Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday of Trinity
17th Oct 2021
Sermon for Trinity 20 Year B.
Hebrews 5: 1-10; Mark 10: 35-45
"And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory’”.
Had the sons of Zebedee been blessed with the gift of foresight they might have been more reticent about making their request of Jesus. They make it in the tenth chapter of St Mark’s Gospel. In the eleventh, Jesus makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Within days his glory is revealed. When it is, one man is indeed at his right hand, and another is at his left. But they are, all three, convicted criminals hanging on crosses.
It’s almost certainly not what James and John have in mind when they approach Jesus. They are presumably interested in a more conventional sort of glory: status and influence, affirmation and recognition, wealth and power – in other words, in the sort of glory that attaches to great leaders – whether great political leaders, great cultural leaders, or great religious leaders.
In the passage that we have heard from Hebrews its author outlines an understanding of earthly priesthood which is very different from - and altogether more sympathetic than - that held by the two apostles. But it’s a much more self-disciplined, demanding kind of leadership. It’s a leadership though, which acknowledges itself to be all too human and fallible and which has learnt to love and listen to this humanity and fallibility, and as we say, to ‘offer it up’.
Firstly, priests are priests because they are called by God, the letter claims, not because they take that honour for themselves but that they have responded to a calling not entirely of their own design.
Second, priests deal gently with the failings of others, the letter claims, because they are not ignorant of their own failings. Such a nuanced understanding of priesthood as divinely ordained yet distinctly human seems a long way from the brothers’ brazen request of Jesus and their rather bullish insistence that they are equal to whatever ordeal they are ever likely to face.
Thirdly, priests offer up prayers to God as an intermediaries between God and his people.
Prayer emerges out of the solidarity that the priest has with the people and is the ‘dialogue with God’ that acknowledges God to be the oputworler of our loives and their courses, and not we ourselves.
But the author does not rest there. His principal concern in the letter is to push further and articulate an understanding of the priesthood of Jesus. Like the earthly priests of his ancestral faith, Jesus is called by God. Like them, Jesus is fully human and able to empathize with the needs and the sufferings of the people. Like the, Jesus prays and offers up prayer ‘That they all might be One” John 17.21 Yet there is also a crucial difference between him and them.
Jesus gives his own life, in an act of what the letter calls “reverent submission”, and it is to this same submission that we see in what we might call the spirituality of Jesus:
During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Hebrews 3.5
The understanding of priesthood sketched out in this brief passage serves as an effective criticism of the ambitions of James and John –This brief passage with its threefold understanding of what we might call “Priestly” leadership provides an understanding relevant to all who exercise any sort of leadership, whether in churches or beyond them.
Priestly leaders are “called by God”, writes the author of Hebrews. Their ultimate allegiance is to God, not to any human ideology or human faction or human interest. Priestly leaders root their leadership in the values of the Kingdom of God, and their exercise of leadership points consistently away from themselves and consistently towards those values.
Priestly leaders are “subject to weakness”, writes the author of Hebrews. They should entertain no illusions about their uniqueness, their distinctiveness, or their infallibility. Their leadership serves others because priestly leaders know that they are not so very different from others. They practice above every other skill the skill of listening. It’s not an accident that in Orthodox icons holy men and holy women are always depicted as having very large ears, very large eyes, and very small mouths.
Finally, priestly leaders offer themselves in “reverent submission”, writes the author of Hebrews. They know that the goal of their leadership is not their own flourishing or even their own survival as leaders. The goal of their leadership is the vindication of the values they espouse in the service of the people among whom they belong. Their leadership and their authority are simply a means to that end and may be surrendered in its achievement.
For as Jesus says, “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many”. Amen.