Understanding Discipleship

Reading: Mark 9.30-37
On May 15th this year there was a total eclipse of the Moon. It was visible in the Americas, Europe, Africa and parts of Asia. There is due to be another one on November 9th. Moonlight is soft and appealing - romantic even. But whenever an eclipse occurs, we are reminded that it is really reflected sunlight. The apparent size of these two great lights may seem abour the same, but that is as far as it goes.

There is an idea abroad that everything and everyone in this world are equal. A few years ago I read an article about "speciesism". Just as racism is wrong - the assumption that one particular race (our own) is inherently superior to others - so too, the argument went, is speciesism - the belief that the human species is superior to and to be given preference over other species.

As an example, it was proposed that, if you had a sick human being and a healthy horse and only enough food and water for one of them, you should shoot the human and save the horse.

That may seem extreme. It is, however, a by-product of our society which blurs all distinctions in the quest for the elusive "level playing-field." I confess I have never had any ambitions to be a royal. I don't envy them their income and perks one bit. On the other hand, if Australia goes the republican way and has a president, I fully expect there will be a cost attached to that - and, provided my tax bill doesn't go up, I won't mind too much!

Back in Genesis chapter 1, there is reference to God creating two great lights - "the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars" (Gen. 1.16). That word "govern" is true to our experience. They tell us that, if we go down a deep well in the day time, we will see stars. Even though the stars are considerably bigger than our star, the Sun, for us the Sun "governs the day" - it blots out our ability to see the other stars. And at night we can see more stars at New Moon than when it is full - the Moon "governs the night".

The regular phases of the Moon confirm to us all the time that it is a welcome but "lesser" light than the Sun. When the Earth comes between the Sun and the Moon, we have a lunar eclipse - a dramatic reminder that the Moon depends on the Sun for its light.

The Light of the World

Jesus said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life" (Jn 8.12). Paul wrote that "God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ" (2 Cor. 4.6).

In Jesus we see what God is like. He is, as Charles Wesley put it,

He emptied himself. Except for a fleeting glimpse (Mk 9.3), we do not see his glory in the gospel record. At the end of time he will be revealed to us in all his glory.

He is the Light of the world. He is the Truth about God. He reveals the truth about us and about human sin. He gave his life so that fallen sinful humanity could be forgiven and brought into the family of God.

But Jesus also said, "You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven" (Mt. 5.14-16).

Guess who is the source of our light. It doesn't come from our secret untapped powers. It comes from Jesus, the Light of the world. He is the great Light. We are lesser lights, able to reflect his light into this darkened world. Our lives draw attention to - and give testimony to - Jesus the Light of the world. He is the source of our light. Whenever we allow the world to come between us and our Lord, our light is eclipsed. We can only shine as we allow his light to shine on us and through us into this world.

Who is the Greatest?

The disciples of Jesus had an on-going interest - passion, debate - concerning which one of them was the greatest.

It is helpful for us to look at some of the background to this discussion. In the previous chapter - Mark 8 - Jesus had asked them who they thought he was. Peter had answered, "You are the Christ" (v. 29). At that point, Jesus began to teach them that he had to suffer many things, be rejected, be killed, be raised on the third day… But they didn't understand it. That couldn't be part of the plan and Peter rebuked Jesus for saying it.

Then came the call, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it" (vv. 34-35).

Six days later Jesus took Peter, James and John up a high mountain where he was transfigured in their presence and his clothes were shining white (9.2ff). This experience was so amazing that both Peter and John recalled it later. Peter wrote, "We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honour and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, 'This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.' We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain" (2 Pet. 1.16-18). John insisted that "We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth" (Jn 1.14).

Back in Mark 9, we hear Jesus speak about his death, but they didn't understand "and they were afraid to ask him about it" (vv. 30-32). Why didn't they understand? - it was incompatible with what they believed about the Messiah. Even before Pentecost - after the crucifixion and resurrection - they are still asking, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom Israel?" (Acts 1.6). They had been looking for the glorious Ruler, not the suffering Servant.

And it also had a bearing on their own status in the Kingdom. If the Messiah was the suffering Servant, then their lot would be foot-washing and taking up their cross. But if the Messiah was to be a glorious Ruler, why, they would be his inner cabinet - which of them would be the greatest?

The answer to their debate is clear enough for us - Jesus is the greatest. He is the great Light of the world. We are the lesser lights of the world.

Servants of all

In the Kingdom, true greatness is measured, not by status, but by service. "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all" (v. 35). As recorded in Luke's gospel, "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves" (Lk 22.25-27).

Little wonder that at the end of time, seated as the Judge of all, this same Jesus will say, "Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me" (Mt. 25.34-36).

Draw back the curtains! Open the windows of our life! Let the Light of the world shine in! And keep those windows open on the world in order that we can shine Christ's light into other lives.

Always remember that we are a lesser light, that Jesus is the great Light of the world, that all our works are to "praise our Father in heaven". He is the greatest. It is his Kingdom, not ours, that we seek to grow. He is the one worthy to receive "praise and honour and glory and power, for ever and ever" (Rev. 5.13). Amen!

© Peter J. Blackburn, Home Hill and Ayr Uniting Churches, 21 September 2003
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, © International Bible Society, 1984.

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