Eucharist Sermon - 25 July 2021

James the Apostle
Jeremiah 45:1–5, Acts 11:27–12:2, Matthew 20:20–28
The Revd Canon Graham Ward, Regius Professor of Divinity
'Service and Sacrifice'

Our New Testament lessons this morning both concerned service and sacrifice, with Jesus Christ as the model and mediator of the kind of persons we must become, the kinds of dispositions that have to be formed within us that we each might best show Christ to each other in His body. I want to suggest that in taking service and sacrifice seriously we need to expand our horizons and our moral and spiritual compasses. And here’s why.

I’m staring at two photographs, shot from the same spot above the Victoria Falls, one taken in January 2019 and the other in December of the same year. In the first, what the Africans call “the smoke of thunder”, courses over the edge of a plateau almost 1.5 kilometres long, plunging 100 metres in turbulent spumes to the pool below. In the second, there is nothing, hardly a trickle. The face of the cliff is exposed as brown, fissured and dry. It is not the spoliation of one of the wonders of the natural world which shakes me. Rather, it’s the thought of all those subsistent livelihoods (human, animal, insect and plant) along the Zambesi river as it flows through eastern Angola, a corner of Namibia, along the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe and through Mozambique to the Indian Ocean. The scale of the devastation on a biosphere inhabited by millions of species (including human beings) is unimaginable, and this is only a thin slice of the globe.

As we are learning, we in the West are not, literally, immune. This was published in The Lancet last August:

“Within our global ecosystems, biodiversity is declining faster than at any point in human history and habitat removal is causing wildlife to move closer to human settlements. Global growth in trade and consumption is enabling the mixing of wildlife, domestic animals, and other marketable natural products, which is increasing the risk of disease transmission from animals to humans. COVID-19 is the latest dangerous infectious disease facilitated by human behaviours that provide transmission opportunities from animals into humans… Human-forced climate change exacerbates these risks. Shifting wildlife migration patterns can cause the emergence of novel diseases as new species-interactions occur.”

The UK has its own equivalent of the Zambesi dry-out: rows of empty high street shops, signs that any number of businesses (small and large) succumbed to the ravages of the pandemic, economically and socially. Livelihoods gone, limited prospects for employment, zero hours contracts, swelling numbers on universal credit, queues at food banks and faith communities preparing hot meals served from the back of cars. The flows of fresh water and capitalism have never been so closely related.

So back to Jesus. The mother of Zebedee’s sons comes to Jesus wanting some assurance for their future. Here’s the Messiah, the kingdom is coming and she doesn’t ask but ‘begs’ Jesus to place one of them on his right side and one of them on his left. A mother wanting the best for her children is instinctive and Jesus treats both her and her sons with respect. We don’t know what’s behind her desperation, but it’s certainly not something as simple as ambition. And although we have kings and rulers, thrones, dominions and authority mentioned and the other disciples angry at the brothers, what Matthew is emphasising here is the lack of understanding: your imaginations have conjured scenes and scenarios which are simply illusory. “You do not understand what you are asking.” The kingdom of God cannot be modelled on the kingdoms of this world. There is such compassion behind Jesus’s words to the two brothers. He confronts them - “Can you drink the cup that I am to drink?” – knowing that they will indeed drink the cup that he drinks. And if that is an allusion to the cup of wine at the Last Supper and the first Eucharist, it is also a figure for the sufferings Christ and they will undergo: the sufferings of the body of Christ. These sufferings, the laying down of their lives, is their service to Christ and to the body of Christ. And whatever is the greatness here that comes from faithfully serving is not very specific. To be publicly abused and even martyred is far from the exaltations of rulers, dominions, thrones and kingship as commonly imagined. But the service that Jesus points to and sketches here is not some divine sadomasochistic tyranny: lives are laid down “as a ransom for many”. In undertaking, indeed undergoing, this service – in being faithful to Christ – there is redemption. The sacrifices involved will bring about a healing, a salvation, far beyond anything imagined by these brothers and their mother. The healing will be collective: for the many not the elite few, the common good, the common weal, not this man or that woman. In fact, we stop being this man and that woman in being incorporated into Christ; in drinking of the same cup and living in this world as Christ.

Back to the Zambesi and the pandemic, or, just in the last weeks the floods in the Chinese province of Henan, Germany, Belgium and Croatia, the raging firestorms in north western America, the tornados in California, the volcanic eruptions in the Congo, the landslides in Indonesia, the fears over Tokyo and China today as a typhoon approaches. Whatever we might imagine about ourselves as free agents, however much we become the subject of our own creation, we do not belong to ourselves. We are created, and created to serve. Service is not something we do. It is something we are. And in being what we are, that may run contrary to what we think we are or hope we may be, then in Christ that service will be redemptive. We will be, in St. Paul’s words, “living sacrifices”. And It will contribute to the healing of many. We share in the responsibility for the whole of creation. Our service, as created by God, is not just to our friends, families, churches, denominations. Our service is, ultimately, cosmic as Christ is cosmic and as the redemption of all things in Christ is cosmic. His sacrificial service was for the wellbeing and wholeness of every star-cluster, planet and plant. And to go straight back to our passage from Matthew this morning, that service begins in drinking the cup that Christ drinks. In doing that we not only affirm our solidarity with the mission of Christ for the salvation of the world, we are incorporated into Christ and the operation of God in and through and for all that is created. Because God loves us.