A sermon, based on Mark 10.35-45, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, October 21, 2018
Jesus said to his disciples, “We go to Jerusalem where the Son of Man will be handed over, condemned, mocked, spat upon, flogged, and killed, and after three days rise again.”(1) This statement, immediately preceding this morning’s gospel passage, was Jesus third prediction of his suffering and death.
First, at Caesarea Philippi. Peter declared Jesus to be the Messiah. Jesus then taught that he was a Messiah who would suffer and die. Peter, in horrified disbelief, rebuked Jesus.(2)
The second time, near Capernaum, while the disciples, with mindless disregard for Jesus’ declaration of his coming death, argued among themselves who was the greatest.(3)
Now, James and John, having learned nothing, discount Jesus’ word of his coming trouble, discount Jesus and his undoubted distress. Unable to conceive of trial and tribulation, but only triumph, they seek what they perceive as the prime positions of power at Jesus’ right and left. Jesus, ever patient and exasperated, responds, saying, in effect, “You have no clue about what you ask.” Can they drink from his “cup;” a biblical metaphor for suffering? Can they be baptized, immersed, drowned in his suffering? James and John, still clueless, thinking only of standing in the bright light of glory and not in the shadow of a cross, answer, “Yes.” Jesus tells them they will suffer for his sake (though, surely, they still don’t understand) and that positions of honor are not his to give. The other disciples are angry at James and John, but only because they were late in making the same request of Jesus.
All of the disciples suffer from a deep spiritual malady of corporate incomprehension. They just don’t get (or want to get) Jesus, who teaches them, who has to teach them again that truest greatness is to be a servant. From the Greek, diakonos; the same word from which we derive “deacon,” that order of ministry given especially to the service of “all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely.”(4)
Even more, truest greatness is to be a slave, from the Greek, doulos, the least, the last, the lowest of the lowly. (This is a hard concept for me, as an African American, in the light, indeed, in the shadow of our history of institutional slavery and our ongoing national struggle with race, to accept; yet, as Jesus said it, I do!)
Still more, Jesus, no worldly ruler who lords his power over his subjects, asks that they, that we not only do what he does, but be who he is: Those who come “not to be served, but to serve.”
This is paradox; at first glance, making no sense, but, at its heart, embracing, embodying truth. The nonsense? Nothing about lowly service matches our innate human desire for prominence and prestige or meshes with our worldly hierarchical systems and structures, whether commercial, industrial, or ecclesial. However, God so made the world and us that in the service of losing our lives for the sake of others, we discover, we save our truest selves.
Jesus makes this same point in another way: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”(5) An amazing teaching on two counts.
First, Jesus instructs by injunction, “You must do this,” because of the obvious, for Jesus, observation that life is like this. Life, as created by God, is more giving than receiving. More justice for all than “just us” (whoever “us” happens to be in relation to “them”). More radical hospitality than calculated generosity. If we focus solely, even largely on our individual interests, life (which by divine design is not only meant to be, but is relational, communal, mutually beneficial) cannot exist.
Secondly, as I said in an earlier sermon,(6) Jesus, linking greatness with service, places prestige not merely within the reach of all, but in the hands of all. This also is how life is. Not everyone has material wealth or earthly authority or worldly power. But everyone everywhere everyday can serve at least one somebody in need, and, therefore, is great.
This is what you call gospel, good news!
(1) Mark 10.33-34, my paraphrase
(2) Mark 8.27-32
(3) Mark 9.30-34
(4) The Book of Common Prayer, The Ordination of a Deacon, page 543
(5) Mark 9.35
(6) Truest Greatness (Subtitle: What if?) – A Stewardship Sermon, September 23, 2018