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Thought for the week - 17 October

Everybody wants to be somebody. Since the dawn of history human beings have been trying to move up the scale of importance. The serpent in the Garden of Eden said to Adam and Eve “when you eat of the tree of good and evil your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” The Dutch theologian and psychologist Henri Nouwen wrote: “The long painful history of the church is the history of people ever and again tempted to chose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led.” It is an all too familiar theme running through the Bible and through human history. We shouldn’t be too harsh then on James and John they are simply being human – wanting to be close to the centre of power.

Their request - “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” – isn’t that strange. Shared glory, closeness to powerful people are a means of becoming somebody. If we can’t be the one with power, then being close to the powerful one is the next best thing. But claiming to be next to the powerful one can have dangerous consequences as the history of the church shows. Some of the history’s most wicked deeds have been done by those who claimed to be sitting on God’s right hand or left; or have claimed to be his spokesman. Power is always a dangerous thing and particularly so in the Church.

Jesus’ response to James and John challenges the popular assumptions about greatness, power and prominence. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” The other disciples were angry, perhaps afraid that Jesus might give James and John what they asked for. But Jesus says to all his disciples, to all who would follow him: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.

43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

The cup from which Jesus drank, and which he promised James and John would drink from, is self-emptying love, the giving of one’s own life for others. The baptism with which he was baptized and which he promised James and John is a turning away from the values of this world with its power games. It is a turning towards God’s reign of justice, of generosity and of joy. In this world’s terms it is downward mobility.

Henri Nouwen writes: “The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which the world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross…. It is not a leadership of power and control, but a leadership of powerlessness and humility in which the suffering servant of God, Jesus Christ, is made manifest.”

To be a Christian involves making ourselves open others in response to the one who laid down his life for us. It is an offering of all we have and all we are. James and John might not have know what it was the were asking for when they asked to be seated on the right and left hand of Jesus, but they were prepared to follow Jesus wherever he went: 38”But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39They replied, “We are able.” The readiness, the willingness to follow wherever he might lead is what matters.

James and John may not have know what they were asking, but they knew who they were asking. They knew they were in presence of someone powerful, even though they misunderstand the nature of that power.

And the strange thing is that it is his way – the way of the cross – that leads to power and to glory.


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