A Sermon for the Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time (17/10/21): Jesus’ New Social Order

Mark 10:35-45

What does it mean to say “Jesus is Lord” when Jesus himself says:
“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
“Jesus is Lord” is the earliest Christian confession. It is the first attempt to put into words who Jesus is, and then figure out what consequences for life might follow from it. It has defined Christians from the very start. Christians are the ones who say Jesus is in charge. When a decision needs to be made, when something needs to be done, when a dispute needs to be settled, what Jesus thinks matters. He is in charge. This is what makes Christians stand out. It is what has got Christians into to trouble, since everyone else thinks somebody else is in charge. At the point at which Christians first started saying “Jesus is Lord” pretty much everyone else around them accepted that Caesar, the Emperor was in charge. That was certainly the claim that Caesar made for himself. Indeed “Lord,” the word which the Christians used, “Kurios” in Greek, was specifically a title which the emperor used. The emperor was in charge, and he had an army to back up that claim by force. So most everyone accepted that what Caesar wanted to happen would happen, and the world as a whole; society, politics, social order grew out of the acceptance of the idea that Caesar was in charge. And they also recognised that disagreeing with that idea would have pretty lethal consequences. Consequences which the people who said “Jesus is Lord,” rather than Caesar, consequence which they experienced directly for themselves. Since it was that, ultimately, which got them persecuted and killed, crucified and thrown to the lions. Of course, most of the time, and for most purposes Caesar wasn’t there to be in charge in person. So below Caesar there were Governors who were each in charge of a part of the empire, a province, on Caesar behalf. And below them there were Procurators who each were in charge of part of a province. Pontius Pilate who has a role later in Jesus’ story was one of those. And below them there were more and more layers of officials. Each layer owing obedience to the layers above them and having authority and control over smaller and smaller corners of the world below them. Right down to the man in his own home who was in charge only there and had authority over only his wife and children. And at the very bottom there were slaves who had no one below them over which to hold authority, and who did not have control even over their own lives. This is a picture of society, social order and politics, like a pyramid which is very narrow at the top and very broad at the bottom. One great pyramid with Caesar at the top, with those beneath sitting on top of smaller and smaller pyramids. The names we use, and perhaps the ways in which we place people on the top – have changed. But the pyramid is still there. Perhaps the consequences of disagreeing with the way things are has become less fatal, at least for us here. And we might like to think that perhaps the sides of the pyramid are not as steep as they once were, or that the distance between the top and the bottom isn’t as great as it once was. But given the amount of wealth and power which continue to be concentrated in less and less hands that might be hard to argue. And the world continues to be organised as a contest about who is in charge and of how much space. Layers of authority controlling smaller and smaller pyramids below them Until right at the bottom more or less everyone will make the most characteristic assertion of our times and the the society we live in
“I’m in charge of me!” A pyramid of one!

This is the vision of society, the social order, its politics which Jesus refers to when he says:
“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.”
He says you know what everyone else does, you know how it looks, those who they consider great are the ones that get to tell others to do something for them. Then James and John come to Jesus with their request. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” They have recognised that in Jesus something fundamental has changed in the world Whether they could put it in so many words yet they have recognised that “Jesus is Lord” Their request is actually part of a dispute that has been going on amongst the disciples for a little while. Some time ago, earlier in the story, Jesus had caught the disciples arguing about who was the greatest. They had debated who among them was in charge, who would get to sit on top of the pyramid that consisted of the followers of Jesus. On that occasion Jesus had challenged them and they had all gone quiet. James and John have at least grasped that Jesus is the greatest. He is in charge. He is Lord. But nothing else of their vision of how the world, the social order might be organised has changed. Their view of the world has stayed the same. It is still a pyramid. It is still very narrow at the top and broad at the bottom. It is just that now Jesus occupies the top spot. Jesus is at the pinnacle rather than Caesar. But that still leaves the next step down open for them! That would be a position from where they could look down on, and lord it over everyone except Jesus. It is that which they want to claim for themselves. What they haven’t grasped is that accepting that Jesus is Lord produces a more fundamental change. And tragically, for the most part even the Church, the social order which Christians have organised themselves into hasn’t even grasped that either. It is not that Jesus replaces the top of the pyramid with himself. Nor is it really the case that Jesus somehow turn the pyramid upside down It is easy to misunderstand Jesus when he says:
Whoever would be great among you be your servant.
As if all Jesus had done was change the rules of how to get to the top of the pyramid. The church, and modern politicians have grasped that much of what Jesus said. So leaders in the church, the ones sitting at the top of those pyramids give themselves servants, names, like ministers. And politicians, those who claim, or are given power and authority in democracies call themselves public servants. Whilst all the while they still act like a Caesar sitting on top of their small pyramids. Jesus does not propose a race to what was the bottom, making it the new top, where the ambitious can claim power and prestige by calling it service. To say Jesus is Lord doesn’t just change who is at the top of the pyramid It doesn’t even just change how the pyramid is organised. It gets rid of the pyramid, and all the little pyramids
No more narrow at the top and wide at the bottom for anyone. No one lords it over anyone. No one exercises authority over anyone. Jesus is Lord!

But what does it mean to say Jesus is Lord when he says:
“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”?
What does it mean to say Jesus is Lord when he is the one who is crucified? What does it mean to say Jesus is Lord when the places of honour to his right and his left are not occupied by the ambitious or the capable but by two dying criminals? What does it mean to say Jesus is Lord when the consequences of saying it are so difficult? James and John come to Jesus looking for a favour. Jesus asks them are they prepared to do what it takes, to accept the consequences of allowing him, Jesus to be in charge of them:
Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptised with the baptism with which I am baptised?”
Are they prepared to accepted the consequences of saying Jesus is Lord in a world and a society which is convinced someone else is in charge and denying it can get you killed? They say “yes.” And as it turns out they do. The book of Acts recalls that James was killed by Herod by the sword, presumably beheaded, because, not least, saying Jesus is Lord denies that Herod is! And John, Christian tradition recalls was the only one of the disciples not to die a martyr, but lived out his days imprisoned on the island of Patmos. The Caesar who he denied by saying Jesus is Lord was Diocletian.

It is not just that saying Jesus is Lord denies all the others who might claim to be in charge. It fundamentally changes how his followers should organise themselves because of the kind of Lord Jesus is. He is the one who serves and suffers. He calls on his people to do the same. The organising principle of Jesus’ followers is not who is in charge, since even Jesus doesn’t claim that for himself in any conventional sense. “Being in charge” conventionally means “getting someone else to do something for you.” As Jesus puts it:
“It shall not be so among you.”
The organising principle among those who accept Jesus as Lord is “service,” mutual service. If everyone is a servant then no one is a master! There is no pyramid, the social order of Jesus followers, the politics of the church should be completely horizontal. Jesus’ followers should be network of caring, serving relationships. We should not even say “I am in charge of me.” Jesus is Lord! What should be said instead: “What help can I give?” When Jesus says he comes to serve and to give his life, that is what it means to say Jesus is Lord!

Jesus’ New Social Order by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0 

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