A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, October 17th 2021
I don’t have one favourite Bible verse, but if I did it would be Mark chapter ten, verse forty-five: ‘For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’
This saying from Jesus arises from a dispute going on among his followers; what today we might call ‘the Church.’ James and John, the sons of Zebedee come to Jesus with a request: ‘Teacher we want you to do for us whatever we ask.’ (10:35) When someone says to you, ‘promise me you’ll do something for me,’ then you know they know it’s a questionable request. They want to get your agreement in principle before they tell you in practice what it is that they want you to do.
Well, it’s no different here. James and John want Jesus to give them the premier positions as his right and left hand men: ‘Grant us to sit, one on your right hand and one on your left, in your glory.’ (10:37) There are a couple of problems with that request, one that James and John have not considered and one of which they are very much aware. The first one, whose implications they have not considered is this: Jesus has just told his followers that he is going to be put to death (10:33), so being right beside him may not be the sort of experience that James and John are seeking.
The second problem with the request is one of which James and John are very much aware. When the other ten find out about this request they are going to be very angry with James and John, and that’s exactly what happened. (10:41) I suspect, though that the others were angry, not because they would never have done such a thing themselves, but because James and John had got their request in ahead of them! I say that because Jesus felt the need to get the whole group together for discipleship training, not just those two brothers.
Since Jesus’s teaching is for the whole group of disciples it provides a model and message about the nature of today’s Church; those who claim to be Jesus’s followers in the here and now. This is not about how a church organises itself structurally, whether it has priests and bishops, or minister and Elders for example. What Jesus says is about the attitudes and outlook that should characterise a Church, no matter what denominational or other Christian tradition it also represents.
And this is very important, because Jesus says that the character, or DNA of a church, should be at odds with the society around it. This was true of his time and place, and it’s true of our time and place. First, society: ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognise as their rulers lord it over them,’ says Jesus, ‘and their great ones are tyrants over them.’ (10:42) Well, I think we can all recognise that at work in the political process, both in this nation and in other places.
It’s not to say that all those who enter into politics today are driven by their ambition to clamber to the top. Sir David Amess, for example, tragically murdered but the other day, was notable in never holding ministerial office, nor aspiring to do so, but devoted to representing his constituents, and articulating the beliefs he held dear, including those which flowed from his Christian faith. That said, our political process is built upon a competition for votes, which bring the rewards of office and the wielding of power.
And Jesus says to his followers, ‘But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.’ (10:43-44) Now many of our Prime Ministers have been people of talent; many of them have exhibited good personal qualities; none of them, though, I would suggest, have been driven by the desire for office in order to be ‘the slave of all.’ Yet that’s how it must be among Jesus’s followers. If you want to be a great Christian you must be the servant and slave of all.
And here’s the wonderful thing – Jesus does not only call for this, he models it: ‘for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and gave his life as a ransom for all.’ Into a world which prized the competitive desire to be top dog, both among individuals, and between nations, Jesus demanded and modelled a totally different form of greatness. His life was characterised not by what he might achieve for himself but by what he might do for others. You could hear it in his teachings, you could see it in his hospitality and healings.
And then, of course, you can see it above all in how Jesus carried this attitude through all the way to cross: he ‘came not to be served but to serve, and gave his life as a ransom for many.’ Take a moment to consider that: Jesus chose to serve you by dying for you. It really does not get any greater than that. It’s not the way of the world. In fact, it remakes the way we see what’s important in the world. And what it should do is change the way we seek to live in the world, both as individuals, and collectively, as churches.
When serving others is the first priority you will view your involvement in a church congregation in a particular way. You can’t start by asking about what you get from a church. You have to start from the position of what you can give to a church. Though when you do that, when you start by trying to contribute and serve, you’re likely to find that you benefit from church as well. And by the way, this is not a call to allow yourself to be exploited. A congregation where serving others is the first priority makes sure to serve those who would try to give too much. That is, it does not overload them. Also, it will intervene if someone’s goodwill is being taken advantage of by others.
When serving other disciples is a first priority, that puts paid to competition between congregations. This is important in a time when churches are struggling to find the resources in people and money to carry out their mission. In the United Reformed Church, with numbers of members falling, we are having to look at how to share out the ministry we receive through Ministers of Word and Sacraments. That will mean congregations like us, being open to share for the sake of others, and expectant that other groups of followers of Jesus will have the same attitude towards us.
When serving others is the first priority, that affects how we will relate to the community around this church. If we take seriously what Jesus says, then all of those activities where we serve the community around us are affirmed; serving others with food, with company, with a safe space; through sharing with them the good news about Jesus, who has turned the competitive values of this world upside down through what he said and did; including what he did on the cross.
Yes, I may not have a favourite Bible verse, but if I did it would be Mark 10:45. ‘For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’