Mark 10: 35-45
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost/ October 21, 2012
It was the great theologian Augustine of Hippo (354-430), writing in the late-fourth to early fifth-century, who gave us one of the best descriptions of a sacrament. So good it’s stood the test of time. A sacrament, he said, is “a visible sign of an invisible grace.” It’s that simple; so easy to remember. I remember learning it in college.
A sacrament is something that allows the invisible grace of God to become visible, even tangible in our lives. A sacrament is a holy act that allows something of God to come into focus. It’s an act that allows the grace of God to become more accessible to all of our senses and therefore more real. That’s what baptism does. That’s what the Lord’s Supper does. The definition works for any moment, any activity that helps to reveal the presence and love of God. As we know, Protestants affirm two sacraments; our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters consider five additional acts sacramental. But if we affirm Augustine’s definition and say that a sacrament is “a visible signs of an invisible grace,” then that means there can be many signs that make grace visible to us. If we were to add to the list of sacraments – and I’m not suggesting that we do so, but if we did – perhaps Protestants and Roman Catholics, as well as Orthodox Christians would agree that acts of service can also be regarded sacramental. Because service, when done in love, can also be a sign of God’s grace and reign in the world. Service, when done in love and joy, can convey to the world that God is near.
This is Jesus’ point here, much to the consternation, frustration and confusion of the disciples. “…but whoever wishes to be great among you must become your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave (or servant) of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-45).
Now, these verses sound pretty harmless. Don’t they? They sound, well, so Christian. Jesus as servant. Jesus as servant of all. Jesus as suffering servant. The Christian is called to serve. That’s what we do – or what we’re supposed to do – we serve one another. This is what it means to be Christian, some say. We do nice things for people. We try to do some good in the world. It’s the Christian thing to do. Christians don’t have the market on doing good, however.
To be a follower of Jesus, however, is more than just trying to be good person. Doing good does not a Christian make. Jesus is more than a teacher of ethics. For what Jesus is saying here, what he’s expecting from his disciples requires something more than a willingness to do good.
Just before we read about James and John asking to be their teacher’s pet, their teacher tells them, “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 on him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days rise again” (10:33-34). Then, we find James and John not listening – or listening, but not hearing, ignoring, denying what he said – asking Jesus for a favored position when he sits in glory. There’s only room for two, they think, one on the left and one on the right. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says. You really don’t know what you’re asking. You have no idea, do you; you have no idea what I’m about, do you? Sure, we do. Just pick us. You’ll see. We’re better than the others.
When the others heard James and John, they became angry. So Jesus called them all aside and said, look, “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.” You know that among the Gentiles… Who is Jesus talking about here? Who are the Gentiles? Non-Jews, yes. But who is the ruler of the Gentiles? The Roman governor. He’s also the ruler of the Jews, too, because the Romans are occupying Palestine. You know how the Romans operate, Jesus says, they lord it over them; their rulers lord it over them, and subjugate everyone, including their “great ones,” probably a veiled reference here to the Roman Emperor himself.
How does Rome act? It’s all about power. Those at the top have all the power; those at the bottom have none. Those on the bottom exist to serve those on the top. Those without power are destined to serve those with power – and they are powerless to do anything about it. Those who have more honor, more glory, more power expect to be served by those who are beneath them. That is the Roman way.
But it’s just not the Roman way, there’s something about all this that reflects a very human way, a fallen-human way, in that we struggle to be on top of the heap, to be the best, to have the place of honor, the recognition of the crowd, the glory. If we’re honest, there’s something of James and John in all of us. We all have ego needs, like James and John, and we have a tendency to look to wealth, power, position, authority, honor, glory, and status to help meet our ego needs. To be clear, these are not inherently bad, but they can easily become hurtful and destructive, petty and small, ugly and dishonoring, even evil if all we’re worrying about is our ego needs, if we’re only worrying about ourselves, if we use people and power and privilege – and yes, even religion (!) – to get ahead in the world.
“But it is not so among you,” Jesus says.
