Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
October 26, 2014
This is Reformation Sunday and, as I am fond of mentioning, one of the most important doctrines to come out of the Protestant Reformation, especially when it concerns how we “do church” is the “Priesthood of All Believers.” I am not trying to put myself out of a job, but you don’t need a professional to connect to God. You can do that yourself. Now, in the defense of clergy, it is helpful to have those who have some additional training and have been called by God to shepherd those within the Christian family, but all of us has direct access to Almighty. In the Old Testament, you had priests who bridged the gap between the human and the divine. But Jesus, as our High Priest, bridges that gap, allowing us all access. This mean that my prayers are no more valid than yours, so when you pray for good weather for your next picnic and a storm brews up, don’t assume that I could have done any better. Today, I want us to see this passage through the lens of “Shared Leadership,” which is the fourth item in the covenant that exists between me and the congregation. Again, if you have not yet read the covenant, you can do so online, or see me and I can get you a paper copy. In the Presbyterian Church, the pastor and the elders make up the leadership team (the Session) who work together to define and articulate the congregation’s vision and implement its ministry. But as leaders, we’re all servants: servants of the congregation and, more importantly, servants of our Lord Jesus Christ. In our passage, Jesus and the disciples along with a crowd of people are heading toward Jerusalem. Right before our reading, Jesus pulls the disciples off to the side and tells them that he’s going to Jerusalem to die. Matthew doesn’t tell us what the disciples’ reaction was, instead follows this story: Mrs. Zebedee comes to Jesus with a request on behalf of her sons. Pride and jealously are often the opposite sides of the same coin, as we will see here. We must let Jesus in so that he can rearrange the priorities of our lives in a godly manner. Read Matthew 20:20-28…
Let me tell you about a good friend. Richard is a little older than I am—by about two months! I expect that early next month, I’ll receive a phone call. “Jeff,” Richard will say, “Do you know happens on the 15th?” I’ll respond with something silly and he’ll say “Noooo, it’s my birthday! Don’t you remember?” Of course I do, but it is a game we play. Richard could be designed as someone with “special needs.” For a long time he worked at Wendy’s in Hastings, Michigan, and was probably the chain’s biggest promoter. Once, he was in a local coffee shop for breakfast and I quietly picked up his tab. When he found out it was me, he thanked me and keep thanking me… for the next year. It didn’t take much to please Richard. He’s a simple man, with simple tastes. One Sunday, in church, Richard stood up during joys and concerns and bragged to everyone about receiving a raise. Afterwards, he came up to me and said, “Jeff, can you believe it? I got a raise. Come by Wendy’s and I’ll buy your lunch.” He was so excited and proud and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the minimum wage had just gone up. I’m sure when we get to heaven, Richard is going to be in a prominent place! Unfortunately, for most of us, happiness is harder to come by, as we see in today’s scripture reading. This passage rings true. Although ugly, we can imagine it happening today… In fact, it does happen. You have a mother who wants what is best for her children and is willing to stick her neck out and request special favors for them. Remember the cheerleading scandal in Texas a decade or so ago, when a woman hired a hit man to knock off her daughter’s competition? Now that’s a bit extreme, but it’s natural for us parents to want the best for our children and in this way the mother of the Zebedee boys is no different that many of us. You also have in this story a natural reaction by the rest of the disciples. They’re jealous and upset that Mrs. Zebedee has stuck nose into where they don’t think it belongs. And finally, you have Jesus who’s probably mumbling, “I thought I taught them better.” Jesus uses this opportunity to drive home a point he’s been trying to make all along. Pomp and circumstance isn’t a part of this kingdom; his kingdom is built upon service. Within the community Jesus institutes, we have to keep our ambition and our jealously in check. If we don’t, we risk destroying relationships with others and ultimately with our Lord. As I said before reading the scripture, our passage follows Jesus telling the disciples about his upcoming passion—his betrayal, crucifixion and death. Of course, Jesus also says he’ll be raised on the third day, but there’s a lot to get through to get to that point. Immediately following this pronouncement, we have the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee coming before Jesus with her sons. She kneels, humbling herself, and asks that her sons get to sit in the place of honor in Jesus’ kingdom. Now, in the previous chapter, Jesus told Peter that he and the disciples would all be seated on thrones and gets to judge the 12 tribes of Israel. So Jesus has already told them they’d be rewarded, but then he followed that promise with a warning, the parable of the