One of my Old Testament professors in seminary would often say, as we tried to figure out the meaning of a text: “All our understandings are provisional.” He meant a lot in that short sentence. Sometimes our understandings of a text are provisional because we will learn more about the text. A new copy of the text will be dug up somewhere in Palestine or Egypt or Syria or will be discovered in a synagogue in Israel or even buried in the archives or a museum or university in Europe. A fragment of Isaiah that is older than any we have will be uncovered. Sometimes our understandings are provisional because we personally will learn more about the text. We will read the Greek or Hebrew again and see a different nuance than we had seen before. We will understand a word differently. We will see that the word can have a slightly different meaning than we had considered before. Sometimes we will read a new commentary or a scholarly article and gain insight into the text that we hadn’t had before. Sometimes our understandings change and shift because we have changed or shifted. Perhaps the Holy Spirit has moved in our lives in a particular way. Perhaps changes have happened in our lives so that we see things differently. Perhaps we have just had a new insight. The more we study a text, the more we learn about it, the deeper our understanding becomes.
I bring this up because as I studied this text, thought about it and prayed over the text, my understanding of the disciples shifted. In Mark’s Gospel and in the other gospels to a greater or lesser extent, the disciples never really understand who Jesus is. Mark, in particular, emphasizes how utterly clueless the disciples are. They see the miracles, they participate in healings, they sit with Jesus as he explains the parables to them. Three of the disciples named in the text this morning: Simon whom we know as Peter, James and John, go with Jesus to the mountain top and see the transfiguration. And they still don’t understand. Even after the resurrection experiences, there seem to be things these disciples just don’t understand about Jesus.
For a long time, I have understood this in a particular way. In the early church, the disciples in Jerusalem understood Jesus in a particular way: they saw themselves as a Jewish sect. They were primarily Jewish and those who followed Jesus were Jewish. Paul then comes along with a revelation of Jesus and an understanding of following Jesus that included those who were not Jews in a different way. The two parties disagreed about many things. If you read Acts and Paul’s letters you can see those disagreements. Mark is written after Paul’s letters, towards the end of Paul’s ministry. I have always thought that the reason Mark paints the disciples as such doofuses (is that word still used?) is that he was reflecting Paul’s view of Christianity. I believe that Mark adopted Paul’s view of Christianity and so he believed the disciples in Jerusalem did not understand meaning of Christianity. And so, if they didn’t understand when Mark was writing his gospel, then they must not have understood what Jesus was saying when Jesus taught them. Thus, Mark’s gospel reflects his understanding of the disciples’ misunderstanding of Jesus from the beginning.
As I began to study and think about this passage, I began to see something different. Jesus has begun to preach his battlefield report that God was working in the world. From the text, it seems like he was just walking along the lake one day and sees Simon and Andrew and asks them to follow him. And then he does the same thing with James and John. From the text, it seems Jesus knows nothing about these men, except they are working; they are fishermen. We have no idea what drew Jesus to them, why he chose these four. There must have been other men out fishing that day, but Jesus chose these and they followed.
Jesus spent the next three years with them. They were together almost all the time. They wandered across Galilee with Jesus. They were there are Jesus healed the sick. They were there as Jesus cast out demons. They were there as Jesus fed the five thousand (not counting women and children) and as Jesus fed the four thousand. They were there as Jesus walked across the lake and calmed the storm. Simon, Peter as we know him, James and John were there as Jesus was transfigured on the mountaintop. They were there during those last days in Jerusalem: the triumphant entrance, the teaching at the Temple, the last supper, that Passover that Jesus spent with them. They were in Jerusalem when Jesus was tried. Peter was there, denying that he knew Jesus, even as he remember Jesus’ telling him that Peter would do exactly that and Peter’s fervent denial. They were in jerusalme, though not at the cross, when Jesus was crucified.
Through this, Jesus loved them. From the way Jesus looks at Peter when Jesus tells Peter what will happen on that fateful night, that Peter will deny all knowledge of Jesus, you know that Jesus loves these men. And they are clueless about what this all means. They are clueless about what Jesus is actually teaching. They are clueless that Jesus will be crucified. They are clueless that Jesus is the Messiah. And it doesn’t seem to matter to Jesus. Jesus loves them. Jesus continues to be with them for those three years.
And so I wonder, what is really important? Does it really matter that we understand all the theology around Jesus? Does it matter if we get it right? Almost from the beginning, Christians have argued over the meaning of who Jesus is, what the meaning of the resurrection is, how it happened. The church has split again and again over matters of theology. Was Jesus fully human and fully divine? What is the relationship between God the Creator and Jesus? And what about the Holy Spirit? Who can forgive sins? How do we best worship God? Should we sing hymns during our worship? Can we have images of Jesus and the saints in our churches? And what about the saints? Should we ordain women? Should we ordain gays and lesbians? Do we really understand completely the meaning of Jesus’ life and teachings? What is really important?
What is really important? The text begins with jesus’ message: The realm of God is near. Repent. Believe the good news from the battlefield. God is at work in this world. God is in control. Turn your life around. The disciples never got it right. And yet, Jesus loved them. They turned from their previous lives and came behind Jesus. They cared for the sick and the outcasts. They loved one another and those whom Jesus loved. They were a community that cared for each other and that reached out to care for others. They shared the good news from the battlefield. God is in control. They may have never understood, but they followed where Jesus led them.
Thomas Merton wrote this prayer:
MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you a re ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. Amen and Amen.