✠ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In a few minutes we are planning to have a baptism. I say “planning” because if I were about to be baptized, and I had just heard that gospel, I’d be having second thoughts. It doesn’t make the church sound attractive. Jesus’ disciples – disciple means follower – were not showing their best selves. They don’t seem to get what matters to Jesus. I’d be wondering, “Do I really want to be part of this?”
Years ago when I was getting interested in Christianity, I realized that I liked Jesus. He was attractive – his values, the way he lived and died, his wit, his teaching, his passion, the way he challenges us and undermines conventional wisdom. I liked Jesus, but I didn’t like the church. It struck me as corrupt, poorly embodying the way of Jesus; it lacked integrity, a bunch of intolerant, know-nothing hypocrites more worried about their own agendas rather than with Jesus’ good news.
I got baptized anyway, and while many of my negative views about the church are still accurate, I recognized that the church is more nuanced and not exactly the same everywhere, and that the church is highly reflective of humanity – full of faults, but also brightness. I became more understanding. Usually as we grow older we grow in appreciation for how difficult it is to embody our ideals. We become more aware of how we fall short ourselves, and so we may feel less compelled to judge. My hope for myself, and for our parish family, is that we grow gradually to embody more fully the beauty and reality of Jesus. That’s transformation. As we’ve been hearing over the last month, that happens here. It strengthens me; it inspires my better self.
People in every group influence each other, and we can help to bring out the best, or the worst, in other people. That’s what caught my attention in today’s gospel. The disciples are still trying to figure out Jesus’ ideals. They don’t yet know how to relate to one another in a healthy way.
It’s crucial to know that the conversation between Jesus and the sons of Zebedee, James and John, happened just after Jesus had predicted for the third time that he would be arrested, tortured, and killed and then on the third day he’d rise. Jesus and his disciples had been walking up to Jerusalem. Mark reported that the disciples were afraid. They were headed for Jerusalem, moving toward some kind of confrontation and conflict. They had tons of uncertainty.
They must have also been confused. They had seen Jesus perform miracles and heal people and do mighty works. Surely this suggested a future of power and glory, but it was a much different kind of power and glory than they expected.
James and John told Jesus that they wanted the highest positions of honor in his glory, one on the right side and the other on the left. It’s ironic because when Jesus is in his glory, on the cross, there are criminals on his right side and on his left side. That’s not the public vindication James and John desired. They didn’t understand the nature of Jesus’ glory, the glory of God.
Jesus promised reversal; he tried to turn his disciples’ expectations upside down. The great are not those in positions of power, but the great are the meek and weak, those who serve, those of the lowest social status. The way of Jesus, the way of the cross repudiates exercising power over others and controlling others; the way of the cross repudiates hierarchies and social climbing; the way of the cross repudiates classes of haves and have nots, winners and losers, honored and un-honored. Jesus’ vision for his followers is that they will form a community without competition for honor and status.
The disciples lived in a society where concern for honor and a good reputation permeated every aspect of public life. Our culture is obsessed with consumption, getting as much as we can; their culture was obsessed with gaining honor. James and John wanted more honor than the others, and they attempted to climb over the others. Their selfish competitiveness ignited envy in the group. The other disciples got angry at James and John. I would have, too.
The occasion revealed a fundamental weakness of the group of disciples, that they had a long way to go to become a strong, healthy community. The way James and John went to Jesus to get honor indicates the disciples were primarily related to Jesus and not much to each other. What held the group together was loyalty to a central figure: Jesus, not their relationships with each other. They had respect for Jesus, but not for each other. It’s not surprising that immediately after Jesus’ arrest and the crucifixion, the disciples were disintegrating. The resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit prevented the disciples from falling apart.
In Lent, I gave a series of talks and observed different ways people associate in groups. I drew two stunning, elegant diagrams to illustrate the way people associate in groups. I made a dot to represent a person in each of my diagrams, and the lines represent strong relationships.
The first diagram had a dot in the center and lots of dots around it, and all the surrounding dots were connected by lines to the center dot, but none of the surrounding dots were connected to each other. This is one way groups organize: high dependence upon a single figure. If the central figure is removed, the group falls apart. This is generally how the disciples associated with each other before the resurrection. It’s a common way groups are structured: loyalty to a charismatic central figure, but not to each other.
The second diagram I drew had dots all over the page, and each of the dots had one or more lines connecting to other dots, but there was not a single dot to which all the other dots were connected. It was a much more complex picture, a much more complex organization with strong relationships between group members and no single person holding it all together. This is the type of community the disciples became after the resurrection.
The church could not have grown if everyone relied upon a single relationship with the leader. Human beings really can’t manage more than a hundred, maybe a hundred fifty, relationships. The church grew by having a more complex organizational structure.
Also the church no longer needed a single leader figure. At the Last Supper Jesus taught us that if we ate his bread and drank from his cup, he is in us and we are in him. Baptism holds the same truth: we’re baptized into Christ, become one with him, mutual indwelling. Everyone of us has intimacy with Jesus, in ourselves and through others.
Therefore, the most important thing for a strong and healthy community is for people to develop friendships. That’s what makes us feel like we belong. The strongest relationships involve giving and receiving support and care. There’s mutuality, sometimes sacrificing for the other, sometimes the other fulfilling your needs; it’s give and take. Jesus modeled this for us: sometimes he healed and ministered to others, and sometimes he allowed others to provide him hospitality and to care for him.
Another quality of strong and healthy communities is the ability to cope with discontent. In today’s gospel, the disciples were angry at James and John. To me, James and John are the clearly in the wrong, and Jesus had to recognize this. But Jesus did not take sides. He responded to the disciples’ displeasure by stating a principle: whoever would be great among you must be servant of all.
Often the best way to deal with discontent is to recall the group’s purpose, to keep the main thing the main thing. Jesus was clear: he came not to be served, but to serve, and that is what he calls us to be. As we learn to serve others, to love others as Jesus loved us, we move closer to God, we grow in Christ, we have a deeper relationship with God. That’s the vision of transformation: the process whereby the gap between our reality and our ideal become narrower. In October, as we emphasize stewardship, we’re concentrating on this transformation.
This week the stewardship team and I are going to send out a pledge card and ask you to make a financial commitment to support God’s work in this parish in 2013. Please give it prayerful consideration. In a couple of Sundays, on November 4, everyone may come to the altar and offer their pledge. If you are able, please join me and my family in raising your pledge for next year.
This is as an opportunity for each of us to assume responsibility for our common life and to bring out the best in each other. A strong and healthy community has lots of people who step up. The more we step up, the more we support one another. That has been our way. There’s great generosity here, and I’m grateful for the way you sacrifice. It inspires me and strengthens my better self. It shows that we’re all in it together, doing God’s work together, growing in Christ.
✠ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Fortress Press (2003), p. 369f.
 Malina, p. 342, argues that this structure is particularly common in ancient Near Eastern factions.