Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 21 October 2012 : Year B, Proper 24
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
A politician was once heard to remark, ‘One must not be a name-dropper, as Her Majesty remarked to me yesterday’ (Penguin Dictionary of Jokes, 198.1). I suspect that he was someone who felt rather proud of himself. There’s nothing wrong with a degree of pride, so long as it does not go too far. When someone has a new baby, we often speak fondly of ‘the proud parents’- and why not? And yet, we Christians are suspicious of pride.
One theologian of the twentieth century wrote that ‘According to the Bible (and to the classical Christian moral teaching), pride is the very root and essence of sin’ (Richardson, Theological Word Book of the Bible, p176). Maybe that’s why in our own culture, coloured as it is by centuries of Christian influence, we believe the saying, ‘pride comes before a fall’. For the Biblical teaching is that when we get too proud, it is as if we set ourselves up as gods- and the one true God makes sure that our pride will be punctured.
Yet even Christian people are not immune to that sort of overblown, inappropriate pride. Imagine you lived 2,000 years ago in Palestine, and that you were fortune enough to get to know Jesus of Nazareth. How do you think you would feel about him? You might have had a certain pride in knowing this man. But would you feel that you could ask to be treated nearly as his equal? Surely not- and yet that is precisely what we find two of his disciples asking today in our Gospel story.
It’s always intriguing to me that many Bible stories show those whom the Church later as treated as saints and heroes as being very ordinary. Biblical saints often do indeed have feet of clay- they come across as very human. James and John were saints and heroes- the sons of Zebedee, fishermen who were among the first to follow Jesus. They were great leaders in the Church after Jesus’ resurrection. But how they must have cringed when people retold the incident of the time when they had gone to Jesus and said, ‘Teacher, we want you to do something for us. When you sit in your throne in your glorious Kingdom, let us sit with you, at your right hand, and your left hand’. That was their way of saying, ‘We want to be your number two and number three men’.
Clearly they had not yet understood what discipleship is about- and so Jesus tells them about it. Suffering, not prestige or status, is what discipleship is about, he tells them. And then the story widens, and we hear of the whole band of disciples caught up in gossip and argument: Mark writes: ‘When the other ten disciples heard about it, they became angry with James and John’- and so Jesus had to get them all together. You are not to have rulers among yourselves, like the heathen kings, he tells them. The greatest of you will be the one who serves the other. If you want to be first, you must be like a slave to the rest. After all, I didn’t come among you so that you would serve me- I came to serve you, even to die for you.
I wonder how James and John and the others felt when they heard those words. I wonder how the other disciples felt when they heard those words. And I wonder how James and John felt years later, when they heard the story told over and over again. I wonder if Mark the Gospel writer went to them and say, ‘Listen guys, this is a bit embarrassing for you- shall I leave it out?’
Legend is that John the apostle lived to be a very old man, and that they used to have to carry him into Church. Often he was too weak to teach more than a few words, and he would just utter a few words: ‘Little children, love one another’. After a while they got a bit fed up hearing the same thing over and over again, and they wearily asked him, ‘Why do you always say this?’ to which he replied, ‘It is the Lord’s command, and if this alone be done, it is enough’ (Barclay, The Master’s Men, p36).
And as for his brother James, he appears by himself once in the rest of the New Testament, in the book of Acts, where we read, ‘About this time King Herod began to persecute some members of the church. He had James, the brother of John, put to death by the sword’ (Acts 12.1-2). And so James became the first of the original disciples to be martyred. A long time ago, when they had asked to be the leaders in the Kingdom, Jesus had said to them, ‘”You don’t know what you are asking for. Can you drink the cup of suffering that I must drink? Can you be baptized in the way I must be baptized?” “We can,” they answered. [And] Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink the cup I must drink and be baptized in the way I must be baptized”‘ And eventually those brothers did indeed learn about service and suffering.
Jesus told James and John- and tells us- that they were to be like him: he was a servant, so we are to be also. The servant attitude is, of course, a humble attitude. In the face to God’s great love and mercy we have nothing much to be proud of, except perhaps that we have been made children of God. Saint Paul wrote: ‘I will boast only about the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Galatians 6.14). Knowing what Jesus did on the cross for us should be enough to save us from inappropriate pride. In fact, rather than being puffed up about our achievements, Christians are people who should be, above all, people who constantly show gratitude- to other people, and to God.
The philosopher Julian Baggini is an atheist, but he recognises that religious people often make a positive contribution to the life of the world because they have what he calls ‘religious attitudes’. He gives the example of thankfulness, saying:
I think it is very good to have a sense of gratitude- for being alive, for being well. I think that the lack of it lies at the root of a lot of modern dissatisfaction. People no longer feel a sense of gratitude, they feel a sense of entitlement, and so they are always unhappier about what they don’t have than what they are thankful for they do. And so you have the absurd situation that a generation of people who are the most privileged in history actually feel hard-done-by because they can’t afford to travel the world and get a new car… I think [gratitude] comes more naturally in a religious mindset. For a start, you have an object of gratitude [he means God]. There’s nothing for me [as an atheist] to feel thankful to.
