Pentecost +21: Little rebellions

Rebel Rebel
"Rebel Rebel" by Thomas Hawk, on Flickr
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." (Mark 10:35-45)


I read an absolutely atrocious op-ed piece last week written by a man trying to explain for the world what women voters are looking for in a presidential candidate. He held up archaic fictional men from movies and television as examples of rugged strength, on the one hand, and sensitive strength, on the other hand. He tried to draw conclusions about what sort of powerful man a woman would vote for. It was pretty awful.

But it also reflected something of the culture that has surrounded both presidential debates thus far, and the media culture of this election: our focus on perceived power and strength in each of the candidates. Following the debates, the critera for “winning” each debate turned out not to be the strength of ideas and policies. The criteria became who portrayed themselves with more strength and more power; who was more aggressive; whose persona embodied the weighty power of the presidential office. And so our election rhetoric has devolved into polarities: power versus weakness, strength versus softness.

Today’s gospel begins with this same concern for power. James and John approach Jesus, cool and confident that he will give them whatever they ask, and request that they be given seats of honor and power when Jesus comes into his kingdom, one sitting at his right hand and one at his left. They want Jesus to assure them that following him will bring them glory and reward and power.

And Jesus’ response? “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

Or in other words, the point of the gospel is not power and glory as the world would have us understand it, but rather the power of God in acts of kindness, compassion, and service to one another.

What James and John could not see, and what the squabbling disciples could not yet understand, is that we do not follow Jesus for power or prestige, and that following Jesus requires that we follow him all the way to the cross.

Martin Luther’s theology of the cross asks the question, “Where is God to be found?” And the answer is that God is not to be found in places of glory, but rather in Jesus on the cross, at the heart of human suffering. As implied in the famous sheep-and-goats parable in Matthew 25, Jesus is to be found in the faces of the sick, the hungry, the naked, and the poor…and not in our images of power.

And so today’s gospel has a little bite to it as it simultaneously convicts and comforts us.

It convicts us because we are so human, just like James and John, and just like the rest of the disciples. We buy in to the promises of power and glory that tempt us every day, to the lure of success and of material gain, to lofty and self-aggrandizing campaign promises, to dreams of fame and fortune, to self-help messages encouraging us to look out for number one.

And unfortunately, even among Christians, within the church, we face temptation to lord our faith over the faith or unbelief of others. Some use their faith greedily, to secure their own need for wealth and fame. Some preach the false message that faith brings material prosperity and power. Some use their faith to speak with arrogant certainty about who God has judged with mercy and who God has condemned for all eternity. Some use their understanding of faith to claim superiority over others.

One of the most hurtful things that has ever been said to me took place one summer in college, when I was working for an ecumenical youth missions organization. An older colleague, in the midst of a conversation about Christian denominations, told me that my Lutheran-ness was a sign of spiritual immaturity, and that he, being older and more spiritually mature, had picked the right form of Christianity in his evangelicalism. I’m not quite sure what he was trying to insult – my faith, my church, my trust in the wideness of God’s mercy, my view of scripture, my age, my gender – who knows. But I walked away from that conversation dumbfounded how any Christian person might matter-of-factly say something as demeaning as “I am more spiritually mature than you.”

Yes, even with the best of intentions, all of us humans fall prey to the lure of holding power and superiority over others, even those of us who are trying our best to follow Jesus. And so this gospel today convicts us to pray daily for humility and forgiveness, and for God to give us servant hearts.

But the gospel is not only there to convict us. Today’s gospel also comforts us in a big way. It reminds us that God loves us and calls us, even in our weaknesses, to live as his servants in the world, free to live for compassion and humility rather than worldly power or glory. As people of faith, we are free to do feeble, small, humble things in response to God’s love, things which the grandeur of the world can’t quite comprehend.

We gather together in this place, where we do simple things like splash water around, and eat a poor man’s feast of bread and wine, and do low-tech things like praying together and singing together. We sit together around coffee and share our lives, we get together to read a common book of faith, we bring our children here to eat together and sing together and study together. We also do simple things like cooking food for hungry people and collecting money for to helpless people and collecting everyday objects like towels and bars of soap to give to needy people.

How strange and powerless these things must look to the eyes of a world which are so often fixed on images of power and aggression!

But it is these and other small acts of faithfulness that serve as antidote to the corrupting nature of power. It is these small acts of faithfulness which serve as tiny but necessary rebellions against power-hungry and self-seeking structures in our world.

Did you know that you are a rebel?

When you follow Jesus’ instruction to love your enemies, you are rebelling against war and violence. When you show compassion to your neighbors, you are rebelling against political systems that promise us personal gain at the expense of others. When we choose to stand with the poor and oppressed, we rebel against the myth that we can all be rich and successful if we just work hard enough. When we offer one another grace and forgiveness, we are rebelling our culture’s overwrought sense of justice and retribution. Following Jesus lets us be patient, generous, and compassionate in the very places where the world would expect us to be impatient, selfish, and unkind.

There is nothing glamorous about all of this. Of course, there’s also nothing terribly glamorous about following a dusty carpenter who touches all sorts of sick people and washes people’s feet and embarrasses religious and political leaders and who, at the end, is executed like any other common criminal.

But it’s not about the glamor, and we know it.

It’s about the promise: The son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. We live as servants of God and one another because we have been redeemed by God’s own suffering servant. We follow Jesus even to the weakness of death because we have been promised life.

So how can you live as a rebel this week? How can you set aside the lure of wealth and power and instead pursue compassion and justice? How is God calling you not to be served, but to serve?

For it is in our serving that we come face to face with Jesus, the redeemer of the world. And it is in our weakness that find God’s strength. And it is in dying to ourselves that we receive back the full measure of God’s glory revealed to us through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, our savior, our servant, and our life-giving Lord.


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