Toorak Uniting Church

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"How to be the greatest"

Mark 10: 32 – 45
Rev. Ian Brown
19 October 2003

No one in the Church is interested in power, I know that!
Power is a slightly suspect commodity, we know that power corrupts, we know that Jesus resisted the offer of worldly power - it was one of the temptations he faced in the wilderness, it was also something he shrugged off when crowds wanted to make him their King.
So no one in the Church would ever engage in power plays, political manoeuvring, competitive jockeying or lobbying for their own interests. That just wouldn’t be the "Christian" thing to do.

Unfortunately those closest to Jesus, the ones who had the wonderful benefit of his personal teaching and physical presence didn’t catch on to this basic ethic of Christian living quite so quickly. Competition and self interest still somehow found a place even in their community.
And to be honest with you, ... every now and then I have to pull myself up on this self interest, getting myself ahead sort of thinking. Perhaps it’s happened to you too?

Perhaps the experience of the disciples is really a very human, if embarrassing pointer. Perhaps there is something like an innate hopefulness in us that very easily turns to self interest.

Those sons of Zebedee, James and John, - they think just like many people often do - they think of themselves, of their actions and the rewards that might be in it for them.
"Teacher, how about a little favor for some close mates?
Could you slip us the pin number for access to a couple of the best seats in heaven, two right by you would be nice thanks?"

The sons of Zebedee were shrewd, they knew what to ask for and they had enough front to show their self interested greed to their teacher in front of the other disciples in the hope of getting the advantage on the others. They wanted the best.
They had found the right person to ask it was just that they had mistaken the sort of values that Jesus worked from.

Their request was the religious equivalent of the day to having the latest high fashion frock, the newest ragtop sports wheels or designer garden, Royal Dalton setting or positions on the right committees, if that’s more your speed.
But perhaps that’s too harsh on James and John?
I wonder what you and I might have done in their position?
What would we have asked for if the opportunity arose with Jesus? Do we know what is worth asking for?

Of course they were up to wasn’t going to go unnoticed - perhaps that’s just what James and John wanted, I don’t know, but Jesus has to straighten them out, and then deal with a group of angry disciples, who by this stage have their Semitic noses thoroughly out of joint.

How often do we hear in the gospels that Jesus has to chastise his disciples? How often do we hear that they are not just on the wrong tram - they don’t even seem to have the fundamentals, like who Jesus really is. And when we listen to the debates happening in the life of the church still today, we could be excused for wondering if anything much has changed over all these years.

But the fact that the disciples make mistakes or ask for outrageous favours doesn’t ever mean that they are not still disciples!
Jesus often seems exasperated with them - as we might be with a child at times, but our children remain our children - and Jesus disciples remain just that too!
It seems to be all part of the journey of being a follower of Jesus. So as well as being a reassuring story for us to identify with when we’ve made mistakes, it also says to us that we need to be tolerant with one another.

This story, like so many of Mark’s, happens on the road. They are travelling, pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem and the physical journey represents a spiritual journey, a path of learning and understanding.
It’s a path that’s easy to stray from, to take a wrong turning in, or to stumble on the rocks, but this journey of faith with Jesus necessarily means not having all the answers. This business of discipleship is about not having arrived, it is part of the nature of faith - and the teacher is always leading his followers further on.

And isn’t this precisely why Jesus teaching is all about matters like anger and forgiveness, money and injustice, losing things and being found - the stuff of real everyday living, rather than matters of doctrine and belief.
Jesus gave us a way to follow - a way like his, based primarily on service. Mark tells us 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."

Jesus way is focused on service of others rather than service of self.
And with Jesus the journey and the nature of our travelling are even more emphasized than the destination!

I know of a barber, who spends his working week cutting hair for a living and then two nights a week after work he goes to a hospital for the mentally challenged and cuts hair for free.
A friend of his is an accountant who looks after peoples financial affairs for a living, he has the latest of everything and most nights he goes out to bars looking for a good time.
Both men are apprentices in service, both are following a larger vision of what life is all about.
One is trying to follow Jesus, one is following the rules of consumerism and hedonism.

Jesus is clear about which service is the greatest.
In the gospel reading Jesus tells his friends for the third time that he must suffer and die. - It makes you wonder if James and John were listening at all to what Jesus had been saying! He was talking about giving his life, they were looking for the inside running in heaven! Their request follows straight on, how unimaginably insensitive! But rather than pull out all his hair, Jesus uses the stupid and ill timed question to illustrate the point of what he was saying - his life is to be given in service for others, and indeed his disciples would follow him in self giving. Jesus helps them to see that to be first in God’s kingdom is to choose to be last here, to serve, to give. He himself works from a value of giving up his power, not seeking more, from the ethic of service for others, rather than one of self interest.

Job had cried out to God, questioned the wisdom of God and the fairness of his lot and God’s reply to Job, speaking out of the whirlwind questions Job’s wisdom. God turns Job’s attention from his own woes to a larger picture.
In the same way Jesus turns the attention of these sons of Zebedee to the bigger picture of the values of God’s kingdom and of the way to travel there by serving.

In a community of Jesus followers filling the roster to serve morning tea would be a hotly contested privilege, those who organized the visiting of the sick and housebound would be swamped with offers. In a body of people following Christ’s way we might have to check with folk that they hadn’t given too much to the poor, that they had enough to live on themselves. There would be a queue to help with the dishes at functions, a long list of those willing to transport the frail, an overabundance of nominees to serve on all sorts of helpful groups and to serve in necessary positions. There would be floods of offers and good ideas for fund raising. ... Perhaps I dream, perhaps like Jesus 12, we need to recognize we too are stumblers,....

But this is the gospel of challenge!
This is the good news, that Jesus way is about a way of living today. In this, perhaps the world has it right, right to judge Christians on the sort of lives we live. For us, the only proof we have of the validity of the gospel is whether or not it is capable of producing lives that follow the example of the master whom we follow - lives based on the reality of Jesus self giving, loving service of others. And if selfish insensitive characters like James and John could make a decent go of it, perhaps there is still hope for us too. May God’s grace help us to be faithful followers in Jesus way.


© Rev. Ian Brown, 2003

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