“…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.” Mark 10:44-45
At some point in our lives, all of us have sought the approval of someone whom we respected and loved…a parent, a teacher, a friend…a boss at work. We all want and maybe even need to feel special and our own feelings of self-worth can be bound up in this need for approval from others. When James and John asked Jesus for the honor of sitting at his side in his glory they were acting out of a need to be recognized by the one for whom they had given up everything. The Gospel of Matthew (20:20-23) has the boy’s mother requesting this honor for James and John but Mark makes it clear that the desire was their own.
Not surprisingly, the other disciples are pretty angry at this request but Jesus, rather than condemning the brothers uses this as an opportunity to share one of the foundational principles of his Gospel. Unlike rulers who use their authority as a means to control and oppress those in their power the followers of Jesus are to be servants to one another, regardless of status or social position. In the Kingdom, as envisioned by Jesus, rulers are to be servants and those in authority are to seek out and serve the least of these.
In response to James and John’s specific request, Jesus asks them if they are able to drink of the cup that God has prepared for him to drink and to be baptized with his baptism. The two men insist that they are indeed able, of course having no idea that Jesus is talking about suffering and violent death. Jesus goes on to tell them that they will indeed drink of his cup and experience his baptism but the honor of position in glory is not his to give.
The tradition of the Church is that James did indeed suffer martyrdom for his faith. In fact, he was the first of the disciples to be killed. James was put to death by the sword under King Herod Agrippa about 40 years after Jesus’ death. John is considered the only disciple to have died a natural death but according to tradition his last years were spent in exile far away from his home and family. In those early days of the Church to follow Christ was to willingly put oneself at risk of imprisonment, torture, banishment, and death. Those first Christians gave up everything for the sake of the Gospel. There are still people of faith under such threat in various parts of the world. While many of us struggle with difficulties in this life, putting our families or our lives at risk in order to worship is not one of them. We must not take this blessing for granted and neglect to thank God or to take the opportunities for worship and service that are available to us.
I find it surprising that despite Jesus’ candor about the difficulties and even danger those who chose to follow him would face our modern version of Christianity is so soft and comfortable. Many of us approach our faith lives as a pleasant distraction at best and a tedious duty at worst. Attending worship is just another of many things on our weekly schedule and it can easily be replaced by a more interesting activity. Where is our zeal for the Gospel? Why are we not fired up with the Holy Spirit called to go out into the world to speak truth to the powers that be and to offer our lives in service to God’s people? Our comfortable lives have made us spiritually lazy. We neglect to study the Scriptures and no longer measure our days with prayer. Everyone seems to have some closely held opinion about religion but there are few of us who truly live our lives by the tenets of our faith.
Brothers and sisters, we live in a time when people around us are increasingly divided by fear and hatred. Those who seek to have power and maintain control over the people fuel that fear and hatred with ugly rhetoric. Our own government is committing atrocities and tells us it is all to keep us safe, so we say nothing while the death toll from our foreign wars for profit mount and children in cages cry for their mothers. As long as the stock market goes up and our neighbors are worse off than we are then life is good. Perhaps most distressing in all of this is how professed Christians have deluded themselves into thinking that Jesus is pleased with their hate-speech and their warmongering…with their unrighteous judgment and uncharitable behavior. Jesus himself said that those who seek to save their lives will lose them and those who give up their lives for the sake of the Gospel will gain eternal life (Matthew 16:25). We have sold our collective soul for the illusion of safety.
Jesus never promised an easy life…a comfortable life…a safe life. In fact, he told his disciples it would be just the opposite. “Blessed are you when you are persecuted for my sake” Jesus preaches in the beatitudes. In offering up his very self for the life of the world Jesus’ destroyed all of those arbitrary boundaries that we use to separate ourselves from people who are not like us. Jesus made us all one family, children of the one true God and as such we all have intrinsic worth…we are all precious to God. That which is precious to God must be precious to us as well and we who seek to follow Christ must become the servants of those precious children of God. That means their health and happiness matter to us….that means we are to seek to relieve their suffering….to bind up their wounds…to visit them in their captivity and to work for their freedom. No one who is precious to God must be outside of our notice and our care.
I know there are those who will say that I am being idealistic…. unrealistic… that it is impossible for people of faith to live as Christ advocated in this day and age. Perhaps that is true but we can come closer to the Gospel than we are. Those who claim the name of Jesus must not become comfortable with the suffering of others. Why would we claim that sacred name for ourselves if we have no intention of living as Christ has called us to live? Of course, we will not be perfect but we can be better. We can choose to love rather than to hate. We can choose to share rather than to horde. We can choose to be kind rather than to be cruel. We can open our minds to learn about those whose experiences are different than our own and open our hearts to love them in their unique and beautiful diversity. We can choose not to engage in hateful arguments over things that do not matter. We can choose to listen more than we speak. We can choose to remember that this life is temporary but through Christ, we have the promise of eternal life.
In the first years of the Church to be a Christian was fraught with danger. To openly proclaim the Gospel was to put one’s very life at risk. For most of us in this age that is not what we face and yet we hesitate to proclaim our faith openly. Brothers and sisters do not be ashamed of the Gospel of Christ. Yes, the ideal is that others will recognize us as followers of Christ by our loving attitude and behavior but sometimes it is necessary to tell folks about Jesus. Spend some time in study and prayer clarifying for yourself what you think…about Jesus’ call to a holy life…about salvation…about the role of your faith in your own life. If you become comfortable in your own faith you will then be comfortable sharing it with others but that requires time and prayer…and study and thought.
This violent and angry society is in desperate need of words of love and compassion. People need examples of gentleness…of kindness…of patience. We are called to live our lives of faith openly so that others may see our good works and glorify God. Do not be afraid to declare yourself to be a follower of Christ…and to clarify just what that means in a time when there are many false Christians following false Christs and preaching a perverted Gospel. If the sermon you give…or the sermon you hear is not about love then it is not about Jesus. Yes, I said sermon….because each of us is called to preach a sermon with our lives…to offer our own life experience… our own story as testimony to the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the world. Preach the sermon of your life loudly….joyfully….with energy and fervor so that all may see and know that Christ is at work within you.
The time for polite silence is past. We must all proclaim the Gospel of Christ’s love in whatever way we can….in our words…in our actions….in our very being. Take heart brothers and sisters, gird up your loins because the fields are ready for planting and we all have Gospel seeds to sow.