Who would Jesus Bomb? (A sermon on Mark 10:32-45)

They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and 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.”

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him 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.”

I was reading yesterday about a peace protest that took place recently outside a church somewhere in Washington D.C. in America and, sadly, it was the church parishioners themselves who were the targets of the protest.

Apparently this church – a wealthy and powerful one – is renowned for its outspoken support for the seemingly endless wars that are being waged in the Middle East, and so the protesters (Christian people from traditions that don’t support endless war) were picketing the parishioners as they entered and exited the church car-park.

And I was impressed with the wording on one of the signs that one of the protesters was holding up. It was a piece of pithy wisdom that was a twist on the old classic, “what would Jesus do?”   It said, “Who would Jesus bomb?”

And I don’t know what sort of response the protester received – whether people actually got the point or whether some of them gave him a list of prospective countries and peoples that they thought might be on Jesus’ list – but I do recognise that for a lot of Christian people in this world the question, “who would Jesus bomb?” is indeed one that deserves serious consideration!

And it’s easy for us to sit back and shake our heads and say, ‘well, they just don’t get it’, as we sophisticated Biblically-aware souls from the Sydney Anglican end of the Christian spectrum naturally have a far more authoritative grasp of what Jesus was on about, and yet as I read through today’s Gospel reading it does cause me to ask, “have any of us ever really got it?”

The story recorded in the later part of Mark chapter 10 contains a rather painful incident where the sons of Zebedee – James and John – ask for positions of authority on Jesus’ management team, and I find the scene painful in the same way I find episodes of ‘The Office’ painful. It’s gut-wrenchingly embarrassing to watch!

It begins with the brothers putting a question to Jesus such as five-year old children put to their mums and dads: “We want you to do for us whatever we ask”.

The natural response to this, of course, is ‘what do you want me to do?’ to which the five-year-old normally responds, ‘you’ve got to promise to do it first, before I tell you!’

I have no idea whether that particular line was a part of the dialogue that day, but certainly these two disciples, and the other ten, all behave like children in Mark’s account. They are greedy, jealous and irritable, and I don’t know whether Jesus was trying to joke with them in the way He dealt with their questions, but I must admit that I find the way Jesus responds in this dialogue to be quite unnerving too!

The scene actually reminds me of one of those old ‘money or the box’ game shows.

Do you remember those? The host gives the contestant a choice between the money and the box. Maybe the contestant has already won a thousand dollars but they can forgo that for the sake of taking home the box if they are willing to chance it!

And the compare always knows what’s in the box, and the studio audience generally knows what’s in the box too, but the contestant has no idea!

And it’s a bit like that with James and John. Jesus is saying “do you really want to drink the cup that I drink? Are you really ready to be baptised with the baptism with which I am baptised” and the disciples are saying, “Oh yeah, give us the box!”

And it’s painful, as Jesus knows what’s in the box and we, the studio audience, know full well what’s inside the box too – namely, a painful death – but James and John are anticipating something altogether different – a lovely big prize – and Jesus seems to be willing to let them take home the box (so to speak) rather than spelling out for them exactly what they are choosing!

Of course the scene does conclude with an entirely frank debriefing, where Jesus sits the disciples down and does His best to spell things out for them as clearly as possible, using language that even young children surely could understand:

“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.” (Mark 10:42-44)

But you don’t finish the story with any great degree of confidence that this has led the disciples to any real transition in their understanding.  Whether Jesus plainly or speaks in riddles the result still seems to be the same – they just don’t get it!

And the truth is we’ve never really ‘got it’, have we?

You only need to look at a chess-board to realise that, despite Jesus’ crystal clear teaching that his followers are not supposed to copy the secular model in the way we exercise leadership, throughout Western history the bishop has always taken his place alongside the king and the queen and the knights as one who wields extreme executive power!

“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.”

You can’t get much more straightforward than that, can you, and yet I can’t think of any period of Christian history where we, the Christian community, have ever really taken that to heart!

Am I being too harsh?

One of the books I am most fond of citing is Leonardo Boff’s controversial work, “Church: Charism and Power”.

Boff was a Brazilian Franciscan priest and always a controversial figure. He was one of the original ‘liberation theologians’, and was the author of “Jesus Christ, Liberator” – a ground-breaking book that had an enormous influence on me when I first read it. Even so, it was “Church, Charism and Power” that really got him into trouble and led to him being officially silenced by the pope for a year!

What was it that was so offensive to the religious hierarchy about this book?

