“…Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”—Mark 10.43-44[i]
In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen!
A few weeks back, while preaching in chapel, some of you may remember a story I told about the time I was preparing to graduate from college and that I had applied to become an educational leadership consultant with my fraternity, Lambda Chi Alpha. It was a job that I really wanted and having served two one-year terms as one of 12-members of the International Student Advisory Committee, attended two summer Leadership Seminars and a General Assembly, and graduated from the fraternity’s Impact Leadership program, I felt that I had the job wrapped up in the bag. So to receive the phone call that I did two weeks after my interview—that Lambda Chi Alpha would not employ me as an ELC—made me confused, hurt, sad, and extremely angry. The negative emotions I felt were so visibly strong that my local chapter brothers and fellow Student Government Association officers became very concerned for me. It was a time in my life in which I felt I had been utterly betrayed, not only by Lambda Chi Alpha, but also by God, because I prayed to Him to allow me this opportunity and He let me down.
You may also remember from the story the part of me going into the nave of the local Episcopal parish and just letting God have it. Years later, reflecting back on the incident, I came to two realizations as to why I was angry with God as I was. First, because of my service to the fraternity on the international level, I felt a huge sense of entitlement. After two years of going to international meetings and busting my tail off for an organization that meant so much to me, I felt that an opportunity to serve as an ELC was something that I deserved. Second, had Lambda Chi Alpha hired me to serve as an ELC, I would have been the first African-American initiate hired for the position. I had already made history two years before as the first African-American initiate to serve on the Student Advisory Committee in its (then) 35-year existence. In addition to feeling entitled, I was driven by the want, need, and desire to be known, respected, and recognized, all as a result of vanity. As I look back on this event, I really do believe that my being denied employment with Lambda Chi Alpha was used by God as a way of telling me that no matter what I think, it’s not about me. God had a different plan for my life and it involved me realizing that if I truly wanted respect and recognition, the focus would have to turn from me to that of serving others.
Although I have been an intentional Christian for the past 16 years, it has only been during the past seven in which I have felt that I have truly gotten what being an intentional Christian really means. It has been a journey that can be described by way of these familiar words of Saint Paul: “When I was a child, my speech, feelings, and thinking were all those of a child; now that I am an adult, I have no more use for childish ways.”[ii] From the Lambda Chi Slapdown of 2007, I began to realize that if I was going to be “all in” with Christianity, there were some things that I would have to let go of. I had to let go of the entitlement, the egotism, the vanity, the need for glorification and praise. To let all of that stuff go, I had to die to self. In dying to self, I was committing myself to Jesus, full-throttle to His way. What was His way? “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me.”[iii] In the days and weeks that followed, I came more and more into the realization that no longer was it about me. From that point forward, it was all about Jesus.
By making the request for Jesus to “grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” the Zebedee boys, James and John, show that even among our Lord’s disciples were present issues of egotism and vanity. When James and John approach Jesus with their request, they and all of the other disciples are on the road toward Jerusalem, where, Jesus says, He “will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death…They will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”[iv] James and John’s request arises out of the misunderstanding they have regarding Jesus’ purpose for going to Jerusalem and of the circumstances that await Him there. Although they recognize that there is a forthcoming glorification for Jesus and that it will lead to something bigger than themselves, what they feel it leading to is completely different from what it actually is leading to. In James and John’s minds, Jesus’ going to Jerusalem and his forthcoming glorification are synonymous with aspects of an earthly royal rule and they both want in on it.
For me, I could overlook the Zebedees’ misunderstanding if it was not for the fact that not once, not twice, but three times earlier, Jesus was very clear about what his glorification would entail. The first time, from Mark 8.31: “…He began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” The second time, from Mark 9.31: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” And the third time, from Mark 10.33-34: “…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 upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” And what is even more astounding is that the third time Jesus speaks about His death and resurrection occurs just three verses before the beginning of today’s Gospel. So not only is James and John’s request made by way of a misunderstanding, it is just outright ignorant.
Jesus addresses His disciples’ desire for prominence by shedding light on the power that they are seeking. The power they seek—power of prominence, place, and rank—is overzealous, tyrannical, and gained at the expense of others. Those who have such power oftentimes acquire it by intimidation and maintain it by engaging in tactics that belittles those over whom they are in authority and protect their own self-interests. And it will be those authorities in Jerusalem who possess such power that will mock, spit on, flog, and condemn Jesus to death, and kill Him. Violence and death are awaiting Jesus at the hands of worldly power.
This overzealous, tyrannical, and aggrandizing power, Jesus says, will not be so with His disciples. Jesus tells the Twelve that the true mark of prominence is lived out as a servant. “…Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Jesus, “who…was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”[v] The late South African New Testament scholar Jacobus J. Muller writes:
“The whole time of [Jesus’] sojourn on earth was a time of self-humiliation. He was being humiliated and abased, instead of commanding and ruling in power and majesty and occupying a place of honor and authority and preeminence among men. From the manger to the cross He trod a path of humiliation, which culminated in the misery and suffering and reproach of a shameful death on a tree. Obedience unto God and surrender and submission to the will of God was maintained by Him unto the end, and the profoundest degree of humiliation was reached in that His death was not to be a natural or an honorable one, but was the painful and accursed death of the cross.”[vi]
“…Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Why do I serve others? Because Jesus served others. He served others by giving His life as a ransom for many.[vii] Jesus served me by helping me in a way that I cannot help myself. This is what that early April evening in 2007 in the nave of Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Montevallo, Alabama reminded me of. What I wanted was recognition, praise, notoriety, and a reward for efforts well done. But as Jesus said to his disciples, on that night, He said to me, “…It is not so [with] you.” The experience of that evening seven years ago humbled me. It made me realize that it was not about me. It brought me to the point of realizing that if I loved Jesus like I said I did, then I needed to start doing what He commanded me to do. What did He command of me? What does He command of us? “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with your soul, and with all your mind…[and] you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” [viii]
Let us be faithful to the appellation that we carry—“Christian,” a person that bends to the will of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate God, Perfect Love in human form. May we love and serve others because of Him who first loved us. Amen.
[i] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.
[ii] I Corinthians 13.11 (Good News Translation)
[iii] Luke 9.23 (Common English Bible)
[iv] Mark 10.33-34
[v] Philippians 2.7-8
[vi] Muller, Jacobus J. The Epistles of Paul to the Philippians and to Philemon (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), 86.
[vii] Matthew 20.28
[viii] Matthew 22.37, 39 (cf. Mark 12.30-31; Luke 10.27)