A Life of Service

When reading Scripture, I always have to remind myself that we have the entire picture of what is happening but that the Apostles, and those around them, did not.  For the most part, they were blissfully unaware of what was going on around them and what was going to happen to Jesus.  Sometimes I think we are like that.  We go through life not know, or caring in many cases, about what is going on outside of our little world.  We see what we want to see, and we hear what we want to hear.

We encounter this today in the Gospel passage from Mark.  We have to let our imaginations loose and sort of think about what was going through the minds of the Apostles as they walked along the dusty roads with Jesus.  Even though he has told them, on many occasions, what is going to happen they seem to have either forgotten or they just do not want to remember.  Three times now Jesus has told them, directly, what is going to happen, he is going to die, and each time, they react poorly, and it seems they miss the point entirely.

If we go back a little to chapter eight, we have a scene where Peter rebukes Jesus for talking about his rejection and suffering, and Jesus responds to Peter by calling him Satan. As Jesus walked along he used that time for some in-depth discussions and he one again told them of his betrayal, death, and his rising again.

The disciples responded to a lively discussion about who was going to be the greatest.  And now we see that the long passion narrative in Mark’s Gospel has come to an end, and Jesus tells them one more time that he is going to Jerusalem to face his death.

There seems to be a disconnect between the words of Jesus and what happens next.  So dramatic is this disconnect that we may be thinking that a verse has gone missing, but again I remind myself that the Apostles did not have the entire Gospel before them as we do now.  Jesus has just told them, yet again, that he is going to die, and they are like ya ya, but who is going to be the greatest?

At first glance, it may appear that they are ambitious and seeking position but there is another way of thinking about their reaction.  Perhaps they did understand what Jesus was saying, and they were acting out of fear.  Perhaps the revelation of their Master’s death was too much for them to take, and they retreated to a place of security even if it meant a violation of their beliefs and what they had been taught.  Humans react this way in stressful situations, and we want to make sure that our place and our safety is secure no matter what happens to us.  Jesus assures them, and us that in spite of their fear, they will measure up and all will be well.

Perhaps they are speaking out of faith. The question they ask about who will be the greatest can come from ambition but what if James and John were so sure of the final victory of Christ that they wanted to sign up right away to go with him?  No matter how bad things were looking their faith was so secure that they knew what was going to happen, and they wanted to be a part of it.

Be careful what you ask for

But Jesus asks them a question, and I will suggest that he is asking each of us this question as well. Are they truly able to drink from the same cup that he has to drink from?  They respond right away “we are able.”  This suggests that they did not understand what Jesus was asking of them.

Marcus Borg, the great Biblical commentator, explains something of the meaning of Jesus’ words. Both of these terms, he suggests, “drinking the cup” and “baptism,” were “images of death” (Jesus: A New Vision).  Jesus is speaking here of his death, and we know that most of his earliest disciples are said to have been martyred (along with many other early Christians).

In our own time, there are many examples of those killed for their faith. The last time I was with you I spoke of the shooting in Oregon and how the shooter was asking the faith of his victims before he shot them. They died because of their faithfulness to Jesus. But what about the vast majority of Christians today who long to follow Jesus faithfully, but will most probably not (literally) lose their lives for doing so? Borg speaks of this dying as a metaphor with two meanings, both at the core of Christian faith: “a dying of the self as the center of its concern” and “a dying to the world as the center of security and identity.”

This kind of dying leads to transformation when we lose our self-absorbed insecurities and are reborn. Marcus Borg writes, “the radical recentering brings about a change so sharp that it can be described as dying to an old life and being born into a new life.” This happens to different people in different ways, but it needs to involve a “letting go.” And here we come to the heart of the matter, Jesus caused much trouble by challenging the religious leaders of the day, I will point out that the only people Jesus ever rebuked were the religious leaders.  They found their security in what they knew, in the status quo.  We run that same risk in our lives of faith if we seek legitimization of how we are already living rather than accepting the new life offered by Jesus.

We see here that the Apostles are focused on power and prestige and not on service to others. While they argue amongst themselves about who will be the greatest, Jesus is flipping over the tables and paying far more attention to those around him that are in desperate need both physically and spiritually.  He tells them not to be like the religious leaders who lord over them and he tries to turn their ambition away and on to something else, service to others.

This is a challenging Gospel for us and others to hear.  Jesus is asking us to transform our lives and even turn away from our ambitions to seek after others.  He tells his Apostles that whoever wants to be great must be the servant and whoever wishes to be first must become a slave.  This is certainly not the picture we see painted by the world.  The world wants us to grab all that we can while we can no matter the outcome.  As long as it is good for us it is good the world tells us.

But the path of Jesus is radically different and as we heard earlier requires a radical change in our priorities.  This radical transformation requires a rethinking of many of the ideas that we hold dear.  What Jesus was speaking of in 1st century Palestine was so revolutionary for those around him to hear that they killed him for it.  So unsettled were the religious elite that they risked it all to keep their power.

Being a follower of Jesus requires us to walk the same road that he did.  We must walk that dusty path, sometimes alone, knowing that in the end, it will cost us our lives.  But by losing our lives we inherit a greater spiritual life a life of service not to ourselves, but to those around us.

Jesus needs us to flip over the tables of our lives and our thoughts and become new creations of love and service to others. The world needs this radical transformation today perhaps more than any other time in our history and as people of faith we are called to make this transformation.

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