Sermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, for the Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.
"But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant…” — Mark 10:43
If you spend any intimate time around my family, you are bound to hear a common colloquial phrase. From the youngest to the oldest. In multiple settings. Across the lines of gender. And with varying inflections based on varying contexts. Somebody in the Walton household is gonna say, “Dude, Chill.”
When Baldwin instigates a pillow fight with his sister, Zora will declare in laughter, “Dude, Chill.” When Zora is caught taking a book off of Elijah’s shelf, one can hear feet racing across the hall and his voice pleading, “Dude, Chill.” When my teenage son decides to get sassy with his father, and I start approaching him with outstretched arms, one will hear Cecily’s voice from the living room shouting, “Jon! Dude, Chill.”
Different settings. Different tones. Yet similar meanings. It’s a heuristic shorthand for, “Bring it down a notch. Maybe it’s not the time. Maybe it’s not the place.” More importantly, you’re exceeding a limit. You’ve bumped up against an acceptable boundary. Slow down. Take a deep breath. Assess your current actions. And reconsider your current response. Simply put, “Dude, Chill.”
I’m not sure what this phrase would have sounded like in Jesus’s Galilean Aramaic. But I suspect he would have found it useful. This morning’s text is one such example. The tenth chapter of Mark says that the disciples James and John came to Jesus with a request.
“We believe in you, Jesus. When others have doubted. When others have called you a false prophet. When others have mocked and maligned you, we have stood by your side. So this is what we need from you. When you enter into glory and reestablish God’s kingdom as the Messiah, make sure you appoint us by your side. Give us central spots in your kingly cabinet. One of us as your right hand, and one as your left. We’ve earned it.”
It’s easy for us to write off James and John here for their ego and ambition. Mocking them for their pretension and passion for power is easy. But let’s not make that move too quick. Are these brothers much different than any of us? Put yourself in their shoes.
The Bible tells us that James and John were the first to follow Jesus. These weren’t slackers. These weren’t men with nowhere to go and nothing to do. They were the sons of Zebedee, a pretty prosperous fisherman in Galilee. They were men of relative means in an otherwise impoverished region. Yet they gave it all up to be a part of this upstart Jewish revival movement. They gave it all up for their belief in Jesus’s moral call and ethical commitment.
Maybe this caused tension in their household. Their father had worked hard to build the business, and now he had to go hire more employees.
I’m sure this involved personal risk. Galilee was already known as a hotbed of Jewish rebellion. Roman occupying forces monitored the behavior of presumed bandits and dissidents. Of course, Jesus was at the top of their dissident “watch list.” And we know that the Jesus movement caused all kind of intra-religious conflict between fellow Jews. “Why are you running around with that guy? Don’t you know he’s nothing but trouble.” Others probably just whispered behind their backs, “I don’t know what happened to them. They quit their jobs, won’t hang out with us anymore, and is all ‘religious’ all of a sudden.”
So maybe James and John’s query didn’t come from ego as much as it came from their understanding of what’s right. And their knowledge of what’s right is not so unlike our own. We live in a world where we want what we feel is fair.
We want to be compensated for our sacrifices. Acknowledged for our efforts. Promoted for our perseverance. Advanced for our assiduity. And moved forward for our fidelity. This is how our world works. And whenever we feel that we have been deprived of something that belongs to us, we lash out. Why? Because let’s face it. So many of us view our opportunity as dependent on domination over OR the exclusion of others. Could this be why we see expanding opportunity for all, as a loss of opportunity for ourselves? So, John and James want to go ahead and get their bid in now. We were the first to follow you, Jesus. So let us be the first at your side when you seize power!
But look at Jesus’s response. He never missed an opportunity to reconsider the conventional. Jesus never missed a chance to re-examine the ordinary. He thus turned their reasonable request into a teaching moment about power and prestige.
Jesus says to look at the Gentiles, or in this case Roman leaders. Look at their emperor, and their kings dispersed throughout the empire. Look at how power flows. Power is from the top down. Their rulers lord it over the people. Their greatness is measured by strength and control over the people. When they come around, the people must bow down in obeisance. When they say jump, the people ask “How high?” Their very definition of power is analogous to control, dominance, hierarchy, elitism, and privilege to exercise one’s will and have one’s way.
“Is this why you followed me?,” I can hear Jesus asking. Were you just looking for another means to seize power? Another method to assert control? Another way to exercise authority and dominance?
These are the questions that I think we ought to continually ask ourselves today as followers of Christ. One hears so much today about “Christian leadership.” One witnesses so much celebration about “having Christians in positions of power.” Do we really know what we are saying? Do we really know what we want? I fear that many of us are like James and John. Our prayer and our aim is something like, “Jesus, when you take over, make sure I’m right there beside you at the top!”
What Jesus makes clear is that his kingdom is one of disruption and inversion. Like the Hebrew prophets of whom he taught, Jesus wanted to disrupt any order where power and privilege rested with an oppressive elite. And he tried to invert who we regarded as righteous.
Jesus wasn’t concerned with positions or climbing the social ladder. He was concerned with full inclusion and erasing the margins. Jesus wasn’t concerned about access to the elites. Like Moses, Amos, Isaiah, Esther, and Micah, he was concerned with undoing oppression. That’s why he says, “The greatest among you is the one who is willing to serve all of you.” That’s what it means to be great.
In 1834 two English Congregational ministers traveled to the United States to study American life. Their names were Andrew Reed and James Matheson of England and Wales. This trip resulted in a two-volume publication entitled A Narrative of the Visit to the American Churches. Along with being fervent abolitionists, Reed and Matheson also made a case for universal education in America, and full voting rights for people regardless of color, gender, or property ownership. And in what has now become an often misattributed and revised quote, these English clergies declared, “America will be great IF America is good. If not, her greatness will vanish away like a morning cloud.”
This is what Jesus tried to teach his disciples. Don’t talk about greatness, without talking about goodness. Don’t talk about status without talking about service. Don’t talk about excellence without talking about inclusion and anti-oppression.
And this is the question we have to ask ourselves over and over and over again. As followers of Jesus, do we really want a world free of oppression? Or like James and John, do we merely want to use Jesus as a source of elevation to replicate the same oppressive behaviors. If it’s the latter, I can hear the voice of Jesus saying to me, ”Dude, chill.”