Dear Disciples of Jesus,
The recent lectionary Gospel text (Mark 10:35-45), in which James and John approach Jesus asking to sit at His right and left when He enters His glory and the resultant anger and division expressed by the other 10 disciples, reminded me of dynamics that are not uncommon — even in our congregations.
Jesus pointed to the cross multiple times, preparing His followers for His impending death and resurrection. When the disciples tried to insert their vision for the future, Jesus kept pointing them in the direction of the cross. So it was with Peter and the Sons of Thunder.
Jesus called the disciples together and reminded them that things are different in His kingdom. It is not a matter of power and authority, status or position. It is not a matter of oppressing, manipulating and abusing others in order to get our own way. It is not about our way at all.
Following Jesus is about the way of the cross. Walking with Jesus is about being a slave of the Gospel and a servant to all for the sake of Christ. Yet, how easy it is to follow the ways of the world and turn leadership into the arbitrary use and abuse of power and authority.
We keep pointing to Jesus as we care for others and as we experience life together in this community of faith. We let the Scriptures reveal Him clearly and completely. When we struggle to find our security in the things of the world we must keep turning back to the cross and the eternal promises that only Jesus can fulfill — forgiveness, new life now and eternal life with Him forever.
In this kingdom of heaven economy, Jesus both embodied and proclaimed, greatness is in being a servant, notoriety is in loving. The One with the right to be served by all becomes a servant, and the One who owns all life gives His life away for the sake of those He loves. The world needs the witness of the cross and Christlike servant leadership, not more of what the world already offers.
We are all giving our lives away. We are spending our lives each day. The question is for what cause and for what purpose? We who follow Jesus must be giving our lives away as servants of Christ. As His disciples, we are called to take up the cross and follow Him.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The cross is laid on every Christian. As we embark upon discipleship, we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with His death — we give over our lives to death. When Christ calls a person, He bids him come and die. … But if we lose our lives in His service and carry our cross, we shall find our lives again in the fellowship of the cross with Christ” (The Cost of Discipleship, pages 89, 91). This is Christ’s call in our individual lives and in our life together.
While it may be difficult for us to admit, we are just like James and John. They are not only the Sons of Thunder, they are the sons of entitlement. Trying to usurp leadership, power and authority, trying to make themselves greater, trying to seize control, they create controversy and division.
Have you noticed that it is not the strong and confident who seek to control, dominate, exploit or manipulate others for their own advantage, but it is those who are weak, fragile and often broken from abuse in their own lives. Their efforts are doomed to fail because even when they succeed in getting their own way, they destroy others in the process.
Many wise people have observed how it is the insecure, fragile self that seeks to control, dominate, exploit and manipulate others for its own advantage. Human experience tells us that such efforts are doomed to fail, because when they “succeed” they destroy others in the process. In the kingdom of heaven to which we belong, there is no need to chase any of the counterfeit notions of greatness. Following Jesus, we love and serve others for their good rather than our own glory.
James and John had a flawed vision for the future. They desired to be on equal footing with Jesus. They wanted to be next to Him. They did not want to be under Jesus. This is the critical issue of our own day. We think we are entitled to be the equals of Jesus. Faith in Jesus does not consist of becoming His equal but of being under Him. Remember the Roman Centurion. True faith in Christ is being under Him, following Him.
We ascribe all power, honor and authority to Christ and to Christ alone. We do that by following Him, ascribing to His Word the ultimate authority for matters of faith and life. We rely on the power of His grace that comes to us through Word and Sacrament. Embracing that cross is never a way to play it safe, avoiding conflict or confrontation. It is only by standing, confronting, engaging, witnessing, risking that we take up the cross of Christ.
When we must address unpopular issues we do not hide from them. Instead, we speak the truth in love, applying what we have learned because we count the wisdom of the Scriptures as far superior to human wisdom.
Tragically in our day, Christians have become so passive that they believe that passivity is a faithful response. Instead, when we know something is wrong we must speak out, take a stand, and offer a witness. We break the passivity and silence and address the issue without crucifying one another.
Jesus used the controversy created by James and John and their audacity, presumption and exaggerated self-importance to teach all of the disciples critical lessons regarding the cross and servant leadership that formed and shaped their lives and the New Testament Church following Pentecost.
In the book of Acts, we see the nature of the Christian community they formed following Pentecost. It is helpful instruction for our life together. Their community was a place where new disciples could be nurtured and grow in their faith. This is the community described for us in Acts 2:42- 47, a community that nurtured the 3,000 new believers following Pentecost.
Consider these seven key ingredients to that disciple-nurturing community:
1. As the disciples devoted themselves to the teaching of Jesus, those in the Church devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles.
2. As the disciples shared fellowship with Jesus and one another, they led the Church to do the same. Their fellowship was focused on sharing meals together and praying together.
3. They expected Jesus to act, and He did. As they experienced the miraculous when they were with Jesus, that same miraculous power was manifest in the Church when they went out to do ministry in His name.
4. The Christian community cared for one another. They loved one another the way Jesus loved His first followers and gave His life for them. They gave up possessions as a way to care for the needs of fellow disciples. They cared so much that they shared everything, every care, every concern, every joy, every sorrow — everything.
5. They gathered together regularly. They worshiped together. They had a mutual sense of obligation to be together, to support one another and to share their faith in Jesus.
6. Their love and commitment spread from the worship center into their homes. They manifested the love they experienced in Christ through the love they had for one another. Their community was marked with joy and sincerity in their hearts.
7. The world was watching how they lived and treated one another, and the Christian community became a witness that captivated many others. The way they lived in community with each other drew people to Christ.
The disciples had experienced this love and community as they followed Christ. Christianity is not just a statement of faith, a body of knowledge, an experience. It is not a matter of being a member of an organization or institution. It is more than theologies and liturgies, vestments, or strategies, structures and constitutions. It is about one thing — rather, one person — Jesus Christ. It is about following Christ, believing Christ, serving others in Christ and abiding in Christ.
Servanthood is a matter of taking up the cross. It is only in a community committed to loving and serving that disciples can be nurtured in their faith, grow spiritually and experience transformation. That transformation is desperately needed in our own day and time.
The fastest growing religion in our world is the cult of “self.” There are increasing numbers of people who believe that we will save ourselves and that all the answers are within us. Many of the avowed atheists and agnostics I have met are caught up in the worship of self and the seductive attraction to promises of “self-salvation.”
The witness of true Christian community can have a profound impact on their lives and countless others. Unfortunately, many within the Body of Christ believe that they are entitled to receive the benefits of such community but share no personal responsibility for offering this community to others.
I often remind couples in pre-marital counseling that marriage is not a matter of finding the right person but a matter of being the right person. The goal is not finding the right Christian community but offering others all that loving, faithful servant leadership provides. Following Jesus, we offer ourselves to create this community. No one else can do it for us. It may seem overwhelming, but it is precisely what it means to take up the cross and follow Jesus. When everyone is committed to doing it, and not merely feeling entitled to receive it, the results will not only transform the culture of our congregations but the entire community around us.
So, may it be with us.
Bishop John Bradosky