Pentecost 21/Lectionary 29B, Mark 10:35-45
James and John, sons of Zebedee, also known as the sons of thunder, came to Jesus with a bold, perhaps thunderous, request: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
That’s quite something, but you know what? I applaud their shameless honesty. Because if we are honest with ourselves, many of our prayers can end up sounding like “Lord, please do for us whatever we’re asking you to do.”
Such prayers understandably emerge often from the circumstances of our acute suffering. If that’s the case, pray those prayers. God will sort it all out. But purely self-centered prayers can also come from our lesser angels, for we enter into the life of faith with many mixed motivations informed by the old, sinful Adam in us. We sinners are prone to a tit for tat kind of spirituality driven by what faith in God can do for us.
Again, let’s be honest with ourselves – some of what motivates our church attendance has a lot to do with our expectations of what we personally might get out of being here.
Pastors are not exempt from this dynamic. In fact, pastors might be more prone to self-serving professional motives than many. Given our fallen state, we enter into pastoral ministry and other forms of leadership in the church in part so that we can be personally fed and egotistically puffed up in one way or another. Religious leadership is very seductive in these ways and can attract a lot of the wrong people for the wrong reasons.
Which brings us back to James and John, among the circle of the closest disciples and leaders. Jesus asked the sons of thunder what they wanted. Again, they were shamelessly honest and asked something over the top in keeping with their nickname. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
That’s quite a request indeed, again revealing the glory seeking that is often behind the motivations to go into public religious leadership.
Jesus was also shamelessly honest in his reply to James and John: “You do not know what you are asking.” Jesus then basically asked them in response: are you able to suffer the things that I am about to suffer?
James and John offered an impetuous, unthinking response: “We are able.”
Jesus then prophetically responds in essence, yes, they’ll undergo suffering in Jesus’ name, but it’s still not Jesus’ authority to grant them to sit at his right or left in glory.
This whole exchange provoked the ire of the other ten disciples who took offense at James’ and John’s pompous request.
In response, Jesus then claimed another occasion to teach the disciples. He said, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers are domineering and lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.”
Gentile rulers, namely the Roman emperors and their governors, were indeed ruthless in their exercise of raw power. They were truly tyrants. Jewish people in Jesus’ day knew this full well from their communal first-hand experience under Roman imperial oppression. Jesus knew tyrannical rule from his time on the cross, a tool of deadly humiliation by those in power.
We’ve seen tyrants throughout human history. And it’s shocking to me today to see how many people in populist, nationalist movements are attracted to authoritarian leaders, so-called strongmen – and yes, they are almost always men….
Jesus, of course, teaches about a different way of leadership. In contrast to the Gentile rulers lording it over their subjects as tyrants, Jesus says, “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.”
Then in reference to himself, Jesus concludes: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life [as] a ransom for many.”
What does this servant leadership look like in particular? In the case of Jesus of Nazareth, this leadership has the shape of a cross. That Mark refers here to Jesus giving his life as a ransom for many is yet another pointing to the Passion, the last days of Jesus’ earthly ministry and the atoning effects of Jesus’ self-offering on the cross in love.
But we also see poetic expressions of such servant leadership in the servant song in today’s first reading from Isaiah, passages made famous to many of us by Handel’s Messiah. “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:4-5) Reading aloud these words, I cannot help but hear the music of Handel which adds to the depth, poignancy, and gravitas of Isaiah’s prophetic vision of the suffering servant.
The author of Hebrews, today’s second reading, also reveals the nature of Jesus’ servant leadership, conceived in terms of the priestly nature of Jesus’ ministry, where it reads: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” (Hebrews 5:7) Christ, as our high priest, a mediator between God and humanity, interceded and intercedes on our behalf, and did and does so with empathy, in suffering with us, expressed in loud cries and tears.
This is what it means for Jesus to exercise servant leadership.
But today’s encounter with Jesus in Mark does not end with what Jesus did. No, Jesus calls James and John and the other disciples – and ultimately us – also to the life of servant leadership.
