I’d like to begin this morning with some words from the bestselling Christian author Philip Yancey:
In my career as a journalist, I have interviewed diverse people. Looking back, I can roughly divide them into two types: stars and servants. The stars include NFL football greats, movie actors, music performers, famous authors, TV personalities, and the like. These are the people who dominate our magazines and our television programs. We fawn over them, poring over the minutiae of their lives: the clothes they wear, the food they eat, the aerobic routines they follow, the people they love, the toothpaste they use.
Yet I must tell you that, in my limited experience, these ‘idols’ are as miserable a group of people as I have ever met. Most have troubled or broken marriages Nearly all are hopelessly dependent on psychotherapy. In a heavy irony, these larger than life heroes seem tormented by incurable self-doubt.
I have also spent time with servants. People like Dr. Paul Brand, who worked for twenty years among the poorest of the poor, leprosy patients in rural India. Or health workers who left high-paying jobs to serve with Mendenhall Ministries in a backwater town of Mississippi. Or relief workers in Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, or other such repositories of world-class human suffering. Or the Ph.D.’s scattered throughout jungles of South America translating the Bible into obscure languages.
I was prepared to admire and honour these servants, to hold them up as inspiring examples. I was not, however, prepared to envy them. But as I now reflect on the two groups side by side, stars and servants, the servants clearly emerge as the favoured ones, the graced ones. They work for low pay, long hours, and no applause, ‘wasting’ their talents and skills among the poor and uneducated. But somewhere in the process of losing their lives they have found them. They have received the ‘peace that is not of this world’.
Stars and servants: that’s what today’s gospel reading is all about. As Yancey notes, our world today holds up the stars for admiration. But so did the ancient world. I learned this week that the phrase in the letter to the Philippians where Paul says ‘though (Jesus) was in the form of God, (he) did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited’ (Philippians 2:6) was actually a political phrase in the ancient world. It was used by the Romans to describe people who aspired to political leadership: ‘He thinks he’s equal to a god’. In fact, in the ancient world you were really only a ‘person’ if you were a star. Ordinary people like you and me were non-persons; we didn’t count.
So people in the ancient word were every bit as obsessed with the cult of the star as we are today. But then along comes Jesus. He has a strong sense of his calling as God’s anointed one, God’s Messiah, the King who will set God’s people free. That’s what the word ‘Christ’ means. But at the same time he sets himself against the cult of the star. To him, the call to serve God was a call to suffer and die. And so he sets his face resolutely to go to Jerusalem, where everyone knows the opposition is gathering its forces against him:
He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” (Mark 10:32b-34).
Why is he doing this? Because it goes to the core of what he believes he’s called to do. Look at verse 45: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many”.
This was actually the third time Jesus had warned the twelve about what was ahead for him. They had probably assumed he was going to Jerusalem to claim the throne of David. But Jesus had already told them twice before that this was not going to happen. It was rejection and death that awaited him in Jerusalem, not power and glory.
James and John seem deaf to this. They seem completely unaware of how incongruous it is – right after Jesus has been talking about his suffering and death – to come to him and ask him for power-positions in his government. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (v.37). How could they be so deaf? How could they ignore the clear implications of what Jesus was saying?
But if you think about it for a minute, it’s not really so surprising; in fact, we do it all the time. There are many sayings of Jesus we ignore. “Give to everyone who begs from you, and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again”. (Luke 6:30) “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6:27-28). “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” (Luke 14:33)
I don’t know about you, but I find these words of Jesus very challenging – too challenging to allow them much time at the forefront of my mind. More often than not, I try to pretend they’re not there. I’m not saying this to boast about it or recommend it; I’m just trying to be honest about it. My point is simply that this is what most Christians do: when Jesus says something to us that doesn’t fit into our world view, or that hits too close to home, we screen it out.
That’s probably what James and John had done with Jesus’ words about going to Jerusalem to be executed. They believed he was the Messiah. God would not abandon his Messiah to his enemies; he would protect him and give him victory. That was what they believed. And so when they heard Jesus saying he was going to be handed over to the Gentiles to be mocked and spat upon and flogged and killed, they screened it out. “You know Jesus – he’s always saying weird things! Whatever he means by this, it can’t be literally true!”
