Saturday, September 19, 2009

Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.

Jeremiah 11.18-20
Psalm 54
James 3.13-4 and 7-8a
Mark 9.30-37

A couple of good friends from work and I regularly eat together at lunch and on one occasion, as we were sitting down to eat, one of them announced that it was his custom to say a prayer before the meal. Would we mind? Now he knows that I am a Christian so this was no big deal to me but he was concerned that we didn’t feel obliged to join in. We sat with our heads bowed appropriately as he intoned Bismillahi wa 'ala baraka-tillah. “With Allah's name and upon the blessings granted by Allah do we eat.”

Our Sikh friend shuffled uncomfortably at this point but only because he realized that he could not think of an appropriate prayer of blessing the food from his own tradition.

We chat a lot, the three of us, about religion and faith and about the mad things some religious people do. We can laugh at the foibles of each others faiths and our own. What we have never done is to get competitive or start weighing up the merits of the various claims each of our faith positions asserts about the nature of God’s grace and issues of salvation. This I think is the mistake many people make in religious dialogue. You can probably imagine the conversation: “O.K. guys we’ve reached the point where I need to tell you that you’ve both got it wrong. My way is right. You need to know Jesus.” Now I know there are many who would take that line and not just with my Muslim and Sikh friends but with other Christians. The INTERNET is full of examples of one Christian calling another “False Christian” for not assenting to the exact detail of the first one’s religious worldview whether this be on the authority of scripture, the role of women in holy orders, issues of human sexuality, climate change or whatever. I have actually seen written down “You are banned from this blog. You are not a Christian because a true Christian would not accuse another of not being a Christian.” I have been told that I can not possibly understand the truth (that would be the truth as someone else saw it) because of my “sin-darkened mind.” (Ah, that-sin darkened mind of mine. I knew it would catch up with me in the end.)

Actually we all do it to a greater or lesser extent: I remember feeling irrationally annoyed at the Jehovah’s Witness who didn’t have to come into assembly on the off chance the Head of Year might say a prayer. I used to feel superior to the Evangelicals who wouldn’t let their kids read Harry Potter because it encouraged witchcraft and I exchanged knowing smiles with likeminded people when the Anglo Catholic at college decided to start community prayers with a Hail Mary.

Last Easter at the college residential we were studying “Communicating the Gospel”. We visited a Mosque and a Gurdwara (where in the tradition of Sikh hospitality we were very well fed). We attended a Synagogue for the Jewish Passover, Anglican Choral Evensong, Catholic Mass and an Orthodox Easter Morning service.

When my head had stopped hurting and I had processed it all what I realized was that I’d been given glimpses into ways of faith which were different to mine. Competitiveness was pointless and such “who’s the greatest” discussions equally so. On my better days I simply strive to become more like Jesus as I follow the path of Christian discipleship in Obedience to God and in the strength of the Spirit. I regularly fail but, in the context of my own failures, questions of who is better than someone else seem infantile.

How wrong those disciples had got it! What a fundamental and basic mistake! To be demonstrating their individual jealousies and selfish ambitions as they argue about which of them is the greatest, at the same time as Jesus was predicting the true nature of his Messiahship is a breathtaking juxtaposition of ideas. Add to that the hint that because they didn’t much like the message thus far, they were unwilling to ask him more and we begin to see another side to Jesus’ followers.

Jesus had just shared his intuition of the inevitability of his own death and they are bickering about who is the natural successor.

I told you last week that Mark often presents the disciples as dull-witted and slow to catch on. Well here they are at their worst. Their proximity to Jesus doesn’t bring them understanding and the Gospels parade a stream of other characters before them and us who reveal wonderful insights into Jesus’ mission that leave the disciples far behind in their understanding. That is deliberate on Mark’s part. There is a warning here that we should not be modeling our discipleship so much on their example as the examples of the other insightful characters Jesus deals with.

But before we get too self-congratulatory we might want to question to what extent we are guilty of doing the same as the disciples. Who knows? Perhaps it is a necessary stage we each have to go through as disciples before we can truly appreciate the depth of what Jesus is trying to teach us. Perhaps we would all do well to consider the levels of competitiveness we exhibit in the workplace, in our hobbies, in our relationships with “the other” in society, at home even, as we vie for position in these little hierarchies and fail to hear the wider teaching of Jesus. Add to that the times when the message is just a little too threatening or demanding for us to want to take it any further and we may, worryingly, discover that we are not so different to the original twelve.

This should be quite a disturbing passage to all of us if we remember not to distinguish between the disciples of then and today. What exactly does it mean to be “servant” then? In quite what sense do you mean “last”? These are not ideas we naturally associate with our lives. This teaching is really counter-cultural.

We already know from last week’s Gospel that while they understood the concept of Messiahship they did not at all like Jesus’ interpretation of it. He has to repeatedly push home the message of rejection, suffering and death and until they take this on board they will not understand the implications of what follows as a consequence: that God’s love is real and triumphs over death. Let’s be clear: Jesus is battling on two fronts here. Not only is he experiencing resistance from the religious authorities and the civil authorities but he is struggling with his own followers. Time and time again Jesus must re-emphasize the difference between the values of the Kingdom of God and the values of this world, values that include status, position, power and influence. That’s some contrast with the ideas of servanthood and being last.

Once again we have the benefit of hindsight as Jesus, of course, goes on to show them and us what servanthood and putting everyone else first – and that’s everyone in a cosmic sense – really means. Jesus’ choices in this section of the Gospel simultaneously confirm his violent fate and his identity as God incarnate who, through death and resurrection, offers each of us everlasting life. The Disciples would not understand this until Mary Magdalene, a mere woman just to underline the point, spells out to them the reality of the resurrection.

This is the point where the words of the Epistle should doubly rebuke us. James, using the style of traditional Jewish Wisdom literature, exhorts his readers to recognize the "wisdom from above." Such wisdom is "pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy" (James 3:17). On the other hand, "bitter envy and selfish ambition" does not come from above, "but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish". What a shame Jesus’ followers didn’t have access to this wisdom then, but we do and we should learn from their mistakes.

That is easy to say of course. How easy it is for us to lack the self-awareness needed to recognize the personal agendas each of us is motivated by and how difficult, once we do recognize them, to truly put them aside. We are modern day disciples. Are we like the original twelve, too close to the trees to see the wood? Have we built up in our own minds a sense of privilege that gets in the way of our true servanthood? In the same way that the first disciples had to learn from the Centurion and the Syrophoenician woman, foreigners both and thus perceived to be outside the boundaries of God’s grace and not in the privileged position of standing side by side daily with Jesus, maybe I have something to learn about the nature of God and discipleship from Shakir and Jagtar when we have our lunchtime discussions.

Perhaps we all need to analyze ourselves to see whether we too are exhibiting that same flawed disciple reasoning and behaviour and maybe, too, to see who else is around us who has the startling insights that we don’t expect or which we dismiss too easily because of who they come from.