A Sermon by Revd Katherine Hedderly
Readings for this service:Job 38. 1-7 (34-end); Hebrews 5. 1-10; Mark 10. 35-45
A clergy friend of mine was a chaplain for a few years supporting lawyers in the City and was attached to St Paul’s Cathedral. Her role, the cathedral said, was the equivalent to that of a minor canon. The only point about this she said seemed to be that it meant she’d know her place in the clergy processions in and out of the cathedral for services. Woe betide her, she said, if she stepped out of line and found herself somewhere where she wasn’t meant to be – with the residential canons, or bishops even – she’d soon put back her in her place like a shot. You’d be surprised how tetchy clergy can become about their ‘position’. It sounds petty and it is. But it’s a reminder of the ways in which even the simplest activities can become overlaid with worldly values of what is important. Of course we’d never be like that at St Martin’s would we!
In our Gospel reading today we hear Jesus helping the slow and stumbling disciples understand where their place is in relation to him and his mission. Rather than squabbling amongst themselves, ambitious for position and privilege, they are to learn what it truly means to be ‘with’ Jesus, both in his suffering and in his glory.
Our reading is set within a longer section of Mark’s Gospel from the middle of chapter 8, during which Jesus speaks three times about his impending death, as he goes up to Jerusalem, the three ‘passion predictions’, the last of which comes just before today’s reading. All the way through Jesus is trying to teach the disciples what it means to follow him, what true discipleship is. It is a deep life of suffering and service.
Following Christ is about living with, not trying to avoid, suffering, because suffering, his suffering, puts us in touch with the real depths of God’s love. It is about serving others because that is life-giving, for the one we serve and for us, and it brings us closest to Christ. It is about living differently, counter-culturally, not grasping power, or position, or influence, even when they are so tempting and seem to be ‘the way everyone else does it’ or ‘the way to get things done’. Suffering and service are ways for us to live differently because that is the way of God’s kingdom. And ultimately Jesus teaches that he will give his life, in suffering and service, to save us. That is the glory that the disciples are invited to share. Will the disciples understand and will they go with him. Will we?
Despite the teaching they have received it’s clear that James and John are still guided by worldly values, as they ask for positions of privilege, to sit at Jesus’s right and left hand in his glory. Not long before, the disciples have been arguing about who was the greatest amongst them. Knowing this, Jesus set the example of a little child before them, to teach them about humility and the upside down values of the kingdom, but they haven’t learned that lesson yet. Perhaps as the ones who, with Peter. had been witnesses at his Transfiguration to the glory shining out of Jesus, James and John are still overwhelmed by that experience. They want the glory but they don’t understand the way, that the ‘glory’ Jesus will undergo in Jerusalem, means his passion and the cross.
Jesus is surprisingly patient with the disciples. ‘You do not know what you are asking’, he says. To make clear what sharing in his glory will mean Jesus responds with a question; ‘Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptised with the baptism with which I am baptised?’
‘The Cup’ in the Old Testament refers to the suffering that those who act for God will have to endure. We hear it in Jeremiah and like this passage from Isaiah: “O Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the Lord the cup of his wrath, who have drunk to the dregs the bowl of staggering.” Baptism, they would know also from the Old Testament as meaning being overwhelmed or drowning in suffering, particularly from the Psalms, like this in psalm 124, ‘Then the torrent would have gone over us, then over us would have gone the raging waters.’ Drinking from the cup and being baptised it’s clear will mean sharing in Jesus’s suffering and death, who drinks the dregs of our sinfulness and goes under to save us. James and John are over-eager to say that they are able. For those who know how the passion story plays out, the irony is that it is the two criminals who are crucified with Jesus, who will take these two places.
The other disciples have also heard Jesus’ words and are quick to reprimand these two. It’s likely that rather than understanding the truth about Jesus, they are angry at being pushed out by the power-play of James and John, who have put their bid for prominent positions in before them. We know the disciples have left everything to follow Jesus, because Peter has said so. But they haven’t let go of their pride and desire for greatness in worldly terms. This is one more step they will need to make if they are to truly follow.
