“If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting,” says Jesus to Pilate. If my leadership, my government, my reign, were from this world, my followers would be fighting.
Deacon Chris asked us last week to keep track of the number of times our favorite news sources encourage us to be afraid – a revealing exercise, I thought – and we could probably do the same with the number of times our favorite news sources highlight fights or arguments. Those headlines like “so and so blasts opponents.” After all, outrage generates page views and adrenaline sells products. So we are all experts these days, I think, in what it looks like when leadership is from this world, and its followers are fighting.
You could raise the question, in this situation, of how wise it is for the church to choose a term that is rooted in political power to describe Jesus. But when we call Jesus a King, as we do today, we don’t mean that he’s no better than our earthly leaders. We mean he embodies the real definition of leadership as God designed it. So what is that kind of leadership? If we’re going to use potentially ambiguous words like “King” or “Lord,” what does the church’s tradition intend by them? What is Jesus’ leadership, and how is it unlike the world’s version of leadership?
At Synod last month, we heard a report from the group of priests who brought St. Michael’s conference to our diocese. St. Michael’s is sometimes compared to a spiritual boot camp, and it’s a week long event where Episcopal teenagers are taken seriously. Apart from having fun together, they get the chance to really grapple with Christian truth, ask hard questions, and invest in rich worship in a liturgical setting. In fact it’s so substantial that our Bishop counts it as Confirmation preparation. The diocese of Springfield had its first ever St. Michael’s this past summer, and I was happy that two teenagers went from our parish, and I hope we will send many more of our acolytes and other teens this coming summer. June 12-16, mark your calendars. But what I want to mention from that Synod presentation on the St. Michael’s Conference is just one small thing that one of the clergy did. It immediately came to mind when I read today’s Gospel lesson. The narrative shows us Jesus teaching in the Temple in Jerusalem – so, in a place that you would think would be very rewarding to visit for any Jew of his day.
Mark chapter 10 has been our companion all through October, and as I’ve remarked several times, it collects some of the most challenging examples of Jesus’ call to discipleship. I mean, think of the stories we’ve heard just the past 2 weeks. Jesus has been pointing to his own total self-giving, inviting people to trust in him rather than in their own presuppositions about how life works – and so far he has been met with incomprehension or flat refusal.
2 weeks ago, the so-called rich young ruler, a man who had all sorts of spiritual assets and social assets and financial assets, was heartbroken to learn that it was impossible for him to follow Jesus while continuing to rely on those. People try to treat Jesus like that a lot – as if he were not worth trusting yourself to, but something to be tacked on top of the resources you really trust in. When Jesus told him it doesn’t work that way, he walked out on Jesus’ call.
Then last week, we saw the disciples make a similar mistake: we saw them approach Jesus based on the idea that Jesus’ total self-giving was not the heart of the story, but a prelude to getting the kind of assets the rich young ruler trusted in: power, money, authority, “glory.” They thought that Jesus was going to come into his own not as a self-giving, self-emptying God, but as the kind of God the world imagines, and they wanted to make sure to get their share of all the things that kind of God would want you to trust in.
So Jesus said to them “What do you want me to do for you?” And once more, now to his own disciples, he has to explain (as he still does to us, over and over) that it doesn’t work that way. Self-giving and servanthood is at the heart of how God does things. Trusting God is not an add-on to trusting the world. It’s a permanent lifestyle. God doesn’t do things through collecting glory, but by giving it away. He doesn’t do things by keeping blessing, but by being a blessing to others. That’s the call. That’s God’s style.