Text: Mark 9:30-37 W 16th Sunday after Pentecost
A Different Agenda
In the name of him who for us and for our salvation was led like a lamb to the slaughter, dear friends in Christ: As I often like to do to prime the pump, today I’d like to begin with a question for you to consider. It’s this: How do you define success? And what I mean is for yourself personally; what criteria do you use to evaluate how successful you are – or at least how successful you have been up to this point in your life? What goals have you made for yourself that you are striving to attain so that you can measure your success? Or say it all another way, what would it take for you to say that you were living the good life? Think about it for a bit.
Now, obviously the answers are going to vary from person to person; but I imagine that most of us would answer these questions with some or all of the components of what is commonly called achieving the American dream. It includes such things as, probably first and foremost, making enough money to maintain the lifestyle you desire and, at the same time, eventually reaching the goal of financial independence, that is, accumulating enough wealth so that one day you can retire from work and have enough to live comfortably doing all those things you enjoy doing and pay all of your bills until you die – and, even then, maybe still have some left over to pass on to your descendants. And quite apart from financial goals, depending on your chosen field, most of us would include reaching a certain level of accomplishment. That would mean attaining the respect and admiration of your peers – and perhaps of other people too. Maybe it would involve receiving certain awards or other kinds of recognition and honors that go along with your line of work, whatever it is. And then there’s the issue of authority. Along with everything else I mentioned so far, most people desire to have a certain amount of direct influence over others. When I was in the service, the way you attained that was by climbing up through the ranks. The higher your rank, the more authority you had, and the more people you had under you. And while there may not be a direct correspondence to military rank in your own field of endeavor, still, most of us want to work our way into a position in which we are telling people what to do rather than have someone else telling us what to do.
Wealth, prestige, power: more than anything else, these are the things by which we measure success in this world. The more you’ve got of them, the more successful you and other people will think you are. And mind you, I’m not discounting other measures of success. If you’ve got a family, you might also include things like holding your marriage together for the long haul, and making sure that one day the kids are all up and out and surviving on their own – and not from behind the bars of a jail. That would be good. And to all this we might include any number of personal goals you have, like making it to certain travel destinations you have your heart set on seeing, or achieving some physical challenge you’ve set for yourself: “I’ve always wanted to go skydiving, or climb Mount Kilimanjaro, or run the Boston Marathon, or wrestle an alligator, or whatever”. Still, I’ll stick with the big three of wealth, prestige, and power as the top priorities because most of us imagine that if we can attain them, then all the other measures of success will naturally fall into place. And so we pursue them. Steadily. Doggedly. Their attainment is what sets the agenda of our day to day lives – and why not? Doesn’t everyone want to be successful in this world? Isn’t getting along as best we can and living the good life what this world is all about?
Well, in a word, no; certainly not according to St. James in today’s Epistle lesson. He tells us, “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”
Those are some pretty harsh words; but they are words that we, the disciples of Jesus in this age, need to hear – just as did the original twelve disciples of Jesus as we heard in today’s Gospel lesson. They were supposedly following Jesus. They were supposedly listening to what he what teaching and applying it to their lives—for that’s what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. But in truth, they were arguing among themselves about which one of them was the greatest. They were thinking about success from a strictly worldly point of view and thought that they could bring their worldly agenda regarding how to attain it with them into the Kingdom of God. And for that reason they could not understand what Jesus was talking about when he spoke of his upcoming rejection and condemnation by the religious authorities in Jerusalem, and the brutal death he would suffer as a result. They just couldn’t understand him. And they were afraid to ask him about it.
But here’s the question: What’s our excuse? We know exactly what Jesus was talking about. We know that the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve; and to give his life as a ransom for many. We know that he who was rich beyond imagination became poor for our sakes so that we might inherit all things. We know that he who had the glorious name that is above all names for our sakes allowed his name to be the object of scorn, ridicule, and hatred—as it still is among many – even many who are considered to be extremely successful – in the world today. We know these things. And maybe we’re not afraid to ask him about it; but we sure are afraid to hear his answer – and what it really means for us to be his disciples.
That’s because we know it means changing to a completely different definition of success – one that’s exactly opposite to our usual way of thinking. It means adopting an entirely different agenda for attaining it. Jesus said, “If anyone would be first, he must be the last of all and the servant of all.”
That’s pretty radical. Instead of climbing the ladder to the top, our Lord tells us that we really ought to be headed downward. We ought to be seeking to destroy our internal desire to think of ourselves as better or more worthy than others. We should be endeavoring to cast away every sense of pride so that we would consider no task beneath our dignity. There should be no person in any station or condition however low or sinful that we would not be willing to serve. No one at all, not even someone who has injured or insulted us, about whom we might say, “I’ll be damned before I lift a finger to help him, or forgive him, or speak kindly to him, or do whatever I can for him”. And actually, when you think about it, that sentiment is not very far from the truth; because you are very much in danger of being damned by holding such an attitude about someone. You need to see it for the sin it is and repent of it. And while you do, you might consider what would have happened if Jesus Christ had had the same attitude about serving you, for if he did then you surely would have been damned.
I hasten to add that a willingness to serve others doesn’t mean going out of one’s way to avoid positions of responsibility and leadership. Jesus served his disciples, and yet he was their leader. In the same way, if the Lord has blessed you with the talents of organization and leadership, you serve others by organizing and leading them. The Christian difference is that you don’t do it for your own glory, but for the greater good of all and for the glory of God.
And if you are serving others in these ways, it will inevitably lead to your name being dragged low. Instead of holding you in honor and esteem those who think in worldly terms (and that includes everyone to some degree) will take advantage of you and think you’re an idiot for allowing it. The world will think you a deluded fool. But Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people insult, persecute, and say all manner of evil against you for my name’s sake, for so they treated the prophets.” And so also they treated Jesus himself. Can we, his disciples, expect any less? And yet at the same time, others will wonder what it’s all about. They’ll wonder why you’re different. And when they ask, you’ll have opportunity to give the reason for the hope you have within you. You’ll be able to tell them of the certain assurance you have in Jesus, and how that no one can take anything from you in this life that you can keep anyway. And no one can take anything that God is not able to restore a thousand fold in the age to come.
And this in turn will change your attitude about the accumulation of worldly wealth. Instead of seeing it as the means to attain temporal comfort and security for yourself, the true disciple of Jesus sees wealth as a tool to be used in building up God’s Kingdom. It’s to be acquired so that it can be used as much as possible to help secure the eternal future of others by leading them to faith in the Lord Jesus; for as the prophet Daniel wrote, “Those who lead many to righteousness will shine like the stars forever.” Now, that’s what I’d call success.
But it all means seeing things a lot differently than we usually do. It means that as we follow Jesus, we actually listen to what he is saying and strive to understand. It means that we not be afraid to ask questions of him. And it means above all things that through heartfelt repentance we continuously seek to destroy in ourselves the competitive spirit that wants to be the greatest and that strives to achieve worldly success. True discipleship – true success – means adopting the very different agenda of our Lord Jesus Christ. May he give us the grace and humility to do so, so that we may take up our crosses and follow him faithfully through life, through death, unto to the life he will give us in glory to come. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!