Mark 10:35-45: James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus 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.”
As we continue our jaunt through the Gospel of Mark, we should be shocked today to hear James and John have the audacity to firmly ask Jesus if they could be placed front and centre. We should also be at least a little miffed that the rest of the disciples played the “outrage” card, given that there are strong indications that first, the disciples really didn’t understand who Jesus was and second, they felt this was their trip into the spotlight.
We compare this with Hana’s discussion last week of the Rich Young Man, who was quite happy to obey all the easy peasy laws, but was less than happy when Jesus suggested he give up all his wealth because that was the block that kept him from truly getting the message. Now lets be honest, we all squirmed in our seats when we heard that call, hoping beyond hope that nobody would make that impossible request of each of us.
Go back two weeks and Ken shared with us a quote from Andrew Carnegie which went something to the effect, “he who dies rich dies disgraced.”
All this comes as today we talk about the future of St. James Westminster, complete with dizzying price tags of two or three or more million to fix the building, troubling suggestions of a 50 per cent drop in attendance over the past decade and brashly uncomfortable suggestions that we need to look at wholesale change.
Early in his book “Simply Jesus”, NT Wright suggests that we today are as mystified about who Jesus is and what Jesus asks of us, as were the rag tag band of followers in the first century who were happy to be in the spotlight, but scurried for cover when the going got tough. After suggesting that today’s church has become in some corporate sense, a practitioner of personal piety, he adds the following.
“Perhaps even his own people – this time not the Jewish people of the first century, but the would-be Christian people of the Western world – have not been ready to recognize Jesus himself. We want a religious leader, not a King. We want someone to save our souls, not rule our world. Or, if we want a king, someone to take charge of our world, what we want is someone to implement the policies we already embrace, just as Jesus contemporaries did. But if Christians don’t get Jesus right, what chance is there that other people will bother much with him?”
In a very clear sense this is what Ken Anderson said two weeks back, what Hana Scorrar preached last week, what is pointed to directly in both the Mission and Ministry report and the Rector’s report to Vestry and what I would ask you to give ultimate consideration in this homily.
So who is this N.T. Wright guy and why should be pay attention to him. How many of you know his work? Or the work of Nadia Bolz Weber or Walter Bruggeman, or Henri Nowen, or Brian McLaren, or William Barclay or a long and varied list of other Christian writers who have much to say. If Wright was in the hockey world, we would compare him with everyone from Scotty Bowman to Steve Yzerman to Roger Neilson to Brian Burke. If we were talking Canadian music it would be like asking, “Do you know Gordon Lightfoot, Celine Dion, Anne Murray, Neil Young or Bruce Cockburn.”
N.T. “Tom” Wright is a former Bishop of Durham in England who is now scholar and writer in residence at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland. If I were to list the books and articles he has written, we’d be here for an hour or so. He is neither traditional nor cutting edge, yet sometimes both; always solid in scholarship and well respected by most in the field of theological writing. Some of the books he has written are quite easy reads; others such as “Justification”, provide many tension headaches and a scattering of dictionaries – theological and ordinary – to get through. He has visited our Diocese and the clergy spent an interesting morning with him at St. Jude’s a couple of years back.
What I’m getting at here is that faith is never easy. There are no spectators in the understanding of faith! As Ken and Hana’s homilies showed us very clearly, we need to be challenged and respond each time we encounter and interact with the Gospel. There is not right, complete or constant understanding, but rather faith is a living, breathing, growing, shrinking, exhilarating, frustrating thing. We can’t walk in, sit down, nod our heads in agreement and go home filled with faith, any more than I could dare stand up and try to sing alongside Michael Buble or Garth Brooks, or Pavarotti or the Rolling Stones just because I listened to their recordings every once now and again.
What is before us is a challenge – the same one that faced the disciples after Jesus death – the same one that has confronted Christians for 2000 years – what do we do when what used to work, doesn’t work anymore? How do we go forward when we’d rather hunker down in the safe place of the past?
At the end of today’s Gospel passage, Jesus tells us exactly what we must do. And as Carnegie’s quote scared us, and the rich young man’s self centredness caused his to think deeply, the simple words of Jesus are at once comforting and terrifying.
“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.”
The Christian Church, and that includes St. James Westminster, is at a point were our relevance is waning, people are leaving, the social custom is changing, and we really don’t know how to respond. As we gather today in a Special Vestry to chart our way forward, I can only ask that you pray intently and risk greatly. It’s what Jesus asks of us each and every day in this life of faith
Rev. Keith Nethery