Once more Jesus seeks to deepen the understanding of all of them. He never gives up on the disciples. It is a pattern we see throughout Mark’s Gospel. It gives us encouragement as we too get it wrong so often. We also like them have to be re-set on course with the truth of the gospel, as we learn how to see Christ more clearly, follow more nearly and love more dearly, letting go of worldly influences and pressures, and taking hold of the way of the deeper life he invites us into. If we are to share his glory, we must follow the same life of loving service and suffering.
Jesus shows the disciples where true authority lies. It is not through the exercise of power or coercion but through a new way, the way of loving service. Jesus and his disciples are to be a new community. A community that operates differently, that will subvert the political structures of power and authority of the world and bring in a new way of living. Look at the way the world operates he says, ‘It is not so among you’, you are to live differently, to set your course by selfless love and by giving up your life for the sake of the gospel. Living like this will set others free. This Jesus tells them, is the hallmark of discipleship and the way to greatness.
It often takes a personal experience of failure or loss in worldly terms, of loosing power or control, for us to find the deeper wisdom of what Jesus is saying. We lose our job, our status, our position and influence, or even our home, or our health, the things that define our lives, and then where are we? I wonder what have been the moments in your own life when your power, influence, or authority were taken away from you. What were the things or people or circumstances that helped you to stay on course, reminded you of your worth and that you were loved, regardless?
I imagine that you were more aware of what really mattered, of who treated you well regardless, of kindness and love and those who stayed alongside, no matter what. Perhaps it was then that you were aware of Christ’s loving attention, of him serving you in the kindness and attention of others. That is when we experience that deeper living Jesus calls the disciples into. Once we have experienced it and known that love, companionship and faithfulness, I suspect we never lose it. Our lives are different.
Someone wrote on Twitter that a person she’d met who was homeless in her city had flung their arms around her and cried last night simply because she’d remembered their name when she bumped into them again, having talked to them earlier in the day.
As Christians we set the course of our lives simply by the love of someone who didn’t hold any wordly power, who washed the feet of those who stumbled and tried to follow him, who offered a totally different way to live and to love, who suffered and gave up his life and risked everything, even the assurance that glory would come.
When we realise this, then where we are in relation to our colleague, or our neighbour who seems to have more than us, or has had the promotion when we’re the one doing all the work, just isn’t important or relevant…all that is relevant is how truly we are living to Christ’s pattern to live differently, how faithful we are being to his call, how close we are to his heart, how attentive we are to those he brings us alongside, who themselves may have lost everything in worldly terms.
Like the disciples we get it wrong, are driven off course by our desires and the undercurrent of the world. But the world will be saved when we stay true to Christ. That might mean that we marched yesterday in this City on the People’s Vote march, it might mean we helped someone out at work and stayed late knowing that no one would notice or give us the credit, but it was good for the team, or perhaps we took the time with our elderly relative or neighbour and gave them time and attention, or we treated someone in the street with dignity when everyone else was passing by, or we held in our heart a place in the world that is hurting, or we tried to look with God’s eyes on someone we don’t like or understand and see them differently.
Jesus giving up his life sets us free. Free to do things differently. To live counter-culturally, aware that his power is made perfect in self-offering.
Jesus invites his disciples to accompany him, in his suffering and in humble service.
He invites us to accompany him too. We do not follow because it gives us status, or privilege or worldly gain, in fact often the opposite.
We do, as John Francis-Friendship puts it in his book ‘Enfolded in Christ’, it’s because we recognise the beauty of service, a beauty rooted in Christ and discover a joy in realising him as the one who inspires our life, whom we long to share with others, who in giving up his life sets the world free.
 Isaiah 51.17
 Psalm 124.4
 ‘Enfolded in Christ: The inner life of a priest’, John Francis-Friendship, Canterbury Press, 2018