I recently wrote about rereading David Riesman’s 1950 book, “The Lonely Crowd.” In that brief essay I noted that he was unable to see the enormous societal changes about to take place in America, and finished by noting that we are not good at anticipating the future. The best we can do is muddle through.
That brings me to the gospel stories, and the perennial questions about why the disciples were so dense, so unable to understand who Jesus was, or what was about to happen in Jerusalem even as he told them. They are questions that always come up in adult bible study classes, and they have been the subject of whole libraries of books and articles. For my part, I also have a few thoughts on the matter.
I think it is a sign of honesty that the gospel writers portrayed the reality of disciples who knew no more about what tomorrow would bring than you and I know about our own tomorrows. Moreover, each of their todays brought wholly unexpected new teachings, events, and unheard of interpretations of scripture. Trying to assemble all of it in any meaningful way must have seemed impossible. The best they could do was muddle through. What Jesus did and said could only make sense in the light of the crucifixion and resurrection experienced as events that had passed so that in their light all that preceded them could now make sense. Before that, how could they have made sense? They couldn’t. The problem for us is that we know the end of the story as told by the gospel writers.
One of the things I like about the abrupt end of Mark’s gospel is that it leaves us in the same position as the disciples. We have to figure out for ourselves what it all means because the narrative leaves us where the events of the day left them – unable to anticipate what would come next. It’s an uncomfortable place. What can you do except take another step into the next hour, and the one after that, and see what happens? Even John’s gospel, the one in which Jesus both knows and controls what will happen next, ends with his command to feed and tend his sheep without ever saying what that meant, how to do it, or what would happen if it was done.
So what about us? We are not quite as ignorant about tomorrow as the disciples were. For one thing, we don’t live with the incarnate Christ surprising us at every turn. Moreover, holy scripture gives us some reliable signposts, although we have more than proved our ability to misread them. Like others, we mostly look in the rearview mirror and hope that what lies ahead will look a lot like what lay behind, and we muddle through.
If we are serious about following Jesus, that rearview focus may not be all that promising. Most of the disciples got murdered. But we are a long way from that time, so maybe following Jesus is not as dangerous as it once was, at least where we live. Nevertheless, while walking in the way of the cross may be the way of life and peace, it is also a perilous one, and always has been. Why would anyone walk that way if there was another, easier one? Our only answer is that God has commanded it because it is the only way to life and peace, and not for us only, but for the whole world. What does that mean in practice? It means pretty much the same thing that it meant for the disciples, we muddle through not knowing what surprise tomorrow will bring.
I’ll offer a couple of observations about tomorrow that will not be surprising, or at least they shouldn’t be. Tomorrow will bring us face to face with people who are not interested in the way of the cross, or our invitation to join us in worship, because they don’t know what we have to offer, they don’t know that they need it, and we don’t know how to tell them what we have to offer and why they need it. They are not interested because they have heard what some who claim the name of Jesus have advertised very well what they offer, and it’s not something anyone wants.
We could fix that problem in two ways. First we could provide entertainment and the promise of prosperity. That’s a grabber. Second, we could provide entertainment and threats of hell. In a strange way that works too. In either case, and to my mind, they are each like dressing up the old time carnival side show ,with its fortune tellers and death defiers, in more dignified religious garb and tacking the name of Jesus over the tent entrance.
I’m going to suggest something else, at least for those in my tradition. Proclaim the good news of God in Christ Jesus as the source of life and the way of life. Feed and tend the sheep regardless of the flock they are in. Prepare for leadership whoever may be willing to carry on when we are gone. Let God worry about what happens in the future. Let us be as responsible as we can be for what happens today and boldly proclaim the Triune God in whom and through whom the past, the present and the future will be.