Pilgrim Uniting Church, October 17 2021.
Sermon on Mk 10.35-45
Rev. Assoc. Prof. Vicky Balabanski
Today’s Gospel reading invites us to think about issues of power.
This is an interesting moment in history to think about issues of power, who wields it and to what ends. Globally, there is about to be a conference – the Glasgow Climate Change conference, COP26 – that will decide what the trajectory of earth’s eco-system will be in the coming decades and centuries and indeed millennia. The implications of this conference are … tremendous. Who gets to sit at the table making these decisions, and whose voices will be ignored? What would a good use of power look like at a global level? I am going to reflect on these issues in the light of the Gospel passage.
Nationally, our federal system has never faced the sorts of challenges it is under right now. I think it’s fair to say that the powers of the national and state governments are at odds with one another, not only over crucial issues like timelines and priorities in opening up our borders and economies in the post Covid era, but about priorities with regard to climate change. How does power play itself out under pressure at the national and state levels? Whose concerns will be ignored? What would a good use of power look like right now?
And the political turmoil in state parliament we’ve seen in the past week, issues of power and allegiance are in flux as well. There seems to be a strange disconnect between power and accountability in our halls of power at state level as well.
In so many places institutions and businesses that should be characterized by service are instead proving to be places where abuse of power is normalized.
This is indeed a crucial time to think about issues of power.
The Gospel reading has something to say about how we accrue power, and how we use power and to what ends. The reading opened with James and John manoeuvring themselves into key positions of power as they understand it. But we need to see this in its context in the Gospel, as otherwise we might imagine James and John simply as selfish for their own status. Actually this is a move to shape what the nature of the Jesus movement will be. As Mark portrays it, Jesus predicts his death and resurrection explicitly three times as they travel on the road to Jerusalem together. Each time, the disciples’ response is not only a failure to understand, but a dispute about what their movement is about.
In the first instance, when Jesus predicts his suffering, death and resurrection, Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. There is a fundamental disconnect between Peter as the spokesperson of the group or as Jesus’ ‘political manager’ or ‘strategist’ and what Jesus is saying. They disagree profoundly on what their goal is. For Jesus it is not about gaining the whole world or about saving his own life. It’s about aligning himself with the Father, who will bring God’s reign in power.
The second time Jesus predicts his death and resurrection, his disciples don’t respond. Instead, they talk among themselves. And when Jesus asks them what they were talking about, there’s an awkward silence. Because they’d been talking about which one of them was the greatest. Again, they are intent upon making the Jesus movement about power and prestige. But Jesus is intent on making it about service.
Then for a third time, in the lead-up to today’s Gospel reading, Jesus predicts his death and resurrection. This last time is the longest and most explicit. He says this is going to involve being mocked, spat on and flogged. It’s going to involve the Jewish authorities condemning him, and ultimately the Gentiles executing him. This will not be the end of the story, but this is the unavoidable path that they are on together.
James and John are the ones who respond explicitly. We often think of them as making their own personal move on power, not least because Peter had just been discredited in front of the other disciples. But they are also intent on steering Jesus’ path to glory. They are intent upon shaping what the Jesus movement is on about. With one of them on Jesus’ left and the other on his right, James and John may be able to avert the nasty bits and make the Jesus movement a successful uprising. After all, the Maccabees did a similar thing and ended up forming a royal dynasty.
What is the Jesus movement? Is it a path to glory, or is it something else?
I suspect that Christians have often thought of our faith as a path to glory, often in a disembodied heavenly future. But what if it is not about our personal salvation in the bye and bye? What if the self-emptying that Jesus talks about and embodies is actually about revealing the nature of God who self-empties? What if the Gospel is about joining a movement that embodies the God who ‘self-divests’; who chooses freely to self-limit for the good of the whole creation? In theology we call this kenosis. And what if the Gospel is really about service? About taking the path of the common good, even if it means being mocked, spat upon, flogged and even executed? This may not be a very marketable gospel, but it rings true to the path Jesus took and the conflict with his closest followers that he had to confront.
