The Greatest Disciple – Lectionary 10/17/2021

Mark 10: 35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Sermon Text

            We talked a few weeks ago about how the disciples fought with one another over who would be greatest. The lesson they received soon after their argument on that Judean backroad was that only the most lowly among them would be considered great in God’s kingdom. God sought to move our definition of strength and power away from simple doctrines of might making right and toward an understanding of a Kingdom ruled by slaves, putting even the greatest of rulers to shame by the love and mercy they showed to those around them. This teaching was not simply a positive encouragement to do what is right. Jesus remained clear that an inability to repent would be equally as dangerous as repentance would be blessed. The life of the Christian is split between the reality of our sin and the promise of our righteousness.

Jesus would teach for some time in Capernaum. He taught on the importance of fidelity in marriage, the dangers of wealth, even upon the sanctity of children within his Kingdom. The people gathered were amazed at his teaching, they were challenged by his words, yet they listened on. They listened, that is, until Jesus again returned to his most difficult teaching. This teaching being that the end of his ministry was not going to be in a triumphant victory over worldly powers, but a shattering of death itself through the death of the messiah. Jesus taught, once again, that the victors in this universe would ultimately be found among the broken, the poor, and the servant, not among kings.

The response that Jesus gets to this teaching is almost identical to the previous time he taught this. However, rather than all the disciples arguing behind Jesus’s back, two have learned well enough that they can approach Jesus with questions. They have, all the same, failed to learn what about their ministry draws them closer to Jesus. Rather than asking Jesus how they may be better servants or how they might better prepare themselves for Jesus’s passion, they simply as for Jesus to give them places of honor.

The other disciples find out about this and lash out at James and John for their boldness. Jesus, ever the teacher, sees that he is still fighting an uphill battle in leading his disciples into the Kingdom. When we look at the Gospels, Mark tends to be the most direct when it comes to telling Jesus’s story. However, because Mark is so direct, there is more obvious repetition of certain events. While Matthew and Luke fill the space between the disciples continued questioning and misunderstanding of Jesus, we see almost from one page to another how the disciples continue to struggle with Jesus’s identity. The alternative community which Mark is offering in the way he tells Jesus’s story is a lofty goal for the disciples to become a part of and reading through Mark we find again and again what details are most important and what obstacles stand the most firmly against us.

The repetition of this lesson also shows us how Jesus’s disciples are growing in their understanding of Jesus and his ministry. The first time Jesus taught that he was to be killed, it led to a public confrontation with Peter. The second time it led to the disciples fighting over who among them was “the best.” Now there are at least two disciples who, while still not fully understanding of Jesus, are at least speaking directly to Jesus about their desires. As self-serving and convoluted as their request to be placed beside Jesus is, it shows that they have begun to realize that if they want to know about the Kingdom of God, Jesus is the person to go to.

Jesus responds to his disciples’ request in a way that acknowledges that growth. Rather than chastising them, he redirects their thinking away from questions of who will be top dog toward more practical concerns of weathering the storms of this life. Jesus poses the question, “Can you drink from the cup I am about to drink and be baptized with the same baptism,” but regardless of how James and John answered this question the conclusion of Jesus’s teaching would be the same. If they stayed in Jesus’s ministry they would suffer as Jesus suffered.

That was the basic expectation, they were not afforded any special privileges for simply doing what was the natural conclusion of their work. Jesus was clear that to follow him was to give up any expectation we had of a life free of sacrifice. The anger of the other disciples when they learn what James and John had asked is likely tied to two equal yet opposite ideas. On one hand, James and John were likely seen as acting unfairly by asking such a question.

The disciples rejected them asking for honor out of a perceived righteousness they saw in themselves, saying something along the lines  of “I would never ask such a selfish thing!” On the other hand, the disciples may have been frustrated that James and John had thought to just walk up and ask Jesus such a question. This concern takes form, not because they see this request as wrong, but because they had not thought to ask that question themselves. The sons of Zebedee had realized that asking Jesus led to answers, while the other disciples still believed they could argue their way into the kingdom. The disciples, in either case, pushed against James and John for doing something they had not tried – trusting Jesus enough to directly ask for what they wanted.

Where Jesus gently redirected James and John, his response to the other disciples has a harder feeling to it. To disrupt the angry crowd his followers had suddenly become, Jesus speaks in his most direct language yet regarding the attitude his disciples should apply to their lives. Jesus accuses the disciples of acting like Gentiles seeking Roman political power. Counter to the idea they may have had that they were being pious by having these arguments, Jesus places their behavior as secular at best and “Gentile,” at worst. In first century Judea, that sort of insinuation would have carried weight.

