When I think back to those days of following Jesus, there are plenty of things I wish we disciples had done differently. I wish we had paid more attention to the stories Jesus told. I wish we’d spent less time bickering and more time learning. Most of all, I wish we’d asked more questions.
We were afraid—afraid to ask questions from the man we called “Teacher!” How silly was that? I still can’t quite figure out where that fear came from. Maybe we were afraid of looking stupid. Maybe we thought that if we were so close to Jesus we should understand everything he said right away. But Jesus was saying some very strange things—we didn’t even begin to figure it out until long after the resurrection—it took ages to get over the shock of Jesus being back and alive, and then even longer to think back over all the things he’d said and realize he’d been telling us to expect his death and to expect the resurrection, too. We may have been scared of looking stupid, but it would have been so much easier to make it through those days if we’d only known.
Maybe we were scared of the truth. Jesus was talking about suffering and death, after all. That’s not what any of us had signed on for—at least not witnessing Jesus’ death. Many of us would have died to keep him safe, if we’d been given the chance. But no. That wasn’t Jesus’ plan. And the truth is that if we’d really understood Jesus’ plan, we’d have tried to stop him. In fact, Peter did! Peter did try to stop him, more than once, and Jesus shot him down both times. Peter was the most fearless of us all, and even he got to the point where he was afraid of asking more questions. It was all too possible that the truth would be even more frightening than that not-knowing.
But still. I wish we had asked. I wish we’d given Jesus more opportunity to help us understand—to help us prepare—to help us make sense of what was going on. Because Jesus was trying to give us a new picture of God and how God transforms the world. All we could imagine was a God who was strong enough to defeat our enemies—a God who led us into battle—a God who was on our side—a rock and a shield and a strong defender. This was the God we were expecting, and because Jesus found us, we found ourselves right in the middle of God’s promised revolution.
But the change Jesus was leading—the transformation God had in the works through him—was totally different from what we’d learned to expect.
The God we have come to know in Jesus does not lead with the kind of strength that crushes enemies. No. This God leads with the kind of strength that endures suffering and injustice and persecution at the hand of enemies and comes out the other end with mercy. Jesus tried so many times to help us see—to open our eyes—but we were blind. Blinded by our own visions of power, by our own hunger for power, by our competitiveness.
The God we’ve seen in Jesus does not accumulate power by putting others down—by conquering or lording it over others. Rather Jesus’ God gives to others—serves others. It doesn’t look powerful. We expected power to look like an armed Messiah on a steed—a king on a throne. But this kind of power is still powerful kneeling down to serve others, to touch the eyes of blind men, to grasp the hand of unclean women, to look into the eyes of a child.
Whoever among you wishes to be first in the kingdom must become a servant to all.
We didn’t understand. We were busy bickering about which of us would sit next to Jesus’ throne—that hypothetical throne that we all took for granted as part of the package. Follow Jesus now, serve in his court with honor later. We still had that image in our minds while Jesus was telling us, as straightforwardly as possible that he was going to be arrested soon, and put on trial and killed, and that after three days he would rise.
We didn’t understand. And we were scared to ask Jesus to help us understand.
We didn’t understand then, but I think I’m starting to understand, now. We do get to serve in Jesus’ kingdom, and there is great honor in it, but there is no court. No throne. No, serving this Messiah involves feeding the hungry, healing the sick, travelling to new villages and getting rejected from plenty, but also meeting lots of people who are eager to hear about Jesus, eager to hear about this kingdom where the first will be last and the last will be first.
We may have expected to spend our days rubbing elbows with the rich and famous, but instead we find ourselves surrounded by the most desperate—the widows and orphans, the sick and lame, the poor and broken, the abused and abusers, and even Gentiles. Even people that are so different from us that we struggle to understand each other’s language and customs—people we grew up thinking were evil—it turns out that God’s power is so big and so revolutionary that there is room in this kingdom for everyone you could possibly imagine.
It’s been hard getting here. There have been fights along the way—fights over how far we can stray from traditional values and still be faithful—fights over who belongs, who belongs in leadership, who gets overlooked, who feels left out. But at the heart is the unfathomable power of God that draws people in, that constantly surprises us, that continues to turn our world upside down.
And that is the power I wish we’d understood earlier. I wish we’d asked more questions—not because I think we would have gotten all the answers we craved—Jesus was very good at dodging questions. No, I wish we’d asked more questions, because in the asking—in that admission that we didn’t understand—we would have experience God with us, like Jesus picking up those children and saying that when we welcomed them, we welcomed him. That’s what I’ve seen as I’ve served in this kingdom. When we puff ourselves up with a sense of power, we miss it—we miss what’s really going on. It’s when we admit that we have no clue, and that we’re floundering that we discover the real power—the powerful, everpresent undercurrent of God’s love sustaining and embracing us through whatever lies ahead.
I wish we’d asked more questions because it never would have been too early to experience that powerful, loving God holding us in our confusion. But, I suppose the good news is that it’s never too late, either.