Well, we’re coming closer to the end of the political
campaign season. We’ve been hearing the debates, then hearing the pundits tell
us what we heard. We’ve heard the
arguments from both sides—each candidate’s vision for the country and the
world. A lot of people have invested heavily in this process, trying to make
sure that their guy gets into power for the next four years. The increasing
nastiness of the rhetoric, not just from the political parties but from regular
people on the street and online, makes me look forward to the whole thing being
over in a couple of weeks.
But then again, is it really ever over? The quest for power
is a constant human longing. We want our side to be the greatest, our person to
be the leader. We want our vision for the world to be enacted and carried out
for our benefit. We want success, and somehow we believe that success is the
result of being in power. This is the way of the world—if you want to get your
agenda done, you’ve got to get to the top and be the one calling the shots.
Today’s text, however, tells us that this isn’t the way of
Jesus and his kingdom. As with most things Jesus says and does, the exchange
Jesus has with two of his disciples sets the conventional wisdom of the world
on its ear.
This exchange takes place after the third time that Jesus
foretells his death and resurrection in Matthew’s gospel (the same pattern
appears in Mark). Look back at 20:17 and you see that Jesus and his disciples
are on the way to Jerusalem—toward Jesus’ final confrontation with the powers
of the ruling religious elite and the power of Rome. Jesus predicts that they
will condemn and crucify him, but then he will be raised from the dead.
It’s hard for us to imagine what the disciples must have
thought about this. They believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and Jews in the
first century did not think of the Messiah as a divine figure, the second
person of the Trinity. The envisioned the Messiah as God’s appointed human
leader, who would come like a conquering hero and establish his government in
Jerusalem, defeating Israel’s enemies and bringing peace, health and prosperity
to the land. Their expectations of a messiah were kind of like the expectations
we might have of a presidential candidate. Jesus was their messianic candidate
and the disciples believed that Jesus’ trip to Jerusalem was for an
inauguration, not a crucifixion. After the first time Jesus had predicted his
death in chapter 16:21-23, Peter vowed to prevent anything to stand in Jesus’
way to the throne. He and the other disciples could not conceive of how Jesus
could rule if he was dead, so they seemed to explain away his predictions as a
kind of metaphor—yes, taking power will be tough, almost like a crucifixion,
but it will be alright in the end.
That explains the behavior of James and John in today’s
reading from Matthew 20. In Mark’s version, these two disciples, who are
brothers, come to Jesus on their own with a request. In Matthew, these two bold
position seekers have their mommy do the asking. The request makes it clear
that they are still expecting this Jerusalem campaign to end in the oval office
and they want to be in Jesus’ cabinet—the right and left hand men to Jesus. If
they can gain those positions then they, too, will share in Jesus’ glory and be
famously powerful. It’s the kind of bold political move that one makes when
one’s candidate is ahead in the polls—let me ride his coattails to victory!
As biblical scholar James Smart puts it, “The kingdom the
disciples envisioned is the same old world with a new set of rulers. If only
they could possess power, then everything would be transformed. They would speedily put an end to the
world’s evils. That way of thinking has had its parallels among Christians in
every age since then. The way to change the world is from the top down. If only
Christians could hold the reins of power the world would be transformed. But
already from the beginning of his ministry Jesus had faced that alternative and
had recognized in it a temptation to unfaithfulness. Power exerted from above,
even by persons of the purest character, could never produce the changes that
Instead, what Jesus
was offering James and John (and what he offers us now) is a vision of a very
different kind of power—power that emerges from below, power that comes from
the margins, power that appears weak to a world used to the trappings of
emperors and presidents, power that has no army, no weapons, and no ambition to
sit on the throne. The power of the kingdom of God, Jesus says, is the power of
suffering and service.
“Are you willing to
drink the cup I am about to drink?” Jesus asks James and John. In Mark’s
version, Jesus adds, “Are you willing to be baptized with the same baptism with
which I have been baptized?” Both baptism and the cup are images of suffering
and death. We know that when Jesus asks this question he is on the road to
Jerusalem and the cross. People who are on the way to their execution are
generally not the kind of people we tend to elect as president!
And yet Jesus tells
his disciples that the path to changing the world, the way of the kingdom, is
through suffering. As Jesus suffers for the world, so will his disciples. They,
too, will be despised and rejected because their vision of hope, justice, and
peace is a threat to the stability of the world. Disciples of Jesus are to mess
with the order of things, calling for peace and forgiveness in a world that wields
power at the point of a gun; standing with people whom the world has rejected
because of their origins, or their circumstances, or their economic status;
speaking the truth to power when it works in dishonest and destructive ways.
Those who follow the way of Jesus, who really take seriously all that Jesus
said and did, will usually find themselves on the outs with the world. Yet even
though the world rejects them, they are still to love the world as much as the
God who created still does—enough to come and die for it.
