By Joey Royal
My sermon today is about self-sacrifice and being a servant. I realize that may not sound like a very appealing topic, but let me add that it’s also a sermon about joy and freedom. More specifically, it’s about the way joy and freedom come into your lives through the practice of self-sacrifice and serving others. This is counterintuitive, but the idea is that following Jesus for the sake of others is actually the happiest kind of life.
This isn’t my idea, by the way. It’s Jesus’ idea. And he spells it out in our Gospel text today, taken from the tenth chapter of Mark. The subject is greatness. Through conversation with his disciples, Jesus answers the question: How do you become great in the kingdom of God?
The text begins with two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, coming up to Jesus and asking a question: “Teacher, will you do whatever we ask of you?” Let’s stop here for a minute. Does this question sound a little bit sneaky to you? Do their motivations maybe seem a little suspicious? They’re basically saying, “Jesus, we have a question for you, but before we ask the question we need you to promise that you’ll say yes to our request.” It makes me a chuckle a bit, because I suspect that whatever James’ and John’s request is, the intent will be to benefit James and John.
But Jesus plays along and asks them what they want. And, sure enough, their request is a bit sketchy: “Let one of us sit at your right, and the other at your left in your glory.” In our language, they’re asking to be rich and famous and powerful. They know Jesus is a great leader, and they assume that whatever this “kingdom of God” stuff is, it sounds pretty great too, so they want to benefit from that greatness, to bask in it and to have some of it rub off on them.
Jesus’ response may initially sound strange to us. He tells them they don’t really know what they’re asking, and then asks a puzzling question: “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” What is Jesus talking about here? He’s talking about his death. That’s what he means by the cup and the baptism.
There is a lot of irony going on here. When we read the Gospels, we know that Jesus is going to be killed, and that he’s going to be crucified on a cross, with one person on his right and another person on his left. James and John don’t know this. So when they ask to be on his right and left, they’re picturing themselves on thrones, but the reality is that the people beside Jesus are nailed to crosses along with him. That’s why Jesus says they don’t know what they’re talking about. James and John want greatness through power and superiority; Jesus wants greatness through weakness and humility.
So James and John badly miss the point here, but I want you to notice that nowhere does Jesus scold them or tell them that their desire for greatness in and of itself is wrong. Nowhere does Jesus tell them to get rid of their ambition. No. Jesus seems to be saying: Do you want to be great? Do you want to make a difference in the world? Do you want to leave an impact on people? Good — that’s a fine desire to have. The question, though, is: What does greatness consist of? How do you achieve that greatness? The problem isn’t wanting greatness; the problem is wanting the wrong kind of greatness.
For Jesus, there are essentially two different understandings of greatness. The first is a very familiar one, familiar to us and familiar to Jesus’ first disciples. This is greatness at the expense of others. Or you could put it another way: It’s greatness over against others. For an example of this kind of greatness, Jesus points to the pagan rulers in his day. Their definition of greatness was all about subduing, controlling and conquering others. The assumption is that there isn’t enough greatness to go around, so you flex your muscles and stomp on anyone who gets in your way. You become great over against other people.
The pagan rulers in Jesus’ day were ruthless about this. But our culture has something of this too. When I was young, there was a slogan that was on T-shirts and bumper stickers: “He who dies with the most toys wins.” In other words, life is a contest for greatness. The person who takes the most from other people is the winner. Others are barriers to getting what we want, or they are tools we can use to get what we want. Implicit is the idea that greatness is something you achieve by rising higher than other people and becoming superior to them.
That’s the kind of greatness the disciples were after, and I think if we’re honest it’s the kind of greatness we often want. I’m sure we can all think of times in our lives when we built ourselves up by putting others down. The problem is not the desire for greatness; the problem is any kind of greatness that comes at the expense of other people.
Jesus has a completely different understanding of greatness. In fact, you could say that Jesus completely redefines greatness. For Jesus, it’s not greatness over against others but greatness for the benefit of others. It’s not greatness by rising above other people; it’s greatness by humbling yourself lower than others. This is radical, countercultural stuff — it turns the world as we know it upside down.
Listen to how Jesus describes it: “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around, and when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. And this is the main point: Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not to be served — and then to give away in life in exchange for many who are held hostage.”
Jesus is saying: You want to be great? You want to make a difference in the world, to leave your mark in the lives of other people? Good. Then first you need to realize that true greatness has nothing to do with controlling people, nothing to do with the powerful rising above the weak, and nothing to do with feeding your ego. No, true greatness is found in humbling yourself and lowering yourself. True greatness is found in serving other people, in becoming like a slave. Not climbing to the top of the ladder, but climbing down and stepping off the ladder entirely.
Jesus uses some shocking words here: Servant. Slave. Giving your life away. Is this actually good news? Why would anybody want to live this way? Is this actually a path to greatness, or is it a path to misery and continually being used as a doormat by others?
I began this morning by telling you that this is a sermon about self-sacrifice and serving others, but then I also said that this is a sermon about freedom and joy, particularly about the way you find freedom and joy by humbling yourself and becoming a servant. So, we’ve seen plenty of sacrifice and service, but what about freedom and joy?
I admit that finding freedom and joy in the teaching of Jesus is not always obvious. Sometimes the things Jesus wants us to do sound severe, impractical, and completely unappealing. After all, which of us actually is giddy at the idea of becoming a slave?
We assume that we’re most free when we’re left to our own devices, and that to obey Jesus is equivalent to stepping into a prison. When we’re on our own, we imagine ourselves in this big open space, and we imagine that obeying Jesus is like stepping into a little room with bars on the windows. Being on our own looks like freedom and following Jesus looks like slavery — that’s how it looks from the outside looking in.
But once we obey Jesus and step into the little room, things look very different. We realize that the room is far bigger than we thought, and that there aren’t actually any bars on the windows. And the longer we stay in that room the bigger it grows, the more at home we become. We feel more alive and more like ourselves. We also look out and realize that the world we used to live in — the one we thought was so big and wide open — is actually very small, and it begins to look more and more like a tiny prison.
I don’t know if that metaphor works for you, but what I’m trying to get at is that the way of Jesus, even though at first it sounds severe and impractical, is actually a way of unimaginable freedom and profound joy. The people who are most free are those with the fewest needs. The happiest people are those who take delight in helping others. Imagine what a neighborhood, or a city, or a church would look like if we all lived that way. Imagine the impact on the world if people all sought their happiness in the happiness of others.
I sometimes worry that people feel despair after hearing this. They hear Jesus’ call to be a servant, and they realize how often they fall short of that, and then conclude that they’ll never be good enough for Jesus. You might assume that since you’re inconsistent, what’s the point? I have two responses to that from the Gospels.
First, in the Gospels, the disciples are at least as inconsistent as you are. You are no worse off than they are, and they walked with Jesus every day, and heard the words directly from Jesus’ mouth. They failed regularly, but they kept coming back to Jesus. They frequently missed the point of Jesus and the kingdom of God, but they kept listening to Jesus give that call again and again. The call is not perfection, but perseverance.
Second, Jesus is very patient. Jesus does not give up on his disciples, even though their life falls far short of what they’re called to. Jesus patiently explains himself again and again to them. He never softens or sugarcoats the call. He just patiently tells them again.
So, the lesson is this: Follow Jesus for the sake of others. Be a servant and you will be great in the kingdom of God. And if you, like so many of Jesus’ disciples, realize how you fall short, then welcome to the club. You won’t get this right all the time; just be willing to stick with Jesus, and just keep coming back to Jesus to hear the call again. Amen.
The Rt. Rev. Joseph (Joey) Royal is suffragan bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada’s Diocese of the Arctic.