What would the Gospel of service and of self-divestment look like at this moment in the world’s history, where we are challenged to make life and death decisions about the future of coming generations?
Today marks a day when communities of faith across Australia are joining in issuing a call the Australian Government for commitment to our common future. These are the key things:
We need our federal government to formally commit to achieving net zero emissions, not just by 2050, but by setting ambitious goals for 2030. Kicking the can down the road to 2050 will be too late. We need our Government to commit to a Nationally Determined Contribution that aligns with this goal. This also means putting our post-Covid recovery funding to renewables and low carbon industries, not to gas. This means providing substantial finance to the UN Green Climate Fund for other countries, over and above our aid budget. And this also means providing an orderly, planned and just transition for Australian communities that are currently dependent on coal and gas for their livelihoods.
Woah, you might say. What has all that got to do with the Gospel?
It’s got everything to do with the Gospel, if we understand the implications of Jesus’ path to Jerusalem not as the path to our future heavenly glory, but as the path of service here and now. Jesus’ path demonstrates how we can set aside our own interests for the common good. Jesus is modelling a path that leads to self-divestment, not as a strategy to ensure our own long-term comfort, but as a path of redemption for the many. By saying this, I am not saying that there is no future aspect of salvation. Rather, I am saying that Jesus’ path of discipleship needs to be lived out in the present, investing ourselves in preserving and enhancing the common good of all.
It is this sort of Good News that the whole creation needs right now: followers of Jesus who are intent upon service of others, on self-limiting for the good not only of other people but other species as well. We need to face this challenging time for the sake of the many who will come after us.
We are already at 1.1 degrees of Global heating, and are seeing bushfires, droughts, floods and mass extinction on our own shores and across the world. We know that every fraction of a degree makes a difference.
At 1.5 degrees heating, 700 million people will be at risk of extreme heat waves. At 2 degrees it will be 2 billion.
At 1.5 degrees 70 per cent of the world’s coral reefs die. At 2 degrees they are all gone.
As Alok Sharma says, ‘If temperatures continue to rise we will step through a series of one-way doors, and the end destination of [that] … is climate catastrophe.’1
That is why in Glasgow, the world must deliver an outcome which keeps 1.5 degrees in reach. That is why — as one of the G20 countries which account for around 80 per cent of global emissions — Australia needs to step up and commit to action. And that is why people of faith need to call on our federal government to take responsibility to lead us right now. We don’t want billions of our taxpayer dollars spent on nuclear powered submarines to protect us from future threats, we want our taxes to be deployed towards a world that restores the climate and eco-systems and so that we can live justly and peaceably alongside other nations.
Jesus says of himself that the Son of Man – the Human One, came not to be served but to serve. At the heart of Jesus’ vocation is service. Jesus came not to be served but to serve and to give his life. Our common vocation is also to serve and to give, on behalf of the many.
I had reason this week to visit the Women’s Christian Temperance Union Tearooms, which offer ‘scones, jam and a Dollop of History’ with your cup of tea. All over the walls there are pictures and displays of how key Christian women exercised power for social good – for women’s suffrage in particular. There was clearly no question in their minds that the Christian faith and political activism are two sides of the same coin.
Fast forward one hundred and thirty or so years, and this connection between Christian faith and political activism is no longer obvious to everyone. It may be obvious to many people at Pilgrim 9.30 congregation, but it is not obvious to Christians across the denominational and political spectrum out there. If we privatize and individualize Jesus’ teachings – our Gospel may simply be ‘a pie in the sky when you die’. The power of the Gospel will be neutralized, or even manipulated to certain political ends. But if we know ourselves to be followers of the One who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many, then we can live this way too. God grant that we have the courage and clarity to live out our call, for Jesus’ sake and for the sake of the whole creation. Amen.
1. Alok Sharma’s speech at UNESCO, Paris on the need for world leaders to deliver at the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow. October 12, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/paris-promised-glasgow-must-deliver? Accessed 16/10/2021.