I want to begin this morning with a prayer that our Wednesday healing service opens with:
Rejoice now, Mother Church, with all creation, for God has sent the Holy Spirit into our hearts to call us out of darkness into light;
The Holy Spirit, who moved over the waters in the darkness of eternal night before the Creation, comes with fire to illuminate our darkness;
The Holy Spirit, who spoke through the prophets to condemn injustice and give hope to the oppressed, comes with fire to purge our world;
The Holy Spirit, who descended at the baptism of Jesus to proclaim him as God’s anointed one, comes with fire to reveal God’s love;
The Holy Spirit, who came upon the apostles at Pentecost to send them out into all the world and to proclaim the gospel to all people, comes with fire to renew and inspire the Church.
Come, Holy Spirit, come and fill us.
This prayer was used at this summer’s General Convention Integrity Eucharist. Every time I read or hear this prayer, I get goose bumps because it is both a prayer of thanksgiving for the gifting of the Holy Spirit, and also an invitation to be filled with the transformative power of the Spirit. So be careful what you ask for!
As I read the text for today, two ways of understanding the conversation between James, John and Jesus came up for me. The first was an understanding of how ironic this conversation must have felt for Jesus, and the second was an understanding of how fearful and often confused the disciples must have been in their following of Jesus.
In exploring the ironic meaning of the passage, we have simply to consider the crucifixion. Jesus and the disciples are heading back to Jerusalem, and at this point in Mark’s story, Jesus has now predicted his death three times. So for James and John to by vying for a place of power with Jesus is one of those “be careful what you ask for” moments…a place of power next to Jesus will only lead to death. If we fast forward to the crucifixion, we see that those at the right and left hand of Jesus are criminals, and it’s not a place of power, privilege or esteem. With this understanding of the text, we walk away with the idea that it’s not good to be ambitious and vain, and shame on James and John.
But if we can suspend our judgment of James and John for a moment and consider instead the fear, confusion and sense of ambiguity that the disciples might have felt as they head back to Jerusalem with Jesus, we might be more sympathetic.
What is there to be fearful of? Since the beginning of Mark, Jesus has been engaged in a ministry that is turning the Jewish community upside down. He has been healing and touching the unclean, he’s been teaching a new understanding about the Kingdom of God, he’s fed the hungry, he’s welcomed children and women into his circles, and he has a lot of people on edge. To be a disciple is dangerous business. There is a lot of uncertainty in it, and Jesus repeatedly tells his followers that discipleship comes at a cost.
At the vestry retreat back in early March, Chris asked me what I thought the future of the church looked like, and I said that honestly, I didn’t know, but that what we’re doing now wouldn’t work for much longer…that in the next 10-20 years, the church would be radically different. I’m not the only one who thinks this way. It’s been the topic of diocesan conventions all across the country and the General Convention since about the year 2000. For many, that’s a very scary proposition. And in an attempt to feel less ambiguous and fearful about change, we try to hold on to “the way it’s always been”. Why not? It’s worked this long! But it won’t in the future.
I share this with you because in a lot of ways, the church and the disciples aren’t that different. We want to keep doing what’s always been done because it means that we can try to relive and recapture the glory days of being the biggest, most influential, most “cheeks in the seats” game in town. And when we think about change, about the church transforming, it gets scary.
Jesus calls us to a new way. Like the disciples, he invites us into a new understanding of ministry and the building up of the Kingdom. Like Jesus, we are called to service and transformation. As disciples, we are empowered with the Holy Spirit to servant leadership and mutual ministry…not to focus on the “law” but rather the “spirit”.
Now these terms “servant leadership” and “mutual ministry” are catch phrases used by the church, so what do I mean by them? To me, servant leadership is about compassion. It’s about being in the world, engaging the community, and offering a witness to the grace of God. It’s about taking care of each other. It’s about our lives outside of these four walls. It’s not about being the most impressive, most powerful or most elite. And for me, mutual ministry goes hand in hand with servant leadership. Mutual ministry is about recognizing the gifts that we all bring to the table and finding ways to put those gifts to work. Mutual ministry holds each of us accountable to include, invite and welcome others. Mutual ministry is an exploration of the possibilities, the “what ifs” and the “just imagines”. It’s a new way of doing “church” that is Spirit driven.
If we can consider the possibility of Jesus’ invitation to the disciples—to be baptized as he was, to drink of the cup as he did—then we quickly realize that means not sitting at the right or left hand of Jesus, but rather to be servants to others. Are we ready to be disciples?
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.