Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Invitation to Serve

Mark 10:32-45
October 21, 2012
William G. Carter

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.”

            Through twenty centuries, the church has usually painted a pretty picture of the twelve original disciples of Jesus. Pious people have named churches after them, often referring to the first disciples as the rocks upon which Christ has built his church. You have heard of Saint Peter’s Cathedral. There is a monastery of Saint Thaddeus in Iran. With incense in the air, I have even heard somebody say, “Pray for us Saint Judas Iscariot, patron of all Christ’s betrayers.”

Yet anybody who hears the Gospel of Mark's stories about the disciples will wonder if they were saints at all. Mark gives us a tinted picture of who they were and what they wanted. Sure, the disciples walked the road with Jesus. They listened as he taught. They watched as he did signs and wonders. They followed where he led. However, according to Mark, they never really got the point. In fact, they usually look foolish.

            Today we hear about James and John scurrying up to Jesus while the others weren't looking. "Teacher," they said, "we want you to do whatever we ask." Hear that for what it is: that is a shameless request. Those two brothers really didn't have the right to ask for a blank check. Jesus, in his eternal patience, decided to sound them out. "What do you want?" he said. They replied, "On the day when you enter your glory, when you ascend as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, at the great moment when you sit upon the throne over heaven and earth, we want to sit at your right and at your left."

            Well, it was a ridiculous request . . . and when the other ten disciples heard about it, they got very angry with James and John. They were upset, not because they thought it was the wrong request to make, but because James and John asked for it first. Those two lowly fishermen wanted two premiers seats in the Kingdom of God, two thrones of honor for that day when Jesus will finally shine in the fullness of his glory.

            This is what the Gospel of Mark reveals about the twelve disciples who stood closest to Jesus. They sound like children who play "King of the Hill." They shamelessly tried to scramble to the top of the heap. We hear them beg for power, and shake our heads in disbelief.

            It is jarring to hear such blatant self-promotion. We don’t expect that in the church, because out in the world, such attitudes are present every day. The world we know encourages us to take the initiative, climb the ladder, and push to the front of the line. "Blessed are the aggressive," says our culture, "for they will get what they want." If that means pulling the boss aside and making a private pitch, then that is what must be done. Like it or not, this is how the world works. How strange to see the same attitudes in the church, even if they may not be immediately obvious.

            Will Willimon is a a Methodist pastor. He once wrote about power and politics in his denomination. Methodist preachers, he notes, are under the care of a bishop. Bishops, in turn, are Methodist preachers who are elected by fellow Methodist preachers after an extensive campaign for the office in which the candidate tries not to be caught campaigning. As he observes,

It is a long-standing Methodist tradition that bishops must not appear to have sought their office and, once elected, the new bishop must make a public declaration that "I didn't seek this office and I didn't want it but, once the Lord calls . . . Methodist preachers take all of this with a grain of salt, the same way Baptist congregations have learned to be somewhat skeptical when one of their preachers moves on to a better church claiming, "I hate to leave this church and I would rather stay here, but the Lord calls." Baptists note that the Lord rarely calls someone out of one church into another church unless that church has a higher salary. Methodists have likewise noted that there have been few preachers who, once they are elected bishop, turn the job down.[1]

            The curious thing about Willimon’s words is that, shortly after he made that crack, he was elected the United Methodist bishop of North Alabama. And he didn’t turn down the job.

            "Teacher, we want you to put us on your right and on your left. But keep it quiet. Don't make it too obvious. Others may become offended that we asked first." By telling us this story, Mark knows what you and I know: anybody is prone to the same desire for privilege and protected status. We want a Jesus who will give us what we want, a Lord who can shower a little power on us, a Savior who can make us better than we are.

            It happens in congregations. I remember reading a book that a friend gave me when I became a minister. He wanted to knock the crust off my naiveté, so he gave me this tongue-in-cheek book. According to the book, here is the first principle of church life: "Despite the pious things we say, at any given time, less than five percent of any group in the church is operating with purely Christian motivation. The other ninety-five percent is asking, 'What's in it for me?’”[2]

            Oh, I read those words, and thought, "Oh, no. That's not true. Christian people are inherently generous and gracious. They are always eager to help, remaining free from selfish motives and concerns about getting their own way." Then I tried to gather a group to volunteer at a homeless shelter, and one after another said, "What's in it for me?" Somewhat discouraged, I attempted to gather adults to make meals for the homebound. Each one said, "What can I get out of it?"

            "Teacher, give us what we want. Give us the seats of glory." Jesus seems naïve when he replies, "You don't know what you're asking." We know perfectly well what we are asking. We want God to meet our unlimited, unchecked, unwarranted needs and help us get ahead.

            Yet in a deeper sense, any request for cheap success reveals we do not know what kind of God we meet in Jesus. "Look," he said to his disciples, "we are going up to Jerusalem. And it's uphill all the way. The road is hard and difficult. We face painful twists and turns. There will be suffering, humiliation, and death. There is no easy road to glory. Are you able to drink this cup? Are you able to bear this kind of baptism?" 

            James and John reply, "Sure, no problem." But do they really know? Do we know?