Of course, what you
see in most American Christianity isn’t suffering, but rather a comfortable collusion
with the culture. Many Christians assume that the platform of their favorite
political party is the same thing as the kingdom of God. Many churches assume
that their role is to attract and entertain religious consumers rather than
doing the hard work of making disciples. Many people who claim the name of
Christ are more concerned with security, safety, and fitting in with the world’s
agenda than living a life shaped by the cross.
I think Jesus is
asking us again: Are you willing to be baptized in the way that I am? Are you
willing to drink the cup I drink? It is, after all, those sacraments upon which
we center our Christian lives. In baptism, we come to die with Christ. We come
to be buried, to have our sins washed away; to be cleansed and renewed to a new
life. We come knowing that we are powerless to save ourselves and that we need
a Savior and Lord to lead us. We come to submit ourselves to him and his
lordship, trusting not in our own power but in his power to raise us and the
world to new life.
We lift the bread
and drink the cup, and as we taste them we remember the sacrifice of Jesus, but
we also remember the people he has called us to be—people who are also willing
to be broken and poured out for the world. Every time we receive these signs of
the costly grace of Jesus, we remember that we are to share that costly grace
with the world. As Henri Nouwen put it, we submit ourselves to be crushed like
grapes so that the world may taste the wine we will become—the cup of celebration
lifted in the coming kingdom.
In this sense, the
font and the table are more powerful symbols than an eagle and a flag. This is
where true power comes from—the power of the kingdom of God. The other ten
disciples are furious at James and John because of their power grab. Jesus
reminds them all that they’ve been called to a different kind of power: “You
know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones
are tyrants among them,” Jesus says. Whether they are emperors or presidents,
executives or entertainment moguls, the world knows and bows to the powers that
be. The only way to power in that world is to claw your way to the top. But
that is not to be so with the disciples of Jesus. “Whoever wishes to be great
among you must be your servant,” says Jesus, and whoever wishes to be first
among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but
to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Don’t miss this:
The Lord of the world is a suffering servant. Isaiah 52:13-15 gives us a
glimpse of a glimpse of the suffering servant as one who will be lifted up
because of his suffering—that looking on his battered body, many nations will
be startled and “kings shall shut their mouths because of him” (Is. 52:15).
Paul says that Jesus “emptied himself and took the form of a slave” (Phil.
2:7). A suffering servant—that’s not the image we look for in a leader, and yet
it’s the image of Jesus and the image he wants his disciples to have as well.
uncomfortable with the whole idea of servants and slaves, and well we should
be. But let’s look at the context. There are two words at work here in the
Greek. A servant (diakonia) implies one who waits on tables—it’s where the word
“deacon” comes from—one who serves others. The word for slave (doulos) has a
much stronger connotation. In the first century, slavery was very common. As
the Roman empire expanded, conquered people groups were sold into slavery to
Roman households. Servants and slaves were non-people in the first century
whose lives were spent under the lordship of a master.
then, that Jesus uses these words and yet there’s something powerful about
them. Jesus uses the language about himself—he has not come to be served, as a
master—but to serve: to serve God, to serve his disciples, to serve the world.
His was a voluntary servanthood—he gives up the freedom of divinity for the
service of humanity. And so he calls his disciples to do the same—to see
themselves as servants and slaves of each other: not out of obligation or
hierarchy, but out of love. No one in Jesus world would have considered a slave
“great,” and yet Jesus tells the disciples that the greatest among them is the
slave of all. The path to real power, the power of the kingdom, lies in giving
power away. The way of the kingdom is the way of the servant. Jesus is the
servant king who calls us to serve beside him for the good of the world.
We might add, then,
the towel and basin to the symbols of the table and the font. When Jesus wanted
to demonstrate how this works, the Gospel of John tells that at that last
supper with his disciples, Jesus wrapped a towel around himself and washed the
disciples’ feet—the job of the lowliest servant in the house. “I have set you
an example,” Jesus said, “that you also should do as I have done to you” (John
13:15). The Jesus way is the way of service.
I think this is why
it’s a good thing that we talk about service as the last of the disciplines in
this series. All the Bible study, the worship, the witnessing, the prayer, and
the giving we do means very little unless we allow God to use it to move us
toward service for the kingdom. When we came up with our new church mission
statement, we made sure that was part of it.
We “make disciples
of Jesus Christ for the work of his kingdom.” True faith, true discipleship,
always seeks a way to serve.
So, I encourage you
to vote on November 6. It’s still important for our country. But if you really
want to begin changing the world, it starts with you. We’ve had trickle down
economics and trickle down government—neither of them work very well. What we
need is a trickle up movement of the kingdom. Disciples of Jesus know that he is the real king, and its his
kingdom that we are working for!