It’s really hard to appreciate the strangeness of this Gospel passage if you don’t know where it comes in the overall story. Jesus has been traveling throughout the land, teaching, exorcising, and healing. His reputation has grown, and his disciples regard him with awe. He is now heading for Jerusalem, where, as he has already told them twice, he will be condemned and killed and then will rise again.
Now, as they approach Jericho, just a day’s walk from the city, he tells them again, this time in gruesome detail, the fate that awaits him. “We are going to Jerusalem where the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him and spit upon him, and flog him and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”
Three times he has said this. And they don’t get it. Peter tries to argue with him; the others turn inward and start squabbling over who will be in charge when he’s gone.
Now, immediately after the third passion prediction, here come the Zebedee brothers, known as the sons of thunder, known for their impetuosity – remember, they jumped out of their father’s fishing boat and left him high and dry, so to speak, to follow Jesus. They hear Jesus predicting his own betrayal and death and they respond by demanding the seats of honor at his victory banquet. It doesn’t get much stranger than this. Did they not hear the bit about suffering and death? Or are they thinking that he will rise again in those who will continue his mission, and so they want to position themselves as the next leaders of the Messianic movement? Either way, they have missed some part of what he’s telling them. They have completely misunderstood the nature of Jesus’s power.
Jesus gives them a chance to take it back: are you sure you know what you are getting into, he asks.
This is a question everyone with any ambition should be asked. Think of all the people in our world who seek power. Are you sure you know what you are getting into? We can all tell stories of someone who achieved a position of power and influence only to find out that it wasn’t nearly as much fun as they expected. Sometimes there’s a spectacular and public flameout; sometimes a painful recovery is possible, but the personal cost is significant. There was a national conversation earlier this year about the lack of female candidates on the slate for Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. Several women bishops would have qualified, but apparently none of them consented to be nominated. Do you know what you are asking?
High office comes with a high price, and I’m not just talking about the obscene amount of money being spent on presidential campaigns. I’ve been enjoying the TV drama, House of Cards, recently – the Kevin Spacey version. It’s fun to watch because the characters take such delight in being so bad, it is so melodramatic, and yet I’m all too aware that there’s more than a hint of truth in the portrayal of how the political sausage is made. But in real life, perhaps things are a little more hopeful. Perhaps we are beginning to learn as a nation that the cost of ambition can sometimes be too great, as we eavesdrop on Joe Biden’s discernment about getting in the Presidential race and witness the reluctance of House Republicans to take the Speaker’s role. Maybe, at last, we are starting to understand that occupying the seat of power means occupying a very hot seat indeed, and that the faithful choice might indeed be the choice to serve, rather than to win at any price.
In our own community of St Paul’s we have been looking for people to accept several leadership roles, both staff and volunteer: you will notice a “want ad” type notice in your Cathedral Life leaflet today, and we are starting to discern who might be called to serve on Chapter in the coming year. This week I hope to announce the calling of our new Director of Administrative Operations. I am deeply grateful to our Human Resources Committee and especially the chair, Marshall Moore, for guiding us through that search process.
I asked each finalist two questions: What draws you to work at St Paul’s? And then, What gives you pause about St Paul’s? I saw these as the “Do you know what you are asking” questions. Did the candidates indicate an awareness of the kind of community, the kind of workplace, that we are? Did they demonstrate an understanding of the kind of leader we need in the office? The answers were very illuminating and helped us make our decision.
As followers of Jesus we are all called to be servants. I am very intentional when I introduce myself each Sunday as one who serves as Dean. Our reason for being here is to form disciples, to teach and learn how best to serve one another for Jesus’s sake. We do this lifelong formation through our worship, through our educational activities, through outreach and advocacy, and through our giving of time, talent, and treasure.
We may resist the reality of the Cross as the disciples resisted it – and we do – but our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection requires us also to undergo a kind of death, to bury our individual desire for power and satisfaction and to surrender to God’s values which turn the world’s notion of power upside down, so that we may live into the fullness of the Kingdom of God.
What does it mean to be baptized into the death of Jesus, to drink the cup that he has drunk?
It means learning how to be a servant. It means finding our place in the Kingdom as followers of one who served us by giving his life for us. It means taking care of the resources entrusted to us, whether they be this magnificent Cathedral, or our gifts and talents, or the people we encounter, or this fragile earth, our island home.
We serve a God who cares for every detail of creation, who laid the foundations of the earth, and who became human in the form of a servant. Now we are called in our turn to serve. Richard Gillard wrote a hymn that has come to be known as the Servant Song. It speaks to us today.
Here’s the first verse.
Will you let me be your servant,
Let me be as Christ to you,
Pray that I may have the grace
To let you be my servant too.
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges
18 October 2015