One of the wisest and honest writers I know is Parker Palmer, a Quaker, an educator, philosopher, a humane human being. Several years ago, in his book Let Your Life Speak, he was brutally honest about a time when he was offered the presidency of a small educational institution. He wanted the job, and he thought he should take it. He gathered a half-dozen trusted friends and formed what’s called in the Quaker tradition, a “clearness committee.” This helps to discern what the Quakers call way, whether the way is clear or closed. They gathered around him, not to offer advice, but to ask honest, open-ended questions of Palmer to help him discern the call.
Halfway through this three-hour meeting, a friend asked Palmer what he would like most about being president. He mentioned several things he wouldn’t enjoy, like wearing a tie. But one friend said, you’re not answering the question. Palmer says that he then “gave an answer that appalled even me as I spoke it: ‘Well,’ I said, in the smallest voice I possess, ‘I guess what I’d like most is getting my picture in the paper with the word ‘president’ under it.’” He continues, “I was sitting with seasoned Quakers who knew that though my answer was laughable, my mortal soul was clearly at stake! They did not laugh at all but went into a long and serious silence – a silence in which I could only sweat and inwardly grown. Finally, my questioner broke the silence with a question that cracked all of us up – and cracked me open: ‘Parker, can you think of an easier way to get your picture in the paper?’ By then it was obvious, even to me, that my desire to be president had much more to do with my ego than with the ecology of my life.” That moment of clarity led him to withdraw his name from the search.
“But it is not so among you….”
When Jesus offers these words, he’s leading his disciples down an entirely different path. It’s not the way our egos usually want to go. It’s not the way that comes naturally to us. And it’s certainly not the way one chooses to go if one’s ego is especially fragile and insecure, when it full of worry and anxiety, when the ego “dominates, exploits, and manipulates others for its own advantage.”
“But it is not so among you….”
Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be servant or slave of all. Jesus is talking about mutual servant-hood here, one serves the other, seeks to serve the other, does not seek to “lord it over” the other. Equal to equal.
But how? How do we do this? It sounds impossible, given human nature. It cuts against the grain of so much of who we are. Is Jesus setting up an impossible standard for us to achieve? I don’t think so. That wouldn’t be loving, would it?
Jesus didn’t have to grab for glory or wealth or power or authority or status in order to affirm who he was. He knew who he was. In the absolute best sense of the phrase, Jesus was truly full of himself, that is, clear about his identity and purpose. And it’s from that state of fullness, of completion, of participation in the love and generosity of God that he was free – not compelled, but free – to serve and to give. I believe that the way of Jesus is offered to us through him. From Jesus’ perspective, “only the strongest sense of self, a self that neither grovels nor grasps, can resist chasing counterfeit notions of greatness.” When we have a strong sense of self, who we really are, deeper than the ego, then we are free to serve and give in a new way.
When we serve and give in this way – when we see it happening toward others, when we’re the ones doing it, when we’re the ones receiving this kind of generosity – it becomes and looks and feels sacramental. There’s something holy and good about it. Something of God is present in those moments because that is the way God is, that’s how it’s done. And, I believe, it’s possible for us to live and serve this way, not by human will and determination alone, but when we know who we are, when our identity is firmly grounded in the One who created us, loves us, redeems us, and empowers us to act.
Whether we’re putting together Safe Motherhood Kits for IMA World Health, helping at the Samaritan Women here in Catonsville, building homes with Habitat for Humanity in impoverished Baltimore neighborhoods, sharing a meal through Lazarus Caucus, engaging in advocacy, working for justice and fairness, making the world safe for our children, sitting beside someone who is scared, lending an open ear and an open heart, or giving space and time to the things and people that really matter, we’re not just doing “good works." When we do all of this – as well as the countless other ways that we serve one another – in love because of the One who loves us, then service becomes a sacrament. It’s a holy moment. Holy. In those moments we know that God is at work in us and through us. In those moments we know that God is near.
Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999), 44-46. I’m relying on Daniel D. Clendenin’s helpful summary of Palmer’s account found on his website, Journey with Jesus: http://journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20121015JJ.shtml.
Clendenin makes this point here, http://journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20121015JJ.shtml.