Sheepscott Community Church October 18, 2009
Job 38: 1-7
Hebrews 5: 1-10
Mark 10: 35-45
Perfect Love Casts Out Fear
The contrast between the figure of God as imaged in this morning’s reading from Job and what Jesus, the Christ, calls for in the gospel could not be greater. Jesus is quoted as saying, “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve.” And what did we hear in Job? The story of this afflicted man has God asking, demanding really, from the quivering Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the world?” God goes on and on, and Job diminishes and diminishes before the majesty and power of the Creator’s monologue, which continues in that vein, a basic, Who do you think you are?
Surely that posture of the demanding All-Powerful One over the powerless man is in contrast with what Jesus is saying to his disciples in this gospel. They would actually be quite familiar and comfortable with the God presented in the Job story, as long as they and he were on the same side. Why, they might even be his henchmen, his favored ones to whom he would turn for companionship and understanding. James and John could probably have worked up quite a scenario. And Jesus would be their ace in the hole, their guarantor at the throne of grace.
But Jesus is a new revelation of the Divine in the world, and that revelation is based on serving rather than being served or cowered before. Today’s gospel story is itself revealing on a number of levels: It tells us something about Mark, about James and John and about Jesus’ standard for greatness. What it tells us about Mark, contrasted with the writer of the gospel of Matthew, is that the writer of Mark is honest. In Matthew’s account, which would have used Mark as a source, Mark being the earliest gospel, in Matthew’s account, the writer had Salome, the mother of James and John, petition Jesus for the right of her sons to sit at his right and left hands. We know Jesus told her that that was not his place to decide and assign.
By contrast, Mark has the apostles James and John themselves ask the favor of Jesus. The writer of Matthew might have thought such ambition unworthy of the apostles, so he ascribed the request to their mother, who would be expected to have ambition for her sons. Not so, Mark. He shows the disciples for what they were––not a company of saints but a group of ordinary men, to whom we ordinary people can relate with our shortcomings and our own deep-seated ambitions.
James and John may have overestimated their importance because they, with Peter, had been singled out for special revelations––think Transfiguration, among other events. Besides their ambition, it is clear that they had fundamentally failed to understand who Jesus was and what he was trying to accomplish. What amazes is not so much the repetition of this theme of ambition, but where it occurs this time. If you recall, they are on the way to Jerusalem, and Jesus has just told them––yet again––what was going to happen when they got there. “The Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, will flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.” It can’t be stated much more baldly than that, do you think?
So, it is just after he has told them this that James and John make their request. It’s like, hell-o-o. It’s clear that they did not hear or more likely refused to hear and understand what Jesus was saying to them. They can’t think of the Messiah in any other terms than those of power and glory. It finally took them living through the experience of the cross to show and convince them that this is what Messiahship meant: being utterly spilled out in service.
All that said, with James and John’s non-understanding of what Jesus was trying to teach them, their almost total benightedness, yet they believed in him. Their hearts were in the right place, and they trusted that because Jesus was Jesus, things would eventually work out. Their hearts were in the right place. We have to believe that that is what finally matters to God. Otherwise we would despair, when we look at ourselves in the light of God’s radiance.
The story also tells us clearly what Jesus’ standard of greatness is. When he asks James and John if they can drink from the cup he drinks and be baptized with the same baptism as he, they quickly agree that they can. Ignorance is bliss. Forward into the fray, and all that. When Jesus speaks of the cup, he is speaking of the experience allotted to humanbeings by God. When he speaks of the baptism, he is not speaking of the technical sacramental baptism as we understand it. He is speaking figuratively and asking the disciples, Can you go through the terrible experience that I have to go through? Can you face being submerged in hatred and pain and death? They said they could and in fact did eventually endure much for the sake of Jesus’ name. James was beheaded in the persecution under Herod Agrippa, and John suffered much for the Lord.
Jesus told James and John and the others that the ultimate outcome of things belonged to God; it was not his to declare or promise. Jesus never usurped the place of God. His whole life was one long act of submission to God’s will, discerned through listening prayer, and he knew that in the end that will was supreme. And that, fellow travelers, is our example. Can we handle submission at that level?
Needless to say the rest of the apostles were ticked off when they heard what James and John had been up to, and the ongoing controversy about who was to be the greatest raged again. Jesus took the opportunity to tell them again what mattered––that does seem to be the most frequently occurring adverb from week to week: again. We all need to hear these teachings of Jesus again and again in the hope that finally we might get what he is trying to say, a piece of it anyway; get who he is, at least in a limited way.
As Ted was saying last week, we hear the same stories, albeit presented in slightly and sometimes very different ways in the four gospels, year after year. When we are ready for a story to come alive and act in us, change us, it will, but not before. Like James and John, who didn’t seem to have even heard what Jesus said about the death and resurrection that lay before him, but then understanding it well and soon enough after the fact. At that point they had to accept the witness of their own eyes and experience. Readiness is all.
