Arguing the Way
One of the courses I’ve put together in my teaching ministry is called “Questions of Jesus.”
In the gospels, Jesus asks 307 questions and only answers 3.
He clearly has a lot to ask of us, not only in terms of what he’s calling us to do, but in terms of what is going on in our hearts and minds—he wants to know.
What I do in the “Questions of Jesus” course is present Jesus’ questions with no context at all, no indication of the story, the situation, and the surrounding verses.
Then I let folks wrestle with them, individually, in small groups, and as a large group. It’s always a fascinating process.
Jesus’ questions, taken apart from their familiar contexts, have a way of cutting right through our customary b.s. and assumptions, like a laser to the heart.
And the question he asks today is one of my favorites.
“What were you arguing about on the way?”
It’s a heck of a relevant question to us right here and now.
We don’t need the story of the disciples jockeying for position and power in Mark to make it meaningful to us.
Is there a single context in our lives in which we have not been guilty of arguing, probably within the last week if not the last day?
Our families, our congregations, our politics, even sports and entertainment are constant scenes of conflict, derision, one-upmanship, and contempt.
Sometimes we express it openly in knock-down drag-out fights.
Sometimes we’re passive aggressive with snide Facebook comments and gossip behind each other’s backs.
And sometimes we bottle it all up inside to preserve our image of being nice, while meanwhile our souls seethe with resentment.
“What were you arguing about on the way?” Jesus asks.
“Everything,” we might answer.
But lest we get sucked into a vortex of shame around our arguing, I’d like to connect this verse in Mark to another verse in John, just for the sake of exploring what they both might mean.
Jesus’ question today, “What were you arguing about on the way?”, is Mark 9:33.
I’d like us to put that together with John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
Putting these two together helps us think about Jesus’ question in a new way.
When Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” and then asks us, “What were you arguing about on the way?”, he’s basically asking us why we’re arguing about him.
And are we not guilty of that almost constantly? The history of the Church can almost be described as the history of schism.
Since the earliest days, the Church has been disagreeing and breaking apart: East versus West, Catholic versus Orthodox, Protestant versus Catholic, Protestant versus Protestant, Secular versus Religious, Organized Religion versus Spiritual But Not Religious.
Any opportunity we can find to argue about who Jesus is and what’s he’s calling us to do, we will jump in and take.
And who could blame us? How we understand Jesus in large part, if we strive to be followers of him, determines how we view the world.
How we see Jesus has real consequences.
But what have our arguments about the Way, about Jesus, gained us? What greater clarity or focus or harmony or ethical achievement have they won for us?
Do we find ourselves increasing in virtue, in peace, in efficacy in serving the poor and marginalized?
That doesn’t seem to be the case.
In every Christian tradition, there are those who are living lives of self-sacrificial love, and those who are living lives of exploitative greed.
No matter how each tradition defines Christ and his Way, there are those who follow it faithfully and with integrity, and those who claim to do so but live a life that spreads harm and withholds grace.
So Jesus might well ask us, “What were you arguing about on the Way?”
We may have no good answer for him.
This sermon is not a call to abandon legitimate theological debate. Testing and refining our ideas through respectful conversation and interaction is always valuable.
Instead, I think, what we have to give up is both our need to be right, and indeed our assumption that it is even possible.
Knowing Jesus is not about getting him “right.”
It’s not about defining orthodoxy and enforcing it against each other.
Knowing Jesus requires trial and error, long years of faithfulness and backsliding alternating back and forth, prayer and action and humility learned step by slow step.
The underlying anxiety that God will not love us unless we get it right is what drives our argumentative nature.
In the gospel story, the disciples are fighting over who is right, who is the best, who is the greatest. And underneath that jostling for prestige is fear, fear of what might happen if they end up at the bottom of the heap.
Jesus is trying to teach us that the bottom of the heap is the most blessed and grace-filled place to be of all. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
Remember that Jesus says, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” So recognizing Jesus as the Way (not in an exclusive sense, but in the sense of the path laid out for those of us called to follow him), is only the first step.
He is also the Truth and the Life.
He asks us, “What were you arguing about on the Way?” We might anticipate two additional questions: “What were you arguing about on Truth?” and “What were you arguing about on Life?”
We struggle to agree on what Truth is and what real, redemptive, abundant Life is made of, so our imagined questions of Jesus are thought-provoking and challenging.
But consider for a moment—what if this is a progressive journey?
We experience Jesus as the Way first—to follow him is to follow the steps of his life: incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection.
Full commitment to that journey exposes us to the Truth, how hard it is, how real it is, how beautiful it is.
And then, the Way and the Truth lead us at last to the Life, abundant, resurrected, Kingdom-of-God-within-and-among-you Life.
And the only way we can walk on the Way, be converted by the truth, and step into the Life, is to abandon arguing about all three.
We must sacrifice our need to be certain, our need to be right, our need for power and control.
That is the price of stepping fully into and onto the Way.
Thus we see that Jesus’ deceptively simple question has deep implications.
“What were you arguing about on the Way?” He is asking about the literal conversation of the disciples in that moment of time.
But he is also asking, “What barriers are you putting up to following me? How are you turning away from the Way, being blind to the Truth, refusing Life because of your addiction to outrage and deathgrip on being right?”
The gospel says, “They did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”
How true that is of us.
But while we’re afraid to ask Jesus questions, he’s never afraid to ask us.
And his questions may open for us the Way through Truth to Life.
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