Guest blog from Brandon Frick
Now that the phone calls, the emails and awkward conversations have started, many of us have either been asked, or are asking ourselves, “What now?” Given the approval of 14-F by the majority of our presbyteries, many of us are asking ourselves how we can witness to God not only in the final decision, but in a process of discernment that will keep our congregations together. This will no doubt prove a trying task, but Mark 10:35-45 offers three important lessons for us: two extremes to avoid and one way that might hold us together while serving as a testimony to God’s steadfastness, even in the midst of chaos. This passage begins with James and John telling Jesus, “We want you to do whatever we ask of you… Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” They’re brash, self-serving and show no regard for the other disciples… but at least they’re honest. The other 10 disciples are angry; James and John have tried to reserve a seat of future glory at their expense. This scene is ripe to explode.
Before looking at Jesus’ response, it’s important to note two things he didn’t do – important because they are two community-destroying responses that we see far too often in our world. First, motivated by fear of tension and conflict, Jesus could have relented to James’ and John’s self-serving, ill-informed request. They had been traveling around with Jesus for years. They jumped out of that boat and followed him without hesitation, leaving behind their father, the men who worked for him and a life of relative comfort to wander around Galilee with Jesus. We don’t like conflict and we don’t like standing against those we care about. We often go out of our ways to say “yes,” even if it’s not in the other person’s best interest, but in this episode with the disciples, Jesus reminds us that there are good times to say “no” and risk conflict. Many, if not all, of us will find ourselves in churches where there is disagreement on whether or not our respective properties should be used for same-sex marriages. It is our responsibility as the priesthood of all believers to be honest about how we interpret the witness of Scripture and the direction we feel the Spirit calling us. This does not mean we have to be entrenched on that position or that it needs to be shouted at every one during the coffee hour; it just means we have to speak up and enter into dialogue with one another. The truth can only set us free if it is spoken and heard, so it’s important we all understand that this type of honesty is a gift to our churches, but it’s also an obligation.
Jesus could have also erred in the opposite direction and been so offended by their request that he lashed out in anger. It’s just a few verses later that Jesus cleans house in the temple, driving out the moneychangers and turning over tables. He could have cleaned house with James and John and today we’d be talking about Jesus and his band of 10 disciples. You see this over-commitment to retribution in our world today. An employee at a charity we’ve supported for years says or does something just plain ignorant and we close up the checkbook. Or, a friend tries to manipulate us into doing something and we stop returning their calls or hit the dreaded “unfriend” button on Facebook. We have taken an “easy come, easy go” attitude towards relationships that, when threatened, deserve more thoughtful responses and commitment than we often offer.
A response of steadfastness
Despite the volatility of the group around him, Jesus neither distances himself from those who follow him nor does he, like a cheap magician, keep pulling rabbits out of hats and quarters out of ears so he doesn’t lose the audience’s favor. Instead he lives as the embodiment of one of the most important concepts in the Old Testament: chesed, steadfast love. Fred Rogers, the cardigan-wearing, “won’t you be my neighbor,” Presbyterian pastor, once wrote “The BIG thing about God is God’s faithfulness: not giving up on those with whom God has made covenant.” It’s a BIG concept because the basic arc of the redemptive story of Scripture can be told in terms of it: We rarely exhibit the kind of steadfast love we are called to, and yet God is unwavering in steadfast love to us. The ways that gets played out are much more complicated, but we can see steadfast love in Jesus’ response to the disciples.
Jesus reminds them of who he is and who they are called to be. He’s not a tyrant, and neither are they. He doesn’t lord his position over them, and they won’t either. He has not come to be served, but to serve, and so any of them who wish to be great like Jesus, their Rabbi, is great, will express their greatness in service. By calling them to selfless service Jesus not only corrects James and John, but also challenges the disciples in their anger. Indeed, it challenges all disciples in all times and place. Jesus is no more interested in granting our every dangerous wish than he is in letting anger rule his disciples because, as Psalm 103 reminds us, we are made of dust. We are made in such a way that often the slightest wind can blow us away from one another and the ground of our being, the steadfast God. That only leaves us scattered to the wind and so Jesus lives ever steadfast, calling us to the same.
The question for us as individuals and for our denomination is if we can live steadfast lives of commitment towards each other and God when it seems like the only two options are giving in to, or distancing ourselves from, those we disagree with. I am convinced and convicted by Christ’s witness to the necessity and power of lives characterized by steadfast love that if we cannot be honest with one another and challenge and encourage one another to imitate Christ in placing others before ourselves, then the position our churches will settle on will not serve as witnesses to the steadfastness of God, but as a witness, and yet another tragic reminder, that just like James, John and those 10 angry disciples, we are too focused on ourselves to ever take the time to dwell on God’s unwavering love and commitment.
Can we embrace steadfast love?
So, can we go to that place of deep and abiding love and respect with our families, friends, neighbors and churches where our differences become the occasions in which we unite into a stronger community? We know that this is exactly what happened to that early Christian community who lived through the darkness of Calvary and the light of the empty tomb. This community was made up of a whole bunch of James and Johns and angry disciples who still didn’t fully understand God’s steadfastness. Can we live steadfast lives like Christ? I believe the answer is yes for those empowered by the life-giving, community-building power of Jesus Christ’s resurrection. I believe the answer is yes for those who will live into the light of resurrection, even when it’s blinding and disorienting, I believe the answer is yes, for those who model steadfast lives after Jesus Christ.
As we rapidly approach Holy Week and gather to remember Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, passion, crucifixion and resurrection, my prayer will be that we can give testament to Christ’s selfless life with steadfast, servants’ hearts of our own.
Brandon Frick is associate pastor at Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church in Severna Mark, Maryland. He enjoys the great outdoors, wood carving and time with his family.