Here’s what Mark reports that Jesus said to James and John: “The cup [of suffering] that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism [of martyrdom] with which I am baptized, you will be baptized….” These words echo through the centuries to us today, we who claim to follow Jesus.
Here’s the thing, engaging again in a moment of reality therapy: How can broken, sinful people who are still beguiled by the ways of worldly power and glory ever hope to be imitators of Christ in servant leadership in how we go about the business of leadership in the church and in the world?
We, of course, cannot do it on our own. That’s the bad news. The good news is that in Christ, we have help. Jesus endured the baptism of his death on the cross which was transformed into the reality of resurrected life. When we are baptized, we are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, and thus receive as a gift Christ’s power in en-Spirited sacramentality, to take up the cross to follow him. In short, Christ Jesus leads the way to and opens the door for the possibility of our servant leadership.
Moreover, when we drink from the sacramental cup, we take in what Christ did when he drank the cup of his own suffering. Because Christ drank this cup, we are emboldened to drink from this cup as well, empowering us when we suffer in Jesus’ name. Likewise, when we eat the bread, which for Jesus was bread of tears on the eve before his death on the cross, we receive from Christ what enabled him and us to persevere through a vale of tears.
Think about what happens when we eat and drink at our meals. Whether it’s meat or vegetable, we take into ourselves in dead form what was a living organism. We ingest all of its nutrients, everything that made for its life and vitality. We cannot live without consuming, eating and drinking, that which once also was alive, even if we are vegans. In meat and vegetable, we consume the energy of the sun in the form of carbon, the energies of which make all of life possible.
Eating and drinking, therefore, even commonly understood in our ordinary, everyday life experience, shares in dynamics that parallel and suggest death and resurrection.
How much more so when it is Christ’s very self that we consume. Christ is the cup from which we drink. In drinking from this cup, we take on the energy of the Son – not the solar entity, s-u-n, but the Son, s-o-n, of the living God.
Wow. That is quite something. So, we are not left without the means through which we can be empowered to engage in servant leadership in our ministry and mission.
Another way of putting it is perhaps this: We are what we eat. When we eat and drink Christ, we incorporate his very presence and power which makes it possible for us, even feebly, to offer ourselves to others in loving service.
Still more, that which is foreign to us, alien to us, apart from us, in drinking and eating, we take in, incorporating that otherness into ourselves to become what had been foreign to us, and then to do what is foreign to our nature, namely, to serve and not to be served.
In this sacramental case, it is God’s alien righteousness, a righteousness not our own, which is Christ’s gift to us, that which we eat and drink.
It’s a marvel. So it is that we proclaim, “for as often as [we] eat this bread and drink the cup, [we] proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:26)
Then we also proclaim the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
Thus, through sacramental means in being bathed in the water of baptism, and in eating and drinking in Holy Communion, we can approximate becoming in fits and starts the servant leaders Christ calls us to be precisely because we take on, incorporate Christ’s very powers, his very dynamism, into ourselves so to do. Again, we are what we eat. Or we become what we eat – as Luther said, little Christs for the sake of the world.
Thus, in the length and breadth of Christian history, countless saints immersed in word and sacrament have offered to the world their servant leadership in Jesus’ name, servant leader saints like Martin Luther King, Jr, prophet for justice and martyr; Elizabeth Fedde, Lutheran deaconess who served the downtrodden in Brooklyn; Perpetua and Felicity and companions, martyrs; Oscar Romero, martyr; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyr; Jan Hus, martyr; Bartolome de Las Casas, servant of justice for indigenous people; Florence Nightingale, servant in nursing; Dag Hammarskjold, servant in diplomatic service – to name just a few of those whom we commemorate in our Lutheran calendar of commemorations, persons who offered themselves in loving service in Christ-like fashion.
Thus, too, in Christ, and in communion with countless servant saints, we go out into the world enabled, empowered by word and sacrament to lead in our own fledgling versions of serving. Thanks be to God. Amen.