Those of you who have been around the United Methodist Church for any amount of time are at least somewhat familiar with our appointive system; the method by which we send and receive pastors to our churches. I think if you were to ask any of us pastors, we would agree that, in our opinion, the United Methodist Church has the best system for deciding what pastor goes to what church, when, why, and so on. But even within the best of systems, there are flaws. For those of us in “the system,” we come to know pastors who have spent their entire careers calculating their next move; how they will get moved up to a bigger church, which of course, means a bigger salary and I suppose more prestige. As March rolls around every year, I imagine there are many ministers on their knees, praying that the Bishop and Cabinet will move them to a better appointment. Ministers are human creatures just like everyone else, and we can easily fall prey to thinking about Christian ministry in worldly ways.
How often have we done the same thing in our lives? Of course, you are not praying the same prayer of many United Methodist ministers, but how often do our conversations with God involve asking for personal blessings, rather than seeking blessings for the community and the world? I think if we are honest with ourselves, we would recognize that much of the time, our prayers are about getting something for ourselves; even if it’s just a good feeling for doing our Christian duty and praying. And the truth is Jesus’ very disciples had this same struggle! Here in our Gospel lesson for this morning, we find James and John asking Jesus for personal blessing; asking Jesus to give them positions of prestige and power. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you… Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Just as we so often do, James and John began focusing on personal desires and promotion, rather than on the best interest of the “whole.” Such attitudes can disrupt the group’s unity and purpose, making the journey together terribly difficult. Yet, we can so easily and so often fall into this selfish trap. As Christians, we are part of a body, and when we journey with others in such a way, we must think of the collective whole, not just our individual selves.
How quickly we get focused on ourselves and forget the message that Jesus brings to us about God’s Kingdom! Despite the fact that just before this incident with James and John, Jesus has gone through the same discussion of greatness with the twelve, he has to remind them yet again! The two brothers were asking Jesus to fit into their plans, and they had no concern in that moment for Jesus’ own plans. They had lost sight of their greater purpose! Looking back on their journey with Christ, the disciples had given up everything to follow this person, Jesus, who had become the passion of their hearts. For James and John, this was a particularly great sacrifice. As they were fishing with their father, Zebedee, Jesus walked by and called them to follow him, promising to make them “fishers of men.” Despite the fact that these men had likely been fishing with their father everyday for years, even tens of years, and their father with his father in the decades before (and on and on), they drop what they are doing right then and there and follow Jesus. They left it all behind, just like that! It is understandable that at some point, they would seek their reward, and in this case, they even go beyond a simple reward; hoping also for some precedence and rank. But the lesson of this passage from Mark is that James’ and John’s idea of reward is wrong. They have misunderstood Jesus and Jesus’ purposes on earth. The reason James and John misunderstand Jesus is exactly the same as the reason that many people, even down to our day, are desperate to find a way of having Jesus without having the cross as well: the cross calls into question all human pride and glory. But, we must remember that “when Jesus ‘sits in his glory’, with one at his right and another at his left, it will be on the cross.” Jesus teaches us that in God’s Kingdom, rewards look different, and greatness is not about gaining power and prestige!
What is greatness? In the Kingdom of God, greatness is not about moving on up and getting our reward, it’s about transformation! As Jesus tells the disciples, the greatest at the banquet is the slave who does the serving, not the one sitting at the head of the table, getting all the attention and telling others what to do. The great servants whom human history honors are those who have so dedicated their lives to others that they have forgotten themselves into immortality.
Let’s think about this for a moment. Within our families, our social circles, our church, who is it that we love and respect the most? Is it the person who drives the most expensive car or wears the trendiest clothing? Is it the person who holds a position of authority and tells others what to do, “lording it over us,” and causing us to quake in our boots? Or is the person, rich or poor, who is not a show off…if they do happen to have anything to show off? The person who is first to visit us when we are sick, perhaps bringing us some warm chicken noodle soup? Or is it the person who holds our hands and prays with us when we are facing trials and tribulations? Who is it that we love and respect the most? I think we all know that our answers would fit in the latter categories; greatness is our personal lives is not measured by the world’s standards. Jesus turns our world upside down! In the face of Jesus’ proclamations, we have to surrender all our ingrained ideas of honor and dishonor, of power and weakness. “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.”
Talk about bursting your bubble! Jesus pops the balloon of human pomp and circumstance! Here Jesus punctures the pretensions of all ruling classes, all so-called “superior races.” And he says in effect, “Greatness is found in humility, in honesty and repentance. Greatness is found in humble service.”
I’m sure you are all familiar with the fairy tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” There was a little boy standing on the sidewalk in that tale. Do you remember him? While the rest of the crowd are completely enthralled and full of flattering over the supposed delicately-thin clothing of the emperor, the realistic little boy (in the manner of most young children) blurts out the truth, “Why, he’s not wearing anything at all! He’s naked!” And isn’t this Jesus’ message to us? There is no real reward in fancy clothes or trendy cars; nor even in the tyranny of power. The richness of life comes through giving ourselves in love to other people. The only real reward lies in service. Only those willing to be slaves in the service of others have any claim of greatness.
“You want to be great?” Jesus asks. “Fine.” he says, “Be the servant of all. Drink from my cup; share in my baptism.” We pray for happiness. Jesus tells us that if happiness is really what we want, strong enough to meet the cost, we can have it. But here are the costs: an escape from our selfish desires, a childlike trust in God, a losing of ourselves in a cause much greater than ourselves, so that the center of life is not us, but Jesus the Savior himself. The high cost of the Kingdom will be its acceptance in our lives as the one thing we seek first. And this is our purpose; to follow God in Christ Jesus above all else, even when that way leads to suffering, because this is the center of authentic Christianity, a Christianity which engages the struggles of this world head-on.
You see, God created humankind to have a purpose; to care for one another and the earth. This purpose, this calling, this mission has evolved into various means by which we work to provide for our families and for ourselves. But if we think of work as only a means to an end, we are missing the point. We can casually pray “thy kingdom come” without thinking that we ourselves may be the obstacles to its coming because our focus is wrong. Our greatest vocation is our work in service to God and to others! And it is through this service that we discover true greatness, that we receive our “just rewards!”
Suppose our lives were measured only by the amount of real service we have offered to other people? How great would our lives really be? Jesus is here telling us that this is precisely how are lives are measured. We have to drink from the cup from which Jesus drank and be baptized with the same baptism. Part of what will happen to us as we are molded more and more into the image of our Savior is that we will develop a Christ-like sensitivity toward the human needs that surround us. Such sensitivity may possibly even bring real pain into our lives. We will expose our nerves to the hurts of others, we will load their burdens onto our shoulders, and we will allow our hearts to be torn with anguish over the sufferings of others. This is not easy, but it is the cup from which Jesus drank. If we are to drink from this cup, we will be shutting out all possibilities that we will live lives of ease and comfort. Christ is calling us to go all the way with him, to go all the way for the sake of the Gospel, and to do this, we have to be transformed. If we are seeking power and prestige, Jesus says stop and humble yourselves. If we are striving after rewards, Christ calls us to seek first God’s Kingdom and his righteousness. If we are living only for ourselves, Our Lord tells us to serve our God by serving others. This is Christ’s cup; this is Christ’s baptism. This is greatness in the Kingdom, and if we want to receive what Christ has to offer, we have no choice but to follow!