Readings for the 21st Sunday After Pentecost (Year B): Isaiah 53:4-12, Psalm 91:9-16, Hebrews 5:1-10, Mark 10:35-45
Christ the King Chapel, Sunday, 21 October, 2012
For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Mk 10:45)
In just about three weeks, one of two men will get to be the most important person in the world for the next four years.
You may not be following the American presidential election at all, or you may have strong opinions about the suitability of either President Obama or Governor Romney for this job. It doesn’t really matter. Just think about any spy movie or thriller you’ve ever seen which shows the US President in the Oval Office? What do you imagine?
You may think of a dignified looking man (or maybe a woman) in an expensive suit of clothes behind a big desk, someone who got where he is because powerful people spent millions of dollars to put him there. You may think of someone who receives deference and respect. You may think of guards ready to throw themselves between him and an assassin’s bullets. You many think of someone with incredible military power at his beck and call.
You’re thinking of these things because you’re thinking of power as humans understand it. It’s the way we think the world works. It’s the way James and John think when the ask Jesus in today’s gospel to have a share of Jesus power when he as the conquering Messiah rewards his followers.
No, Jesus says. It doesn’t work that way. Jesus tells them that his followers must be prepared to be slaves and servants.
Imagine how shocking this would have been to people in the ancient world, where there were slaves and servants, hearing this gospel for the first time?
How shocking is it to us? Perhaps it’s hard for us to really take on the idea of being a servant today, other than whatever ideas we may have imported from Downton Abbey or other costume dramas with maids and butlers in the background. Perhaps it’s hard for us to be shocked by this passage because over time Christianity has blunted it, dumbed it down to the notion that we should be nice to others and not too pushy.
We should be shocked. It should be hard for us to comprehend, because Jesus is talking about something so foreign to us that we struggle to take it in. How can the Kingdom of God be a kingdom of service? How can the Son of what the Psalmist calls the Lord, the Most High (Ps 91:9) be the one who came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mk 10:45)?
The idea is as foreign to us as it would be if either Mr. Obama or Mr. Romney, having won the election, refused to wear the fine suits and live in the White House. What if the winner decided instead to live with the poorest people, in the shelters and on the heating grates, so they could better understand their needs? If Hollywood made a movie along these lines, nobody would believe it. But God does the same and more, even to the point of dying for us.
How Jesus can be a ransom for us, how he can take our sins on us, as the prophet Isaiah seems to suggest he will, is a mystery that theologians struggle with. All that I, a simple preacher, can point to, is the simple and wonderful truth that Jesus lives a human life, and dies a human death, for many, for us. It is the action of the God who chooses to stand with the people he created, to serve them when he might expect to be served by us.
Because humans tend towards a distorted idea the of power as a zero-sum game, we conclude that power is about rulers and the ruled. Like James and John, we accept that there must be winners and losers, celebrities and masses, rich and poor, and so on. But as Christians, we encounter a God whose thinking could scarce be more alien than if he had stepped off a spaceship from another world. This servant God calls us to stand with him, and to be a servant like him.
Bob Dylan once said “you’re going to have to serve someone”. The thinking behind that song leads to the question, who will you serve? In the light of our Gospel, that’s the wrong question. The question Jesus asks is larger, and more startling. Jesus asks us, if we all thought and lived as servants, what would the world look like if we all served, not someone, but each other? My guess is that if we all thought and lived as servants, sharing the self sacrificing mind of Christ, then the world would look like the kingdom of God.