workers in the vineyard, which we looked at a few weeks ago. As one commentator pointed out, Jesus is tackling two different problems in this chapter. First, with the parable of the workers, he deals with the problem of feeling superior over others. Here, at the end of the chapter, he deals with our seeking superiority. Pride and ambition are two great demons with which Christian leaders wrestle. We have a lot of stuff leading up to this. Jesus has warned the disciples about the danger of spiritual pride and he has shown them what he must undergo to bring about his kingdom. It’s amazing, given what’s has gone before this, Mrs. Zebedee makes such a request. It’s interesting that after she makes her request, Jesus doesn’t address her. Jesus responds to her sons, who are there with their mother. Looking at the passage, we learn that she’s not the type of mother who discreetly works behind her children’s back to make things better for them. In fact, it almost looks like her sons set her up for this, maybe thinking that Jesus would have a soft spot for a woman whose two sons left the family fishing business to follow Jesus. After she makes her request, Jesus addresses the sons, asking them if they can drink the cup that he drinks. The cup is a metaphor commonly used to refer to suffering. Now, these guys shouldn’t have a problem linking together the cup and what Jesus had just told them about his upcoming crucifixion. To be crucified was so horrible that Jesus’ comment should have been like a slap to their faces. And maybe it was, but I think they were only hearing what they wanted to hear. They say they can drink the cup and as we learn in the book of Acts, Herod had James killed and although it is not recorded in the scriptures; it is often thought that John, too, died a martyr. One of the problems with spiritual ambition is that it makes other folks jealous. When the other ten hear about James and John and their attempts to get special treatment, they become angry. It’s a natural response. After all, James and John are not the only ones to have left their businesses and their careers to follow Jesus. Knowing he’s got a problem brewing, Jesus calls the disciples together and tries to head off the bickering by telling the disciples they are acting no differently than those in world. Within the world, there is a hierarchy. This was especially true in the Roman world, the Gentile world, as Jesus points out. You’ve got Caesar in Rome and a lot of petty kings like Herod stuck out in the providences. If you were in a position of power, you had control over those under you. Because you had the Roman legion on your side, you could carry out your policies… But such power politics was not to be a part of Jesus’ community, the church. You know, one of the things that distinguish those of us in the Reform Tradition, a trait going back to the Reformation, is our belief in the reality of sin which leads us to the conclusion that power shouldn’t be concentrated into the hands of one person. That’s why we don’t have bishops in our church and why the elders are considered equal in power to the clergy. Instead, we have committees. I’ll be the first to admit that there can be problems with committees, but in designing a church, the early Reformers sought to make all members equal in the eyes of God. They also to provided checks and balances to keep power from becoming corruptive. By placing power in a group, they hoped to have some control over the corruption that can easily slip into an individual’s life. The “priesthood of all believers,” implies equality within the Christian community. As we’ve seen within this section of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus states over and over that the last shall be first and the first, last, and that we have to come to the kingdom as a child. Now, he extends this, giving us an example of how adults are to come to the kingdom. We’re to come like Jesus, to serve and not rule. Do we? You know, too often we act like the disciples. We either want to be the greatest, like James and John, or we are jealous, like the ten. It’s a great temptation. As Paul and Jeremiah says, if we’re to boast about anything, it should be about what Lord has done. Knowing our blessings, we should be humbled and realize we’ve been provided a great opportunity to expand the Kingdom’s mission and ministry. Secondly, as we see in this passage, we should also be careful not to be jealous. We’re to serve others and not to be making rash or harsh judgments about what others are doing. If we want to be leaders, we must be willing to be a servant. Jesus’ way isn’t the way of the world; it’s a contrarian way, but then our God loves surprising us and when we are faithful, we may find ourselves blessed beyond measure. This week, encourage others with a kind word; take an extra moment to do something nice for someone; instead of demanding what you want, be willing to let another have their way. We’re not to rise within the Christian community to stand out or to be able to brag about ourselves. There are two types of leaders: those who think they deserve the position and those who accept it as a way to serve. The second is the way of our Lord. We humbly accept positions of leadership, knowing that we’re called to service and to let the greatness of Christ shine in all that we do. Amen.