This sermon was preached by Wendell Griffen at First Presbyterian Church in Little Rock, Ark., on October 18, 2009.
Mark 10: 35-45.
What can we learn from James, John, their request to be awarded the highest places of honor with Jesus, the reaction of the other disciples, and what Jesus told the group about honor?
For starters, we are reminded that humans naturally desire to be noticed and honored. We are social creatures. We not only need attention, we are not shy about scheming to get it. And when we associate ourselves with people or causes that we think are worthwhile, we hope—and we expect—that we will somehow be recognized in the association and for our efforts. So none of us should be surprised that James and John approached Jesus privately and asked to be awarded positions of influence.
We should also not be surprised by the way the other disciples reacted when they learned what James and John wanted. What made them so special? What in the world caused James and John to think they were entitled to greater recognition than Peter, Andrew, or any of the other followers? James and John wanted recognition and honor. The other disciples resented them for wanting it.
It is easy to desire recognition. It is equally easy to resent people we recognize as seeking recognition. But if we are not careful, our relationships with each other will become competitions about making the honor roll. Making the honor roll will take precedence over living with honor. Jesus had James and John understand that God decides rank on the honor roll. Then He reminded all the disciples that living for God is not a competition for the honor roll, but a calling to live with honor for God.
We must always remember that our mission is not to compete with each other for rank, but to live together for God with honor. Our mission is to do God’s bidding in the world. This is why Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy will be done.” We are called to love in the power of God. We are called to be agents of divine deliverance, grace, joy, truth, and hope through thick and thin. Living in obedience to that calling can be challenging, even dangerous, as we know from the life of Jesus.
But what Jesus said to his disciples reminds us that we are called to meet that challenge and leave the assignment of rank and honor to God alone. We are called to serve as equals with our brothers and sisters in the world so that God’s truth, justice, peace, joy, and hope will reign in the world. That calling demands our full attention and efforts. When they focused on where they would be ranked, James and John exposed their interest in being superior to their fellow-disciples. They did not seek honor for God, but for themselves.
We resemble James and John more than we know. Our schemes to get promotions, awards, and prizes seem very much like what James and John did. And sometimes, we pick and choose how we serve based on our calculations about whether the service will garner attention and honor for ourselves.
We also resemble the other disciples more than we know. When the Nobel Committee announced last week that President Obama will be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009, the resentment expressed by his political enemies as well as by some other disappointed people was a powerful example of human envy. The detractors were more interested in arguing about why Obama should not be awarded the Peace Prize than they were in advancing the cause of peace.
Jesus teaches that we must never confuse the duty of service with the compensation for service—be it rank, wealth, or power. Our calling is to serve God. Sometimes we do so under the cloud of anonymity. Sometimes we may do so under the burden of terrible suffering, as was true in the case of Job and Jesus. Sometimes we may do so and receive favorable recognition. On the other hand, we may find that our most painful setbacks can follow our best efforts.
In any event, we must always remember that we are called to be servants. We are servants together for God. No matter what happens to us or with us, it is the service that matters most. We are equals before God in the call to serve, equals before God in service, and equals before God in sharing the burdens and the blessings of service.
Finally, the lesson shows how vulnerable we are to the idea that we are entitled to favorable treatment by God for our service. For some reasons not explained in this passage, James and John appear to have considered themselves deserving of top spots with Jesus. There is another side to this coin demonstrated in the life of Job, who eventually demanded that God explain why he (Job) was forced to suffer. If we are faithful, not only do we believe ourselves entitled to special favor. We believe God owes us an explanation when things do not go our way.
Let us remember that faithful service to God does not entitle us to receive special favors from God, special exemptions from adversity, or even special explanations from God about what happens in our lives. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, God causes his sunshine and rain to fall on the just and unjust alike. It is unrealistic and unfair to expect that faithful service to God will obligate God to accord us preferential treatment.
In the final analysis, we must be content to be identified as servants of God and followers of Jesus. As followers of Jesus, we stand on equal ground and rank with each other. As followers of Jesus, we are equally obligated to live to God’s glory. As followers of Jesus, we must live together, advance together, serve together, rejoice together, grieve together, and hope together. Then, let us leave the honor roll assignments to the wisdom and goodness of God.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.