Jesus goes on to describe this Gentile-Leadership mindset. The NRSV, and most other translations I read, does a poor job at rendering Jesus’s words here. While the translation we just read speaks of people, “Lording,” authority over one another and acting as “tyrants,” Jesus’s words are more general than bad leadership.  Jesus is speaking here to how people lead generally, not just to the worst examples of leadership. Despite the strict hierarchies and power struggles present in the world around them, Jesus called his disciples to see their greatness coming from a willingness to serve one another. The people of God cannot see one person as exceedingly great over any other, because all people are servants – from the oldest and most senior elder to the newest member.

The Church does not always follow Jesus’s model of leadership. We can point to periods in history and plenty of our own personal anecdotes that show the people of God seeking power and influence and control rather than trying to serve one another.  This problem is most obvious among clergy because we have more opportunity and systemic backing than most people in the Church. Yet, the tendency to seek after power is not limited to any group within the Church, it is a temptation we all can give into. It is something that can appear in friendships, workplaces, even in our families. The desire to get what we want, no matter that cost, that is never far from us.

Of all the teachings of the Methodist Church, few are more important than how we see the organization of the Church. As any of us gathered here may attest, the exact organization of the Methodist Church can seem arcane at times. Committees and charges and districts and conferences all flow into a complex web of oversight and reporting. Despite this reputation, the intent of our structure is to be as egalitarian and democratic in nature as possible. The chair of the council of bishops is not any more important or spiritually significant than any believer seated in a pew. If you are a Christian, the United Methodist Church sees you as just as worthy and capable as any other Christian.

Leadership in the United Methodist Church is therefore meant to be seen as people being called to take on leadership among equals. When someone accepts a nomination to a committee or a call to ministry, it is not as though they suddenly become more important or holy than others, but that they are living out their service to God in a particular way. Even Bishops, having taken on as much responsibility as they have, are no more significant than any other faithful member. We are all of us servants to one another, even if our gifts lead us to serve one another in specific ways or through leadership positions, we can never assume we are greater than one another, because we all serve with the same expectation to seek one another’s good.

This does not always seem to be the case and it often is not the case. We all see our positions in life as ways to get what we want, at least occasionally. Whether that is gathering praise and benefits for our work or getting our name attached to a successful ministry, we adore the idea of climbing the ladder. In some ways, this is not inherently bad. “A worker is due their wages,” after all and we should celebrate the achievements of those around us. (Luke 10:7) This includes standing up for ourselves and standing together in solidarity with others whenever we can.  Whether that be in Unions or one on one advocacy, asking to be respected and seeking our honest due is no sin. The problem emerges when the desire for more authority and power overcomes our desire and real capacity to do good.

When we live a life in line with Christ, we will find opportunities to take the lead. Sometimes this means career advancements, other times just the chance to raise another person in the faith. I say “just,” because we often times see things like that as lesser than any career goal we may have in mind. The reality is, of course, that there are few manifestations of love and servanthood as obvious as helping one another grow.  This can be growth in knowledge, in the trust we show toward God, or any other number of skills – but that growth should always be tied to growth in general goodness.

Jesus tells us that the greatest people in the Kingdom of God are those who serve one another. Jesus goes further still by removing any criteria about what will define glory in the world to come. The only guidance we have is to live into Christ’s teachings through our service to one another. If we apply this attitude to all aspects of our life, then we will benefit. We will benefit, not because of any rank we attain, clout we collect, or wealth we acquire, but because our service to one another will be a gift even in itself. Jesus speaks as though Heaven may have some hierarchy, but even this seems an earthly way to describe something presently beyond our comprehension. If we truly seek only to love and serve one another, then no title or power will overcome our plain desire to love and the satisfaction that comes from selflessness.

If we wish to be great in God’s economy of Grace, then we must ask ourselves often and honestly how we can serve one another. This mindset begins at home and goes out into the world. We often encourage our children to think about how they can serve their parents, but I encourage parents to ask the same question for how they can serve their children. Spouses should ask this of themselves. We should ask it about all the people we regularly meet in our life. Why don’t we do that now?  Because we are used to only one person in a relationship putting that kind of effort in. Truly, unless we are all willing to put service before self, we will see inequalities from some people doing what is right and others taking advantage.

Yet, if we want to transform the world we live in, we have to begin living a life of service in every way we can. If we can begin that here in this church, by loving and serving one another in our household and this sanctuary, we will begin to see transformation. We will all grow together; we will see the blessings of the Church made plain to us. If we go beyond asking to see blessing and begin living as a blessing, then we will truly know what it is to be great and what God’s kingdom really looks like. – Amen.

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