A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
Headline: Preaching Eternal Life Closes Church
October 22, 2006
Pentecost 20 Mark 10:35-45
Last week Elaine Wainwright spoke of the inconvenient truth that having eternal life is not something we can put off until tomorrow, it is in our grasp today. What is inconvenient is that it means choosing to live an ethical life now.
This week we get a glimpse of the implications of that truth. James and John have just made an end run around their mates to grab power. If we can't be number one, make sure the one who is depends on us. Their power, honour and glory have to rub off somewhere. Why not on us? It's a perfectly natural desire, even if it is wiser not to own up to it. Many a preacher today will give a fine sermon about how James and John don't get it. Seeking upward mobility is not the route to eternal life.
As worthy a sermon as that would be, that isn't the sermon you get to hear.
One of the interesting ramifications of having a major shift in your theology, I am discovering, is that you don't read familiar passages in the same comfortable way. When your theology no longer has room for an external, personal God somewhere out “there”; when your view of Jesus is that he is no more or less human than ourselves; it becomes difficult to simply accept without question the Gospel's account of his words and actions. The Gospels are not an account of Jesus' life. They are the early church's interpretation and explanation of that life. They are written from the perspective of hindsight and with the benefit of untold hours of theological reflection. His followers are trying to make sense of this man who did not behave according to expected norms. They are coloured by what was happening in the Christian community at the time and the challenges they were facing trying to follow him. Like a pebble in your shoe his life kept irritating them, challenging the way they understood the world to be or at least wanted it to be. The Gospels reflect our human need to resolve uncomfortable tension by putting Jesus in a box we can make sense of. The “Son of God” box is what they used and for the next 2000 years generations of followers just accepted their work and conclusions, without doing the work for themselves in their own context.
Unfortunately their conclusions no longer make sense for me. I know this because Jesus irritates me now more than ever. It is annoying to me that at age 57 I have to re-examine my worldview. He has slipped out of his box and is raising havoc with my carefully shaped assumptions. I long for when I could just accept the traditional view that he was the instrument of a personal God cleaning up the mess we've made of things, relieving me of all responsibility except to acknowledge him as Lord. This view let me off the hook. Jesus by this interpretation is one-of-a-kind, instead of an example of what each of us is capable. There is no way I can emulate the one-of-a-kind Jesus, besides I don't have to, that Jesus has already done my work for me.
My former view let me easily slip into focusing on the differences between the one-of-a-kind Jesus and us instead of our similarities with the historical Jesus. I could look at James' and John's all too human tendency to climb over the backs of others for personal gain and go “Tsk, tsk. People like them are the problem with the world today. Just look at Bush and Blair. At least when I'm trying to shine up my CV I'm trying to make the world a better place.”
That was such a self-satisfying way to read the Gospel. But if I have to look at my capacity to be Jesus, my focus has to shift from James and John to what Jesus was about.
Today's Gospel is more likely about some power struggle happening in the infant church at the time Mark was writing it than about what Jesus really said or did on the road to Jerusalem. I suspect this because while a human Jesus certainly knew he was becoming a dangerous irritant to the authorities which did not bode well for him, he had no way of knowing what the outcome would be at this point in the story. He certainly hadn't already sent out invitations to the Last Supper to which he refers. What does come through of the human Jesus in Mark's account is that he apparently wasn't interested in proving or using earthly or heavenly power, even for his own holy purposes.
This character trait preserved in the collective memory of those who followed him and passed on to others is probably for real. It is certainly an inconvenient memory for the church to preserve as it was busy structuring itself in a hierarchical manner just like the emperor's court. If this characteristic wasn't as undeniable as it is inconvenient, it surely would have been edited out at some point. After all, power and authority would become the bread and butter of the church, justified by its godly desire to be the gateway to heaven. It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.
What is striking about this memory of Jesus is his not being flattered by James' and John's recognition of his being a rising star and their desire to tie their wagons to it. How abnormal. His leadership style doesn't seem to need them. Yet, don't leaders need loyal followers, parents need children, teachers need students, doctors need patients, and preachers need congregations?
Jesus' example says, apparently not. Now that's irritating.
This Jesus seems to recognise that human interaction is fraught with conflict because each of us wants our own way. But the only way any of us can achieve this outcome is if the other chooses to be or is forced to be subservient to our will. That seems to be a great solution for the one whose will is being met, but is less satisfactory for the one who has had to put their desires on hold. As we have all had times when we have not gotten our way, we know the resentment and envy this engenders. We put up with it in the hope that some day we will get to impose our will. The world says that's the way it has to be. Better that some of us get our way than none at all.
This Jesus says, “Not so.” Getting your own way isn't all it's cracked up to be. The superior one has to live with the knowledge that getting their way requires someone else giving up theirs. They need that person to recognise their superiority in order to have it. As there is always the possibility they will no longer do so or will demand that turn about is fair play, they become a threat, but a threat they need. This can lead to loathing and contempt. The superior person knows there is no difference between himself and the one he depends on to maintain his position. The natural response is to diminish the other so as to justify their place in the general order. The proof of this is everywhere. Look at how men traditionally treat women, or Pakeha often refer to Maori, or how straights denigrate gays and lesbians, or Christians portray those who believe differently. The problem with diminishing others is that we are diminished as well.
Jesus' leadership style invites us to avoid this ultimately destructive trap. By not needing others to fulfil us and define us, we no longer need to seek domination. Our power and authority come from within. They are not dependent on others. How else could the master wash his disciples' feet and not be diminished? He invites others to follow, he doesn't force them. They maintain free will and the capacity to choose. He loses nothing if they don't. He teaches those who wish to be his students, but if they don't he is no less a teacher. He offers eternal life for our sake; he does not require it for his own.
This Jesus did not create this truth. He simply lives it. Even as he is denied, rejected and executed, he is still not diminished. By the world's standards, he is hardly a sterling example of leadership. I suppose that is the most annoying thing about the man. That is why he remains for me an itch I can't quite reach. We know he's right. We all know leaders who form leaders. We all know doctors who make their patients well. We all know parents who raise their children to leave home. We all know teachers who graduate their students. I suppose the only question left is do we know any preachers who don't want their congregation to show up because they are too busy living eternal life? There is always the chance this could happen. If Jesus was capable of living this way, so are we. If next week Glynn asks where everybody is, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.