In Sunday's Gospel, Mark develops the second of three stages of dying which Christians experience when they try to imitate Jesus' death and resurrection (Mk 9:30-39).

Last week, Peter was the disciple who misunderstood that dying with Jesus entails being open to whatever God asks. This week, all of Jesus' disciples share in the misunderstanding. They show their reluctance to die by "arguing about which one of them was the greatest," totally misconstruing His prediction about the Son of Man being handed over to those who would kill Him.

Their silence when Jesus asks about the argument doesn't stop Him from pursuing the issue. Fitting His response into Mark's prediction-misunderstanding-clarification pattern, Jesus immediately corrects their false idea of discipleship by demanding that they be concerned with service, not rank. "Whoever wishes to be first," He commands, "shall be the last of all and the servant of all."

Lesson of child

Then he gives a concrete example of "dying service" that they'll never forget. "Taking a child, He placed it in their midst, and putting His arms around it, He said, `Whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me; and whoever receives me receives not me but the One who sent me.'"

Unlike our day, children seem to have been the most insignificant persons in Jesus' culture, individuals who weren't taken very seriously. Children don't offer much in return to the adults who expend time and effort upon them. Reward can't be the motive which inspires care and concern for them.

Yet, Mark believes it's precisely our service to people who can't repay -- people on the fringes of society -- which forces us to step into Jesus' death and resurrection. Last week, he simply encouraged his community to listen to God's call to serve; this week he zeroes in on the call which comes from God's most helpless.

When we couple the first and second readings with Jesus' words about dying, we reach an even deeper insight.

Though James approaches Jesus' death and resurrection from a somewhat different angle (James 3: 16-4: 3), he, like Mark, presumes that Christians relate to others by serving, not domineering. Jesus' disciples are to be "peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity." James believes that only Jesus-inspired constancy and sincerity will be able to control the "passions that make war within your members."

Not this world

Of course, a loving attitude of service to others isn't what "the world" expects of its inhabitants. The author of Wisdom takes for granted that "the just one," the person who forms relationships with God and others, does so only because God expects it (Wis 2:12, 17-20). That means God will have to be his or her reward and security. The just one can't count on support from non-believers. Such doubters will do strange things to prove the relation-builder's gentleness and patience.

Putting these readings into Mark's context, James would say that Jesus calls His followers to die to their inner passions; the author of Wisdom, that Jesus asks them to die to public opinion. In each case, they'd be asking the Christian to do nothing that the historical Jesus didn't do.

That's why an experience of the risen Jesus among us is essential for those who follow Him. As inspiring as a crucifix portraying a suffering Jesus has been for the last 15 centuries, we must continue doggedly to return to the charism of the earliest centuries.

Jesus' first disciples knew only a resurrection cross -- a "crux gemmata" -- a symbol which conveyed both Jesus' dying and His rising. Their experience of the risen Jesus convinced them that only those who keep their eyes on life will be able to endure death.

(09-21-00)