Eucharist Sermon - 17 October 2021

The Twentieth Sunday after Trinity
Isaiah 53:4–end; Hebrews 5:1–10; Mark 10:35–45
Canon Professor Carol Harrison, Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity
‘Two Cities’

“Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant”

In our gospel this morning James and John clearly think they are onto a good thing: if Jesus really is the Son of God then they have a fast track from being fishermen to being enthroned on his left and right, to reign with him in glory. But Jesus quickly dispels their day-dreaming, making it brutally clear that there is no fast track – just suffering, sacrifice and self-abasement to the point of death, not for their own sake but for the sake of others. Our Old Testament lesson – that famous passage from Isaiah – conveys the same lesson: it is the suffering servant – the one who was wounded, struck down, unjustly punished, rejected, oppressed; led like a sheep led to the slaughter, offered up in anguish for the sake of others, who will eventually be exalted. In Hebrews it is the same: the high priest does not lord it over others but, being called by God, offers gifts and sacrifices to atone for their sin and for his own. Christ, likewise, is identified in Hebrews as a high priest, who offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, in reverent submission to the one who was able to save him from death.

James and John have therefore missed the plot: greatness doesn’t come from ruling but from serving; to be first of all you must be slave of all; salvation only comes from subjecting and abasing yourself for the sake of others. As we’ve heard so many times in our Gospel from Mark over the past few weeks, the first will be last and the last will be first.

This is a hugely difficult lesson and one that I’m guessing we struggle to make sense of. I’m sure you have found yourselves – at home and at work – in the position of being pushed out to the front: the one who must be first to take responsibility; first to deal with problems; first to pick up the bits when things go wrong; first to have to make decisions; at the end of line, where the buck stops with you. People look to you to resolve things; to go first, take the lead, walk the tightrope, and deal with the difficult stuff – the warring factions, the rules and regulations, the office politics and personnel issues, the performance figures and evaluation exercises. In these contexts, it is no fun being first – being given the top seat (or ‘chair’), the title, the prestige or even the fat salary: it is hard work, fraught with personal and moral dilemmas, a constant struggle which can often feel like a no-win.

In his Confessions, Augustine, an early Christian bishop of Hippo in the fourth century, describes meeting a drunk in the street – seemingly happy and carefree – and envying him. This was before he became a bishop, but early Christian bishops – like modern ones no doubt – were the epitome of the one who has to go first. They were not just priests, they were judges, legal arbitrators, mediators, managers, charity administrators, teachers, preachers, writers – and to top it all, they did all of this acutely conscious of the fact that they were responsible, not just for the temporal lives of the members of their congregation but for their souls and their eternal salvation. No wonder Augustine wept when he was forced into ordination.

So what is going on here? The first will be last and the last first. What about those who have to go first – like the high priest, like Jesus, the Son of God. The answer, I think, is to be found in Jesus’ words at the end of our Gospel reading this morning: ‘For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many’.

The idea of leading through serving is perhaps easiest to understand in relation to those lives or jobs which we would describe as ‘vocational’. Those who pursue them aren’t doing it for the prestige, the privilege or the position; they aren’t in it for themselves, but are there because they have followed a call or vocation to it. They don’t choose it; it chooses them. We can all think of examples: the Queen; those who serve in armed forces; doctors, nurses and care workers; teachers and students; poets, sculptors and artists; gardeners; bishops, priests and deacons; parents. They are doing what they are doing, not to be served but to serve.

The fact that they are called doesn’t take away the burden of responsibility; the moral dilemmas; the slog; the cost of self-giving, empathy, compassion – service. I doubt if many who do these jobs or lead these lives in fact think about them in terms of service, but more as being true to a vocation or calling which they find they can’t refuse. It is not so much a matter of avoiding the challenges and difficulties and personal cost, as of being brought up against them in a way that feels unavoidable. People lead these lives and do these jobs not for gain, or self-interest, but because they cannot not do them if they are to be true to themselves, whatever the cost.

But this is as true of life as of particular jobs. It is true not just of the Queen or clergy, but of everyone. We are all called into existence by God; we receive who we are by turning towards Him and acknowledging that everything we are is given to us by Him; that without Him we would not exist. Our turning towards God who gives us life is our vocation. Augustine – again! – summed this up by saying: ‘You will be free if you become a servant’. What I think he meant is that we are only truly free when we realise that we are nothing without God; that we are His servants. If we think we can be self-sufficient; that we don’t need God, then we are literally turning away from the source of our existence; we become less, we lose the freedom that is given by God and become slaves to a delusory sense of self sufficiency.

Augustine divided the whole of world history and human society into what he called two ‘cities’: the City of God and the City of the World. Those who belong to the City of God, he taught, are turned towards God; they love God and neighbour; those who belong to the City of the World are turned towards themselves; they love worldly things and proudly think they are sufficient to themselves. Members of the City of God therefore live lives of service, to God and to one another; members of the City of the World are driven by a desire to dominate others. But only members of the City of God, in their service of God and neighbour, are truly free; members of the City of the World are enslaved to temporal, worldly goods and are bound by sin. One seeks to serve; the other to be served. One is free; the other is enslaved.

The real issue, then, is what we love: do we love God or ourselves; are our actions other-regarding or self-regarding; do we act in love, obedience, gratitude and subjection to God – which can require us to suffer and to sacrifice ourselves –, or do we act in self-interest, for gain, power, prestige, seeking to subject others to ourselves. Do we serve or do we seek to be served?

James and John reacted in worldly terms – they were motivated by self-interest and a desire for glory; Isaiah, Hebrews and Jesus in our readings today set before us a different motivation: the love, obedience and service to God and to one another, which is our perfect freedom.