(‘Third Way’, November 2006, p17)
This atheist philosopher is reminding we Christians that thankfulness, gratitude, is at the heart of a religious mindset. God reminds us that there is something to be grateful for. That’s why we celebrated Harvest Thanksgiving the other week, why we have grace at mealtimes, why we always have prayers of thanks in our Sunday services. Indeed, I wonder whether gratitude is what worship is all about.
For many people in our culture, going to Church seems an odd thing to do. They cannot understand why intelligent, modern people would want to worship a god. Perhaps part of the problem is that much of the language of worship is drawn from the Bible, many of whose authors understood God as being a bit like one of those very powerful eastern kings, only more so. In ancient times, treated kings as though they were gods, or at least, representatives of gods. So they grovelled before them when they entered the throne room. They would have words of extravagant praise when they had to speak to them.
That way of thinking is, in our day, is almost (thank goodness) gone. Which makes is difficult for people to understand what it is we are doing when we worship. But I suggest that if we look deeper into the Biblical language about worship, we see that its motivation is not a grovelling, fearful approach to God; instead, I suggest that we worship because we are greatful to God. We believe that God is the Creator of all things: the earth and the heavens, even our very lives. And in Christ, he as come to us to bring renewal and hope. If we have known God’s grace, how can we not be thankful? So gratitude, it seems to me, is what really motivates us to worship. Gratitude is why we all got out of bed and came along here this Sunday morning. For how can we not be grateful? How can we be stopped from praising this wonderful God who has done so much for us? At its heart, every act of worship is a way of saying ‘thank you’ to God.
Perhaps that’s why in our consumerist culture, worship is so foreign to many people. Because, as Julian Baggini reminds us, people don’t tend to feel grateful for what they have, and because they have forgotten or deny that God is the giver of all good things, people don’t see the need to say thank you, to worship. This affects even churchgoers. Instead of feeling grateful, we feel entitled to things, even religious things. I sometimes have met people who seemed to think that being a Church member was a bit like an insurance policy- keep up your payments and God won’t allow anything bad to happen to you (now that I come to think of it, that sounds more like a Mafia protection racket than an insurance policy!). That was the mistake of James and John. They may have been among the first disciples, but followers of Jesus are guaranteed nothing except service and suffering.
Perhaps Job, who was a good and pious man, thought that his religion was a bit of an insurance policy. But then he suffered disaster, so much that he wished he were dead. Not surprisingly, he cried out to God in anger- a fully human reaction. But when God finally spoke to Job, out of a storm, God gave no justification of himself. He didn’t say, ‘This is why I allowed these bad things to happen to you, Job. Instead, God shifted the focus away from Job and his sufferings to the cosmic perspective:
‘Were you there when I made the world? If you know so much, tell me about it. Who decided how large it would be? Who stretched the measuring line over it? Do you know all the answers? What holds up the pillars that support the earth? Who laid the cornerstone of the world? In the dawn of that day the stars sang together, and the heavenly beings shouted for joy. Who closed the gates to hold back the sea when it burst from the womb of the earth? It was I who covered the sea with clouds and wrapped it in darkness. I marked a boundary for the sea and kept it behind bolted gates. I told it, “So far and no farther! Here your powerful waves must stop’. The speech goes on beyond our reading: have you ever commanded a day to dawn? Have you walked on the ocean floor? Do you know the sources of light and darkness, or where I keep the snow? Do you guide the stars? Do you make it rain? Do you feed the lions?
On and one goes God in this speech, until Job is rendered speechless, and repents in dust and ashes. It was entirely human for Job to cry out to God, even to question God and be angry with him. But in the end, God will not answer those questions for us. God is simply God. We have no rights, no entitlements when we meet God. All we can do is be thankful for God grace. As the old Sunday school song says, we’re simply to ‘count our blessings’. Job eventually said to God: ‘I know, Lord, that you are all-powerful; that you can do everything you want’ (Job 42.2). That echoes words from the book of Isaiah: “‘My thoughts,” says the Lord, “are not like yours, and my ways are different from yours. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways and thoughts above yours”‘ (Isaiah 55.8-9). We can only stand in awe of such a God: before such a God there is no room for human pride.
But as the old children’s song says, God’s love is wide as the ocean and high as the heavens above. For this God has come to us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who says of himself, ‘…the Son of Man did not come to be served; he came to serve and to give his life to redeem many people’. He came to be our servant us- amazing! So how can we then fail to give our lives to his service, in gratitude for all he has done for us?
Ascription of Praise
Blessing and honour, thanksgiving and praise,
more than we can express,
be accorded to you, most glorious Trinity,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
by all angels, all people, all creatures,
for ever and ever. Amen.
BCO 1994, p587
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2012 Peter W Nimmo