But Jesus rebukes them for their request:
“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?” (v.38).
‘The cup’ is a common symbol in the Old Testament. Here it is in Psalm 78:
For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup
with foaming wine, well mixed;
he will pour a draft from it,
and all the wicked of the earth
shall drain it down to the dregs. (Psalm 78:8)
I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t sound like a very tasty drink to me! More like a poison pill! This cup is a symbol of God’s judgement poured out on the wicked, and Jesus says he’s got to drink from this cup.
And of course in Genesis the flood is God’s judgement against the wickedness of humanity. ‘Baptism’ in Greek is ‘baptizo’, and it sometimes means ‘to be overwhelmed by a flood’. The sixteenth century Anabaptists sometimes talked about having to go through ‘the baptism of blood’; they were thinking about the times when Jesus warns us to expect suffering and rejection because we follow him. Not everyone will be happy that we follow Jesus; some people will be very upset – just as they were upset with Jesus himself.
James and John seem pretty confident; when Jesus asks if they’re ready for this, they say “We are!” But then Jesus goes on to say, “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” (vv.39-40).
It’s often been pointed out that the only other time in the gospels where being at the right or the left of Jesus is mentioned is when he is hanging on the cross with two bandits crucified on either side of him, one on his right and the other on his left. To share Jesus’ glory isn’t a glorious experience; his glory is the cross, where he allows himself to be killed rather than inflicting death on others. Those who want to be close to Jesus have to be willing to join him in that place where they choose love even if it costs them their lives. If you want to be with Jesus, that’s where you have to be. James and John literally don’t know what they’re asking.
But Jesus is determined to make it clear to his disciples. So he calls them all together and spells it out for them again. Here are his words, this time in the Revised English Bible translation:
“You know that among the Gentiles the recognized rulers lord it over their subjects, and the great make their authority felt. It shall not be so with you; among you, whoever wants to be great must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Let’s be clear about this: Jesus isn’t saying, “If you want to be great, be a servant of all, and God will reward you by making you great”. If this were true then service would only be a temporary position; once we’d done enough serving to earn our reward, we could cast off our servant role and sit down on our thrones!
But that’s not what Jesus means. What he’s telling us is that service is greatness. Among all the roles the Kingdom of God has to offer, there’s no higher position than to serve others. Serving is what God does when he comes among us in the person of his Son Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Word of God made flesh; he’s God’s anointed king. But his whole purpose is to be a servant; this is why he came. “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (v.45 REB)
I’m not talking about allowing others to enslave us. Forced slavery is a very evil thing. What I’m talking about is our offering of ourselves in loving service to others, of our own free will. One of the prayers in our Book of Alternative Services begins like this: ‘O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal life, to serve you is perfect freedom’. This is what we’re talking about. We were created to serve; when we freely offer ourselves in loving service to God and to others, we find a freedom we’ve never known before.
All this is bringing us back to the central truth Jesus taught us: that the meaning of life is love for God and our neighbour, in response to God’s love for us. James and John weren’t focusing on God and their neighbour: they were focusing on themselves, their own advancement, their own glory. I don’t need to tell you we’re getting some pretty high-profile examples of this behaviour in international politics right now!
But this isn’t the way Jesus is leading us. “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (v.45 REB) Jesus surely had the right to be a star if he wanted, but he chose to be a servant instead. And in the end, he was not the loser for it.
So what would it mean for us to follow him? What if today, instead of asking Jesus for the best seats in the house, we asked him to show us the person he wants us to serve? Not for any gain we could get out of it, but just because this is the way of love?
In fact, we might not even need to do that. The truth is, I probably don’t need Jesus to tell me who I’m being called to love. Those people are already right in front of me. I already know who they are. I simply need to make the decision to love them as Jesus loves them, and to do it not just in words, but in actions. I’m guessing that when Jesus says, “Follow me”, this is pretty much at the heart of what he’s talking about.
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Philip Yancey: Where is God When it Hurts?(Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1977, 1990), p.45.