Jesus seem to be talking religion, but where the content of their dialogues make clear that they have totally different understandings of what they are talking about!

Jesus was teaching them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.”, but we’re told that the disciples “didn’t understand what He was talking about.”

Hello! Which part of “he will be delivered and killed” didn’t they understand?

Those of you who have four and five year olds understand what is going on here:

Can I have a lolly?”
But I saw a lolly in the fridge
Yeah, but that doesn’t mean you can have it
But mum said that if I was good today I could have a lolly
Yeah, but I’m not mum, and you haven’t been good today anyway
But maybe if I have the lolly, then …

Hang on! Which part of ‘No, you can’t have the lolly!’ didn’t you understand?

Kierkegaard said, “All obscurity is a dialectical interplay of knowledge and will”.

In other words, when we don’t know something, it’s always partly because we genuinely don’t know it and partly because we don’t want to know it!

That’s what it was like with the disciples. “Sorry, but we just didn’t grasp what you meant when you started talking about suffering and death. We figured that maybe you were using metaphor, like when you told us to sell our possessions and give the money to the poor. That was a metaphor, wasn’t it?”

The disciples didn’t really listen to what Jesus was saying because they didn’t really want to hear what He had to say! They already had well-entrenched opinions as to what religion was all about and they really didn’t want Jesus turning that on its head!

Their understanding of religion comes out very clearly when Jesus catches them discussing with each other ‘who is the greatest’. For them religion was about power.

Maybe that’s a bit harsh. But let’s be honest – historically, politically as well as personally, religion has always been used as a means to power!

When we look around our world today, we don’t have to look far to see any number of leading world figures trying to further their own ambitions through leveraging off their religious communities and inserting God-talk into their party propaganda.

It’s hard to know how ambitious the disciples were, of course. We do know that James and John were hoping for senior portfolios in Jesus’ government, but it may be that most of the twelve would have been content with being well-respected figures in the community. However we understand it though, it is clear that the religious dialogue of the disciples is totally incompatible with the teaching of Jesus. And the really depressing thing is the order that this all comes out in!

It would have made more sense had we read that first the disciples were talking about their lust for power, and then Jesus taught them, “no, discipleship is all about suffering and service”, after which we might have expected the disciples to say, “Oh! Sorry! We stand corrected!”. But no. First we get Jesus giving his very straightforward teaching about faith and suffering, followed almost immediately by this snapshot of the disciples, lusting for power!

Jesus said of His opponents, “they listen and listen but do not understand. They look and look but do not see” (Matthew 13:14), and the same seems to be true of the disciples! They hear what Jesus has to say but maybe they didn’t really listen.

Maybe they tried to listen but it was all just too uncomfortable?

Maybe their pre-existing religious understanding was just too deeply ingrained?

Maybe it was just the way they’d been brought up, and they just weren’t able to reflect that deeply on their own religious assumptions?

However we figure it, it ought to get us questioning whether we’ve really grasped it. I mean, if the disciples had been with Jesus all that time and He’d spoken to them so directly, and yet, after all that time and with all that teaching, it still hadn’t sunk in, we’d better do a quick check. Has it sunk in for us?

Do we still think of religion as a way of getting ahead? Are we in it for what we can get out of it? Do we see Jesus fundamentally as our therapist? Is following Christ for us really a means to our own self-improvement?

Let’s be clear about this this morning. Let’s be very clear. ‘Faith’, in Jesus’ understanding, is not a form of self-improvement. It’s a form of service. Let’s say it again, just in case it still hasn’t sunk in:

  • Faith is not a form of self-improvement.
  • It’s not a form of therapy
  • It’s not a path to greatness
  • It’s not a means to any self-serving end.

It is a form of service.

None of this is to say that following Jesus won’t be good for you. But don’t be fooled; the way of Jesus leads to the cross, and there is no place on that road for the ambitious and the power-hungry. On the contrary, those who would be first on His team must be the servants of everybody else.

Now … I can’t really leave the sermon at this point. One of the great pieces of advice I got on preaching was from Henri Nouwen, who said, “when you’re preaching the Good News, make sure it’s good news!” And I’m conscious of the fact that this passage, as I’ve presented it, may seem a little thin on good news.

But there is good news here, and I think the bad news actually makes it stand out. The bad news, as I see it, is that despite Jesus speaking so directly to the disciples, they just don’t seem to get it. The good news is that, despite this, He just goes on speaking to them!

I said that the order of events in the passage was a little depressing: namely, that first Jesus talks to them, then they display their ignorance. But the sequel to all that is of course that then Jesus talks to them some more! He doesn’t give up on them.

If I may return to the football stadium (as indeed I’d like to soon): when you find yourself in a spot where other people are booing when you are cheering, and other people are sitting down when you are getting to your feet, you generally do what Terry and I did yesterday during the half-time interval – you move to another area of the stadium, where you’re more likely to be amongst like-minded people!

Jesus doesn’t do that! The disciples are cheering at the wrong moments and booing the good guys (out of ignorance) but Jesus sticks with them. He sticks with them and He keeps teaching them until eventually … the penny drops, and they realise that it’s all about service, and that he who would be the greatest, must be the servant of all! And I am confident that He will stick it out with us too – right up until the penny drops, so that when the full-time siren sounds, it will be clear to all that we’ve been playing on the same team.

First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, September 2006. 

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.


About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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