Jesus took the opportunity to contrast what the world considers great and what God considers great. The standard of greatness in the kingdoms of the world was and is power. How big is your army? How many people do you have control over? In the Kingdom of God, by contrast, the standard was and is that of service. The test was not what service can I get from others, but what service can I give.
The problem is that people want to do as little as possible and get as much as possible back. It’s only when they begin to want to put more into life than they take out, that life for themselves and others becomes more worthwhile. The world needs people whose ideal is service, who “get” what Jesus taught, what he is about. To underline his teaching about this to the disciples, he used the example of his own life. He had come, as he said, to give his life as a ransom for the many. This comment was widely misconstrued by early theologians who tried to make a theology of atonement out of it, bending and twisting and splitting infinitives to make it serve their purpose of drawing up the specter of the God who spoke out of the whirlwind to Job, and who might have looked and sounded a lot like the Wizard of Oz whom Dorothy and her friends encountered.
It is preferable to keep people in a state of fear, if you would control them, but that is not what Jesus was about. He, as I have just said, was about laying down his life in service, not in inducing fear in his followers, but in fact freeing them from fear. “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.“ John 8:32. He had identified himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life. So, knowing him they would be free, not bound in fear of a God who demands blood sacrifice, blood atonement. God sent Jesus to teach us that this is what God is like: the One who lays himself down, who makes his back a bridge we can pass over. The One who is perfect love, and as we know, perfect love casts out fear. God, incarnated in Jesus, is the One who loves to that immeasurable degree, not the One who measures teaspoon by teaspoon the blood of a Savior until the prerequisite level of satisfaction has been achieved, the red line on the measuring cup of atonement reached.
What kind of a God would measure in such a way? A God of whom men can be afraid. One who can model control through fear, as we read and marvel at in the Book of Job. Now? Now we have a different model which we experience in Jesus. How can we do that? By following Jesus’ direction: to be great in the kingdom of God we must lay down our lives in service. As John F. Kennedy famously said at his inauguration, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” I appropriate those words today, making country into church and community: Ask not what your church can do for you. Ask what you can do for your church, and for your community, remembering Jesus’ admonition about the greatest in the kingdom being the least, and the last being the first. “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve.”
I’d like to say a bit more about the idea of atonement, on which more than one strand of Christianity bases its understanding of the life of Jesus. It’s a very important idea. So many lives have been affected by the application of that idea. As I mentioned earlier, Jesus came as he himself said in today’s gospel to give his life as a ransom for the many. Most of the traditional theologizing around that statement has Jesus paying the price to someone, usually the devil. That approach does not recognize the role of figurative language. If Jesus paid the price, it does not necessarily mean that some sum or an equivalent action was laid in the hand of another, be it that of God or Satan or any other figure employed to complete anyone’s theology.
If we say sorrows are the price of love, we mean that love cannot exist without the possibility of sorrow, but we never even think of trying to explain to whom that price is paid. What Jesus said was simply a way of saying that it cost the life of Jesus to bring men back from sin and into the love of God. It means that the cost of our salvation, the price, was the cross of Christ. Beyond that we cannot go and beyond that we need not go. We know only that something happened on the cross that opened for us a way to God. People have tried to erect a theology of atonement on what is really a saying about love.
What about the God of Job? The One who speaks from the whirlwind and who inspires dread? You have heard me say enough times that the inherent sovereignty and sheer unknownness of that One whom we call God, and which is traditionally associated with the First Person of the Trinity, or the Father, recognition of that One and our nothingness before that One is the beginning of wisdom. To assign a hairsplitting avenger status to that God, one who demands blood sacrifice, and the sacrifice of his own Son, is taking too many liberties, I think, making God into the image of our own idea of vengeful justice.
I thought of Boo Radley in this context, the anti-hero of Harper Lee’s classic tale To Kill a Mockingbird, about justice for a black American man in the post-bellum South. Scout Finch, the child narrator and protagonist of the book, and her brother Jem had made Boo Radley, a reclusive neighbor who lived by himself in a falling-down house, into the scariest of men. Like the Wizard of Oz himself, Boo proves to be the gentlest and kindest and most helpful of men in a crisis. That’s how I like to think of the God of the Hebrew Bible. Our odd need to be frightened of an authority figure, rather than loved by a tender caretaker, is God allowing the reflection of our own growth in understanding about who that One is.
If Jesus gave his life as a ransom for the many, then that is a challenge to us as his followers, as it was to the apostles, to offer our lives, insofar as we reasonably can at any given time, for God’s purposes. Because we are one with Jesus, our lives are acceptable as a ransom for the many. Act and pray with consciousness, offering all of it to God, and therein we too will be ransoming back the world and its people for God. Too ambitious, you say? Too presumptuous? I don’t think so. I think that speaks volumes about what it means to be a follower of Christ. Who knows? We may be the means to ransom back the whole village of Sheepscott into the sheepfold, where they will have plenty of company with their kind, will be safe and where there will be plenty of good green grass.
May God’s patience hold with us, and may our patience hold with one another as we try to live out the life that Jesus modeled, sharing, giving of our own lives in conjunction with him and his to the One he called Father. Amen.