Twenty-first Sunday after Trinity
Readings: Isaiah 53. 4-12; Psalm 91. 9-16; Hebrews 5. 1-10; Mark 10. 35-45 (view all)
Not long ago, Amy, Evie and I went across to St Fagan’s for the day, and discovered that they have a new attraction — a high ropes course! You are harnessed in and taken up a long staircase until you are at the tops of the trees, and then have to negotiate your way around various tightropes and other obstacles, ending with a zip wire back to the ground.
Of course, when Evie saw this she was desperate to do it. But there was a moment, when she reached the top and she saw how high it was, that she realised just what she’d got herself into and was absolutely terrified. Thankfully, we managed to convince her to keep going and by the end of the course she was really enjoying herself.
I’ve just finished reading a fantastic book called ‘Phoebe’, written by the theologian Paula Gooder. It isn’t a theology book though in the conventional sense — it’s a novel based on the historical and biblical evidence, which paints of picture of life for the early Christians in the city of Rome.
And there’s a similar poignant moment in the novel, when one character, Titus, who is a wealthy, well respected Roman businessman and a member of the senate, decides that he would like to become a Christian and be baptised.
The moment comes, though, when he realises just how big an impact this might have on his life. He might find himself being isolated from Roman high society because of his new beliefs, the Emperor may well not approve, and his business may suffer as a result. Suddenly, he is forced to count the cost of his decision to follow Jesus.
And that is the great theme of Mark’s gospel, which we’re returning to today in our gospel reading — the cost of discipleship. I wonder, what can we learn from our reading, and James and John’s encounter with Jesus about what it means to be his disciples today?
We live in a modern world which is so often preoccupied with ambition and self-interest. The 2008 economic crash in itself was evidence of the way in which, so often in our society, individual profit is pursued regardless of the cost to others.
There is such incredible pressure, particularly on young people today, to achieve, to meet the expectations of those around us, to be popular and successful.
I’ve often felt that pressure — a set of cultural expectations, a driving force, that when it takes control becomes a prison, holding us captive to our own ambitions and definitions of success.
However, today’s gospel passage once again reminds us that, in the words of one scholar I’ve quoted previously:
Jesus measures greatness, not by success but by service.
James and John come to Jesus looking for the assurance of a personal reward — but in doing so they show they have completely missed what being a disciple of Jesus is about.
In Mark’s gospel, being a disciple means following Jesus — and following him all the way to the cross. Not just following him some of the way, making carefully calculated sacrifices, while maintaining our own comfort and pursuing our own ambitions.
It means the sacrifice and surrender of our whole selves, of all we are, because we trust that his way is the only way to true contentment, to true freedom from the ways of our world.
You see, when we surrender all we are, we are freed from the expectations placed on us by anyone else but God. We are freed from the need to perform, to achieve, to be popular, and instead liberated to serve God, placing the needs of others before ourselves.
And we are then freed to encounter Jesus as the gentle one who, in the words of the writer to the Hebrews, ‘is able to deal gently with [us]’ — who forgives us when we fail, which we so often do.
We encounter him as the one who himself knew suffering and anxiety, who ‘offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears’, and yet ‘learned obedience through what he suffered’ and so ‘became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.’
So this morning, as we stand before the Lord’s table once again: Will we renew our vows of discipleship, once again surrendering our whole lives to our gentle Saviour? Will we choose to place the needs of others before ourselves, living lives of service and sacrifice for the good of our neighbours?
How can we, as God’s Church, as ‘Jesus people’, follow his example through the way we live — the one who ‘came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’?
In his commentary on our Gospel passage, one theologian, Lamar Williamson Jr. sums it up like this:
‘True discipleship is characterised by a costly pouring out of one’s life for another, whether it be an ageing parent, a difficult spouse, a special child, another member of the Christian fellowship who has unusual needs, or any person whose situation elicits neighbourly service at personal cost. Jesus came to serve and give his life. Anyone who contemplates following Jesus without fear and trembling has not understood true discipleship, according to Mark.’
Jesus came to serve and give his life — so, this morning, may we devote ourselves afresh to the way of discipleship, praying that he might bring us freedom from the expectations of our world, and give us the gift of his Spirit, to enable us to love and service him better.
Grant, we beseech you, merciful Lord,
to your faithful people pardon and peace,
that they may be cleansed from all their sins
and serve you with a quiet mind;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.