            Jesus came to proclaim the kingdom, the mysterious reign of God that grows like a secret seed, ever so gently, ever so silently, until it becomes the greatest of all plants. One morning, God willing, we will wake up and see this gift of God and we will wonder how it happened. We won't know. The kingdom grows in spite of us, in ways we cannot comprehend.

            The key is Jesus himself, who comes with a kind of paradoxical, left-handed power. Recall what Jesus does in the Gospel of Mark. One minute, he screams away the demonic forces that torment human minds, telling them to hush. The next minute, he gathers little children and lepers into the embrace of God. One day he shouts at wind and waves and all the turbulent powers of an unruly creation. Another day he rides a humble donkey into a hostile city. Once Jesus puts his fingers in the ears of someone who has never heard the good news of God. Immediately he uses his words as a scalpel for cutting away the cancerous lies that keep people from the health which God intends.

In every way, Jesus Christ has come to make a difference in this painful, haunted world. This is his mission. He has come to serve, not to sit on a throne with dull-minded disciples on his right and his left. He has come to give his life to pay off our ransom to the powers and principalities, to set people free from all that can damage, hurt, and destroy.

            Are you able to drink that cup? Are you able to share his baptism? Anybody who would follow Jesus must be a servant as he is a servant. It requires a total change in how we live. If we want to follow Jesus, we can't live for ourselves anymore. That’s what conversion looks like. We must give our lives in service to others.

            Richard Foster tells about receiving a phone call from a friend. The friend's wife had taken the car, and he wanted to know if Richard could take him on a number of errands. Richard was preparing to teach a college class, but since the man was his friend he reluctantly agreed. As he ran out the door, car keys in hand, he grabbed a book to read along the way. It was a book by Dietrich Bonhoffer called Life Together.

            Foster picked up his friend, and the errands did not go well. There were plenty of stops and starts, traffic was bad, and precious time kept ticking away. Finally they pulled into a parking lot, the friend got out, and Richard stayed behind with his book. He opened it to the bookmark, and read these words:

The second service that one should perform for another in a Christian community is that of active helpfulness. This means, initially, simple assistance in trifling, external matters. There is a multitude of these things wherever people live together. Nobody is too good for the meanest service. One who worries about the loss of time that such petty, outward acts of helpfulness entail is usually taking the importance of his own career too solemnly.[3]

            Ah, God gets through sometimes. Just when you are feeling so important, God gets through. Happens to me all the time.

            It happened at my high school graduation. I was elected senior class president; I was so proud of myself. Of course, my opponent was visiting Europe at the time of the election, so she couldn’t really campaign. So I was the president. That meant I could give a speech at graduation, an important speech by an important leader. I was so proud of myself. Worked on that speech for weeks.

            When the day came, and they called out my name, I stood regally and moved toward the platform. As I climbed the steps, my big feet started walking up the inside my graduation robe and I fell flat on my face. Ever try to give a speech when 320 of your classmates are laughing at you?

            And then, when it was all over, my mother said, “God did that, to make you humble.” Gee, thanks, Mom. So much for my big moment.

            To this day, I’m not sure I believe that God make us to fall on our faces. I think we just do that naturally. And if you’re living close to the ground, humble, it isn’t as far to fall. The word “humility” comes from the word “humus,” as in the soil, as in, “your feet are flat upon the ground.” You don’t think more highly of yourself than you need to.

            This is a picture of how we follow Jesus, the same Jesus who says, “I did not come to be served; I came to serve.” No pretention. No arrogance. No ambition to prove his power. Mark says, one day after another, Jesus went to the people where he could offer the most help. He set all glory aside and did what he could for the benefit of the people around him.

            You know, we have people like that in this church. A lot of people like that. They are tireless in doing what needs to get done. I am reluctant to single anybody out, but there are so many of you. Sometimes the service offered is quiet, behind the scenes, just a phone call, or a greeting card, or a simple offer of support. Maybe it’s a delicious meal made and delivered. Or a ride to a doctor, even a ride to a far-off hospital. It happens all the time around here. God bless those who serve. Not those who talk about serving, but those who actually do it. God bless you.

            This is the ministry of Christ that we do. We speak of the stewardship of our money, and that is critically important. But there is also a stewardship of power, to be lived out in the life of service. As Christ sets aside his glory, as he hides incognito in the Galilean countryside, so he calls us to set aside all self-importance to make a constructive difference in the places where we live, where we love, where we spend our time.

            Are you able? Can you drink that cup? Share his baptism? To follow Jesus, in our time, in our place, means to live for the benefit of other people. That’s why we are here. Not to stand out, not to single out, but to serve.
Jesus still asks the questions: "Are you able to drink my cup? Are you able to share my baptism? Are you able to walk with me, giving yourself to others in a life of service?" If we dare say yes, we must remember the road of discipleship is uphill all the way, and it leads to the foot of the cross. Whoever would follow Jesus must follow him all the way there. He never promised anything else.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] William H. Willimon, And the Laugh Shall Be First (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1986) 94.
[2] David S. Belasic and Paul M. Schmidt, The Penguin Principles (Lima, Ohio: CSS Press, 1986) 17.
[3] Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1978) 117-8.

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