All Saints Margaret Street | TRINITY 20 High Mass with Holy Baptism Sunday 21 October 2012

Sermon for TRINITY 20 High Mass with Holy Baptism Sunday 21 October 2012

Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses


Readings: Isaiah 53.4-12; Hebrews 5.1-10; Mark 10.35-45

Those who read our weekly Parish email will know that last Monday, I was speaking at a clergy lunch club. This is not a service for hapless clergy who can’t boil an egg or operate a microwave, but a group of priests who meet monthly for a Eucharist, a meal and a talk, given by an invited speaker or one of our number. A group of those called to feed others at the Lord’s table of word and sacrament; we know that we ourselves need to be fed. Don’t switch off now: I’m not going to repeat what I wrote in this sermon.

 During the meal the conversation turned inevitably to wondering when we would hear who the new Archbishop of Canterbury is to be.  One of our number told us that, for the first time in his life, he had placed a bet and has promised that the drinks are on him if he wins. If the gossip is accurate, that seems very likely, and we shall hold him to it.

Against the background of all this talk of appointment to high office in the Church, my talk was based on the American writer Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead. Its central character,  The Revd. John Ames, is the pastor of a small town church in Iowa. He is an old man who has been there for almost fifty years.  There is no hint of him ever having had ambitions to go anywhere else: to pursue a clerical career which would have gained him more influence or status or material comfort.  A reminder to us not to get ideas above our station!

We cannot say that clergy down the years have always been so humble.  As we heard in today’s gospel, ambition reared its head from the start; among those closest to Jesus, who had been privileged to hear his teaching and to witness his example.  Mark speaks of the disciples squabbling over status, not once but twice. This suggests it was still a problem when he was writing.

Both incidents occur immediately after Jesus has spoken to the disciples, as they travel to Jerusalem, of what awaits him there.   He speaks to them of his forthcoming Passion three times and each time they fail to understand.  After the first, Peter is reproved by Jesus after he says, “This shall never happen to you, Lord.”  After the second, the disciples again fail to understand, and start discussing the pecking order in the kingdom. Jesus responds by placing a child in their midst, as he does among us today,  as an example of humility in the kingdom of God.

After the third, we see James and John, ignoring what Jesus has just said and trying to manipulate him into giving them what they want, fulfilling their very worldly ambitions. After all, these are working men from the Sea of Galilee, members of a trade which the devout regarded as incapable of even being good Jews, very definitely to be numbered among the ”plebs”, to borrow a term in current usage.  

Now they face the prospect of power and status they could not have imagined before the Messiah came into their lives. We should not perhaps be too harsh on them: they were after all only the first of a long line of people for whom the Church would provide a career open to talent.   


We might expect Jesus to rage at this persistent failure to understand. In fact, does not abandon the failing sons of Zebedee, but deals “gently with the ignorant and wayward.”  He patiently instructs them. They do not understand what the “glory” of Jesus will be in Jerusalem: “You do not know what you are asking.”  So through a question he makes clear what sharing in his destiny will mean: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptised with the baptism with which I am baptised?” 

“The cup” is Old Testament code for suffering that had to be endured by those acting for God. It is the lot of the suffering servant of God we heard about in that passage from Isaiah: “Surely, he has born our infirmities and carried our diseases….he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities…”  Words that were  taken up by the Church as speaking of Christ. They are read every year at the liturgy on Good Friday. They are heard by countless audiences of Handel’s “Messiah.”   “Baptism” in the Old Testament signified being overwhelmed, drowned by suffering. 

So all Jesus can offer his disciples in response to their request is a share in God’s plan; in his forthcoming suffering and death. There is an irony in Mark’s account which those who have heard the whole story will recognise: those who occupy the places of honour at Jesus’ right and left will not be his friends, but two bandits who are crucified with him. 

The prediction of the passion had been addressed to the Twelve and when the other ten hear James and John making their play, they are affronted; not because they have grasped the truth about Jesus, but because the pushy pair have stolen a march on them.   They are indignant over the presumption of James and John, angry that they might have been manoeuvred into lesser positions as a result of this pre-emptive power-play on the part of the sons of Zebedee.  They are just as much failures.

In the face of this further failure, Jesus calls the disciples to him and sets about teaching them once more.  Jesus never abandons the failing disciples even though they will abandon him. The rhythmic repetition of Jesus’ calling and teaching those who have failed is a feature of Mark’s Gospel, and it is of the life of the Church ever since.

He does it every Sunday as our compassionate high priest: when he gathers his people; we confess our failings and hear his word of forgiveness; listen to him teaching  us through scripture and sermon of the things of God; renewing our fellowship in his suffering, inaugurated in our the offering of the Eucharist and the receiving of Holy Communion.

Addressing the Twelve, but in words which reach far beyond the immediate confines of the text, Jesus establishes service as the hallmark of Christian discipleship. He contrasts this with what they know of those who are “supposed to be” the rulers in the world; their way of relating to their subjects. There is a subtle irony in that “supposed to be.”  In God’s design their seemingly all-powerful and self-sufficient rule is more apparent than real.  It will not endure.

Established patterns of lordship and authority are to be subverted by Jesus and in the community of his disciples. The rulers of this world, Roman emperors or the ghastly Herodian dynasty.lord it over their subjects now but Jesus tells them it must not be so amongst his disciples. He repeats the reversal of: “many who are first will be last, and the last first,” and the idea of service which had been his theme after the second passion prediction.   As he had said earlier, the one who would be great must, the one who would be first must be the servant of all.  True authority comes from service, not from the exercise of brute power or political manipulation.

Good parents, godly parents, godparents, those who share in God’s care for his children, are ones who learn this lesson and know that their children too will learn the ways of love, kindness and compassion because they have been loved, because they have not been abandoned when they are difficult; because they have not been forced into obedience by power or persuaded into behaving by bribery or emotional manipulation. 

But Jesus does not demand suffering and service from his disciples as a distant lawgiver or authoritarian potentate. As he leads them on the way to Jerusalem, he will lead the way in drinking his cup and undergoing his baptism: “For the Son of Man also came, not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  

The figure of “the Son of Man,” that title which Jesus takes for himself, appears in the book of Daniel as coming in splendour and might, as one who should be served: “to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.”

“His dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.”  But the dominion of Jesus will endure because it is the reign of love not force. It wins our allegiance by attraction not compulsion.