Sermon for High Mass – Trinity 21 Sunday 21 October 2018
Berkhamsted School holds an annual Founder’s Day service in the parish church next door, where I used to work. In 2006, we formed the entrance procession for this service, with the visiting preacher, the Bishop of Peterborough, at the end. It seemed right, but of course it wasn’t: the Bishop pointed out that, since this was not his diocese I should walk behind him; but we left well alone. The next year, to the consternation of the Chaplain, I did walk in behind the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, (not so much because he had no jurisdiction as because he wasn’t properly dressed). On both occasions I recalled a famous occasion at CCSL when I was a young server. We had with us the retired bishop of Natal, Vernon Inman, the retired Archbishop of Papua New Guinea, David Hand, and the then Bishop of Ballarat, John Hazlewood, who had the tallest mitre and the smallest diocese in Australia. None of these was in their own diocese, but the matter of precedence was a nightmare, eventually settled by their dates of episcopal consecration, which they communicated not by the secular date, but by saints’ days. The calendrically quick-witted gave the prize to the former bishop of Natal, by a month. You will understand immediately, of course, that these bishops’ desire to process last had nothing whatever in common with James’ and John’s desperation to be first in the Kingdom. For such fine distinctions Christ died.
The naive approach from James and John (not their pushy mother, added by Matthew) for the first places in the Kingdom should not be judged too harshly: like all those truly distinguished prelates, their passion for the gospel is not in question. It’s just that they were human.
Today we’re in Mark 10, with the moment of recognition at Caesarea Philippi and the Transfiguration already in the past; we’re well on the way to Jerusalem and the Passion. In the previous chapter Jesus has offered his maximally inclusive proclamation of the Kingdom:
Whoever is not against us is for us Mk 9.40
Earlier in today’s chapter Jesus exasperatedly reversed his disciples’ attempts to exclude yet more people, this time children:
Jesus … was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.
15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
Then followed last week’s the encounter with the rich young man, who keeps the law but is weighed down by his riches: yet even there, as we heard, an inclusive concession is made to grace,
Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
And today we heard James and John’s daft request to sit in places of honour in heaven (they’ve heard the resurrection bit, but not the Good Friday bit); then, at the end of chapter 10, comes the healing of blind Bartimaeus, who calls Jesus ‘Son of David’. The disciples tell him to shut up, but Jesus includes and heals him too. Bartimaeus sees, and follows.
As we read Mark, we are on the journey with Jesus to Jerusalem, during which he is at pains to teach us about what we call ‘inclusion’, which is actually something much bigger, the distinctive New Testament phenomenon of ‘grace’, the gifting of things to us by God. The context of the teaching, which Mark repeatedly uses to explain things to us, is one of constant misunderstanding and failure to engage, to accept the grace, even by those closest to Jesus. The good news here, and it is a gospel to which we must cling, is that these misunderstandings and diversions, trivial or great, symptoms of our humanity, are not final or fatal.
Our readings from Isaiah and Hebrews give today’s gospel a certain slant, about Jesus the suffering messiah, and Jesus the suffering high priest. But if we take this gospel on its own, we might question whether the promise of suffering is the most important thing about Jesus’ response to James and John.
Christians of all traditions often get stuck on suffering, inflicting things on themselves which are not endured for the sake of the gospel. Today’s Isaiah passage, describing the ‘suffering servant’ is at the heart of our Good Friday liturgy and that’s quite right when we contemplate the cross (though even then we should always do that with a glint of the resurrection light behind it). But it’s the misunderstanding, not the suffering, which is important here.
James and John are passionate; their preposterous misunderstanding of what they are doing on their journey with Jesus is not about putting up with things but doing things. The ‘putting-up-with’ is God’s part, the gracious part, God’s patience; we have to learn that. But we need passion and joy too; they are the yeast which God mixes with our misunderstandings and clumsinesses to produce the beauty of eternal life, life which includes as many of his children as he can gather in.
There are words here today about sacrifice, and important words for the Church about keeping perspective in our internal arguments and jockeying for position, while the world looks on with indifference. We need fewer strategies and much more passion and joy. God can translate our enthusiastic mistakes into the grammar of eternal life much more easily than he can our agonised, self-inflicted burdens. And he can do that with other people who are completely different from us as well. Passion and joy transformed by grace is something to which we can all aspire.
James’s desire to be first was, of course, ironically rewarded. As St John Chrysostom wonderfully comments on this passage,
James … did not live long after; from the beginning he was moved with great zeal. He gave up all earthly interests and attained such an inexpressible degree of excellence that he was killed immediately. Hom. 65.4
There are those risks attached. But life without risk is mere existence. Giving, grace, is risk, God’s risk for us. The Lord loves a cheerful giver because that is his nature, and he wants us to know him. If we try passionately and joyfully to seek him ourselves (though we may secretly hope not to attain such a degree of excellence that we’ll be killed immediately), we will carry others, with us, to God.