Serving side by side

They were going up to Jerusalem. Jesus was walking ahead of them, resolutely, with urgency in his stride, often a solitary figure against the horizon. All the disciples could do was try and keep up with him. They didn’t fully grasp yet who it was they were following and where he was going.

On the way, Jesus had begun to teach them that he must undergo great suffering and be killed and after three days rise again, and they couldn’t bear to hear it. The first time it was Peter who rebuked him for saying such things.[1] The second time, Jesus told them again how the Son of Man would be betrayed into human hands and be killed, and after three days rise again. They didn’t understand what he was saying, and they were afraid to ask. Instead, they argued with each other about who was the greatest.[2]

Jesus was way ahead of them, and all they could do was try and keep up with him. A third time he stopped to tell the twelve what was going to happen to him. He would be handed over. He would be rejected and condemned by the temple authorities. He would be mocked, abused, tortured, and killed. And after three days he would rise again.

That’s when James and John came forward, the sons of Zebedee. They had been with him since the early days of his mission in Galilee.

“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

Who did they think he was – a genie? Had they heard at all what he had just said? But perhaps they weren’t as obtuse and insensitive as we might suppose. Perhaps they had actually listened to every word. Perhaps they had heard every detail about how he would run into the walls of rejection and political convenience and how these walls would become his grave. And perhaps their confidence in Jesus’ final triumph was so complete that they cast their vision past the deep darkness that lay ahead, into the glory beyond. In their minds, perhaps they were already standing in the royal palace, their toes touching the threshold to the banquet hall, and they saw the Risen One seated on the throne of glory.

“What is it you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked them.

“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” they replied.

They were dreaming about cabinet seats. Certainly the Messiah would need a Chief of Staff or a Chief Justice – and why not them, trusted friends who had been with him almost from day one? They knew how power works: the pyramid with its wide base among those in the dust, rising all the way up to those whose feet never touch the ground because they rest on soft couches and ride in limousines or fly in personal jets. It’s a tall structure, with multiple layers, and the higher you climb, the greater the power and the more exclusive the company. They envisioned greatness as hierarchical, with the greatest at the pinnacle of the pyramid and God hovering over the top. The closer you get to the peak, the closer you are to greatness, and climbing up is an act of faithfulness to the god at the top.

James and John knew how power works, we all do. If you’re the Crown Prince, you get away with murder. You tell the world it was the fault of some underlings, and you don’t even need to mention how many tanks and jets and bombs you’ve been buying.

The sons of Zebedee wanted to sit at the right hand and the left of the one in charge, imagining God’s reign like any kind of earthly rule, only shinier and purer, without corruption and cover-ups.

Social Psychologists tell us that what accounts for much of what we do on a daily basis is status anxiety – we want to know where we are on the pyramid and where the people around us fit in – above? Below? Somewhere on the same level? And when we’re not busy climbing, we’re busy keeping ourselves from slipping and falling. It’s hard work.

I keep a copy of a long list of titles in the Federal Government, just for the joy of reading them out loud. Here’s a sample:

·      Principal Assistant Deputy Under Secretary

·      Associate Deputy Assistant Secretary

·      Chief of Staff to the Associate Assistant Secretary

·      Associate Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary

·      Principal Deputy to the Deputy Assistant Secretary[3]

I try to imagine myself at a cocktail party in D.C. with a few dozen of my closest co-workers, each representing one of countless, meticulously graduated status rankings differentiated by extremely subtle nuances only the truly initiated are capable of grasping. Somebody introduces me to the Principal Assistant Deputy Undersecretary and after a couple of minutes the Principal Deputy to the Deputy Assistant Secretary joins us — and I know immediately which of the two is more important. To you it may all be a blur, but the chart is etched into my memory and I always know which way is up.

James and John were disarmingly honest about wanting to be near the top of the pyramid. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” they said. And Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking.”

They may have been imagining something along the lines of being with Jesus in glory like Moses and Elijah were at the Transfiguration, but Mark is very careful to remind us that the only ones at Jesus’ left and right when he was hailed “King of the Jews” were the two bandits crucified with him.[4] The way of Christ is the way of the cross, not a new and improved way to lord it over others, to secure power within hierarchies of dominant and subordinate.

“Not so among you,” Jesus says to us who try to follow and keep up with him. His way requires of us the surrender of deep-rooted ideas about control, achievement and status, and a humble willingness to follow him.

“Not what I want, but what you want,” was the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane as he prepared to drink the cup of suffering, and those who follow him learn to pray like him. Not what I want – not my aspirations, my ambitions, my pursuits, but what you want – your will, your purpose, your kingdom.

The reign of God comes into the world not by overpowering it, but by subverting our notions of greatness and power. The reign of God undermines our desire for control.  The reign of God entered the world in Jesus who came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life to redeem us from all that separates us from the life God wants for us. Jesus didn’t manipulate people to get what he wanted. He didn’t use others in the pursuit of his own personal ambitions. He was in the world as one who served God and every human being he encountered.

And he calls us, again and again, no matter how many times we get it wrong, he calls us to join him in his mission of service to all people. Following him on the way, we learn to look at others not as means to boost our own status or as threats to our status, but as beloved of God, and we serve them. Jesus invites us to pray with him, “Not what I want, but what you want.” He invites us to quiet our anxious and ambitious selves, and to be open to the coming reign of God where love alone is sovereign.

Martin Copenhaver tells a story about a New England church where he had been the pastor. Some of the older members could remember a time when the wealthy families would send their servants to help cook church suppers alongside those who did not have servants to send. The world changed, and by the time Pastor Martin came to the church these stories were repeated with some amusement, but similar confusions continued.

According to the bylaws of the church the deacons were charged with the spiritual leadership of the congregation, and at a deacons meeting, someone complained that instead of being true to this high and momentous charge, deacons spent too much of their time delivering food to the homeless shelter and washing dishes after communion. How could they tend to important spiritual matters when they were occupied with such mundane tasks? “I schlepp bread and wine from the kitchen to the table, and when all have eaten I take the dishes back to the kitchen and wash them,” one of the deacons complained. “I feel like a glorified butler.”

They did a little Bible study and discovered that the first deacons had been commissioned by the apostles in the Jerusalem church to take food to the widows. They discovered that the word deacon was the anglicized version of the Greek diakonos, and that a diakonos was a servant or a waiter. They were indeed butlers, charged with the mundane task of delivering food, and they were indeed glorified because that simple act of service was an expression of the love of Christ the servant.[5]

It’s gotten colder outside, and we’re only days away from hosting Room in the Inn guests for a week. In this ministry we come together to prepare and serve meals, to make beds and do the laundry, to open doors and welcome strangers so they might experience the hospitality of God’s house, and in our welcome the welcome of God.

Call us glorified butlers, waiters and servants, if you want. But we’re serving in the company of Jesus, we’re learning from the master. We’re participating in the revolution that undermines the love of power with the power of love.

[1] Mark 8:31-33

[2] Mark 9:30-37

[3] Paul C. Light, The True Size of Government (Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1999), 74.

[4] Mk 9:2-8; 15:27

[5] Martin Copenhaver, Christian Century, October 5, 1994, 893.

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