A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley by Andrew McKearney on 17 October 2021.
The fatal stabbing on Friday of an MP has been deeply shocking. Sir David was motivated by his faith to embrace a life of public service, serving as a constituency MP for 38 years, stabbed at one of his regular surgeries to meet with his constituents.
Today’s gospel reading seems particularly appropriate for us to reflect on: ‘Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant….for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.’
The idea of service lies at the very heart of our faith.
The section of Mark’s gospel that we’re reading at the moment in church consists of Christ’s teaching about what it means to follow him; and the idea of service is central.
Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem. And three times Mark tells us how Jesus taught his disciples about the cross and what lay ahead for him.
The first time Peter rebuked Jesus only for Jesus to reply: ‘Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
The second time Jesus tried to teach his disciples about how things were going to work out, Mark writes: ‘They did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.’
And today we heard that as soon as Jesus spelt it out for the third time, James and John the sons of Zebedee came forward to ask him a favour: ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left in your glory.’
It’s hard to fathom how can they have been so inept?
Why after both the second and the third attempts by Jesus to teach the disciples about what lay ahead for him, why do the disciples on both occasions start talking about status and honour?
An important event in Jesus’ ministry has taken place after the first mention of the cross, and before these next two occasions. Jesus has taken Peter, James and John up a high mountain apart, by themselves where he’s been transfigured before them. This vision was granted only to these three disciples and they caught a glimpse of Christ in glory – what we call the Transfiguration. This may help explain their subsequent preoccupations that appear to us so crass.
The vision was granted to only Peter, James and John: perhaps there is a pecking order in Christ’s kingdom?
If there is a kingdom coming then there are important positions to be allocated. How’s that going to be decided?
And at the very least, if Jesus is soon to die, as he keeps saying he is, then someone’s going to have to take over from him: perhaps it will be him, or her, or me?
Which one of us is the greatest?
This may perhaps help us understand a little the mindset of these disciples and their, to us, extraordinary preoccupation with status and honour!
And of course their society was much more hierarchical than ours now is. A modern, western, liberal, democratic society has come on a long journey from a previous, much more structured and hierarchical society, concerned with status and honour. Think of Jane Austen.
Not that these things aren’t still important to us – what is our celebrity culture about if not about status and honour.
So while the society that Jesus lived in was a more overtly hierarchical society than our own, and these three had perhaps wondered whether they’d been given privileged access to our Lord, we know that Jesus is touching a raw nerve in us all when he says: ‘whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.’
Because we don’t get it any more easily than the disciples did.
Words clearly failed to convey the full importance of what Jesus was getting at when he talked about being a servant, so he resorted to symbolic actions.
At one point he took a little child and put it among them before then taking it in his arms. But a child lacked all social status, there was nothing to be gained socially or materially from kindness to a child. They were a non-person.
On the night before he died he took off his outer robe, tied a towel around himself and washed his disciples’ feet. Foot-washing was a normal preliminary before meals, but it was always done by slaves for guests, by children for parents, sometimes by devoted students for a teacher. Never did a teacher wash their pupil’s feet.
‘Have the same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus’, Saint Paul wrote to the Christians at Philippi, ‘who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.’
So after the tragic event on Friday, and reflecting on today’s gospel passage, we’re left praying for Sir David’s family and friends; for all those in public service and especially our MPs; but also for courage and guidance as to how we can best live a life of service; praying always that this precious jewel of a servant’s heart might be ours also.
‘For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’