The book outlines the history of the church, and Boff highlights a series of key turning points where those in in control of the ecclesiastical establishment had to make a decision as to whether they would sacrifice their power or their integrity.  According to Boff, every time the church has been confronted with such a decision we have chosen to maintain our power at the expense of our integrity.

The most obvious example to my mind was the response of the German church to the rise of Nazism in the 1930’s. In 1933, when Hitler decreed that the church was not allowed to ordain Jews to the priesthood there were some, such as Dietrich Bonheoffer, who drew a line in the sand and openly opposed the racist policy.  The vast majority of ecclesiastical leaders however went along with the new law!

And you can understand their reasoning. I can almost see them having their synodical discussions. ‘But if we oppose this new law we will lose our positions of authority!  We will no longer have the ear of the government and so won’t be able to have any good influence at all! Our welfare programs will be de-funded and so much good work will be undone …’

And so the German church chose to maintain their authority instead of their integrity, and ended up working the gas chambers at Auschwitz along with everybody else!

“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.”

Absolutely, Jesus! We hear you! We believe you! But give us a choice between sacrificing power and sacrificing integrity and we’ll sacrifice our integrity every time! For things are no different today than they were in the 1930’s or at any other time in the history of the church.

I remember listening to a beloved bishop-friend of mine, speaking at a clergy conference and telling us that the church in Australian cannot possibly apologise to our indigenous peoples lest the same thing happen to us as happened to the church in Canada!  The church in Canada apparently had apologised to their indigenous people and were then sued for everything they had! We can’t let that happen to us?

‘Why not?’ was my response! Shouldn’t we, as Christian people, being trying to do what is right and let the chips fall where they may?

And yet I don’t want to pretend to be self-righteous about all this either, as I actually don’t think I’m personally no better!  Sure … ordinary souls like me and you aren’t trying to preserve great hordes of money or to hang on to extreme executive power so it’s not an identical process, but when it comes to our more scaled-down version of the lust for power we are exactly the same.

We may not hunger to be Fuhrer or President but we lust for the two ‘S’s – for significance and security – and we’ll sacrifice just about anything to hang on to them!

We want to be significant people. We want people to respect us. We want to have security in this life. We want to know not just where the next meal is coming from but where the meals for the next ten years are coming from. We want to know we’re going to be looked after in our old age. We want to be loved and esteemed.  And that’s not because we are bad people. It’s just because we are people – ordinary people, weak people, and people who struggle to live by faith!

If you look at the opening verse of our passage today the Gospel writer puts his finger on what is at the heart of the problem. Those who followed Jesus, Mark says, ‘were afraid’ (Mark 10:32), and that’s always where our insecurities come from.

We are a fearful people. We have always been fearful. We hear Jesus telling us to let go of the things of this world and to live by faith and yet we cling on because we are afraid of letting go.  And it’s the same problem at a corporate level as at an individual level. Our ecclesiastical institutions always seem to be more controlled by fear than by love. It’s that simple!

Are things likely to change?

Well … the encouragement I find in today’s Gospel reading comes from the context of the story itself – just the fact that it’s all a part of a journey!

The disciples are on the road, travelling from Galilee to Jerusalem, and they are fearful, naïve, childish, greedy, jealous, and all the things that we are, and yet their journey isn’t over yet!

They are on a journey, and their journey still has a long way to go, and Jesus still has a lot to teach them.  And they don’t seem to be picking up much at this stage but dialogue is still taking place and, most importantly, Jesus has by no means given up on them!

And I think we know enough of how their journey progresses to give us every ground for optimism! These disciples will drink the cup that Jesus drinks and they will be baptised with the gruesome baptism with which He is to be baptised, but many of these people will shine through that process!

The disciples that we see in Mark chapter 10 don’t seem to have picked up much, and by the end of the Gospel it’s not clear that they’ve picked up a great deal more, but it seems to have been enough, for indeed some of them did go on to become magnificent models and mentors for us!

And in truth, I’m not expecting that any of us will ever conquer all of our fears, just as I am sure that there will always be some people for whom the question “who would Jesus bomb?” will be one that requires serious consideration.  And yet it’s a journey, and the journey continues, and Jesus continues to walk on ahead of us, and beside us, and behind us, and within us.

We are fearful. We take two steps forward and one step backwards. Yet the journey continues, and the dialogue with Jesus continues. And so long as Jesus continues to lead us we have every reason to be confident about the final destination!

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on October 21, 2012.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.

www.FatherDave.org

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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