James 3:13-4:3; 7-8a
If anyone be first, he must be last of all and a servant of all
You just have to love the disciples! In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus catches them arguing over who is the ‘greatest,’ who is closest to the master, who has the honour, you could say, of being his best friend. Now, we look to the disciples as models of faith. They were the first to respond to God in Jesus, risking everything to follow him. And yet, as is often remarked, they are at the same time constantly somehow letting Jesus down.
So what could it be that God is teaching us, even through the failures of the disciples? For one, the stories of the disciples’ failures help me to see how truly human they were, and therefore that nothing essential separates them from me. I have, like them, said ‘yes’ in my heart to the invitation of Christ and have determined to follow him. In important ways, this ‘yes’ has changed me. I believe that my relationship with Christ Jesus is the defining relationship of my life. And yet at the same time, I am aware that in so many ways my life does not reflect that commitment. And this confuses me. What am I afraid of? Why do I side-step the demands of servanthood? Why do I turn such a long way from the way of the Cross?
Somehow, even as I respond to Christ’s invitation, I find myself obeying a call coming from a different direction. James identifies this other call as friendship, not with Jesus, but with the “world.” And this “friendship with the world” he says, is in “enmity with God.” So when the disciples argue over which of them is Jesus’ best friend, they are paradoxically expressing friendship with the enemy of the very person with whom they are claiming to be best friends. They are aligning themselves with the world, measuring themselves by how the world measures – comparing how they stand in over against one another – instead of allowing God’s love to be the measure of how completely they give themselves to serve one another.
Christ calls us, his church, out of the world. That is what the word ‘church,’ or ecclesia actually means: “the assembly of those called out.” Christ alone ought to be our measure, Christ who expresses completely and utterly the love, the servanthood, and the freedom, of God. When we judge ourselves in comparison to others, when we determine our worth by measuring how we stand in relation to others, we open the door to ambition, covetousness, false hope, and violence. We begin to see the world, not as providing more than we need, but as a field of competition where resources, and even love, are scarce. But the thing is, as we see in the disciples and especially in our own lives, no matter how far out of the world we may have followed Christ, we nevertheless remain deeply in the world at the same time. How hard it is for us to appear ‘last’ in the eyes of our neighbours. Who doesn’t want to be admired?
Fear of not fitting in, of not earning the admiration of our neighbours. Perhaps this explains why we are afraid – afraid to become what in another sense we desire above everything to be – followers of Christ, and so servants of all? Besides which, we do not live in a vacuum. Every life-choice involves others. Is it permissible (or even possible) to drag one’s children, spouse, friends, along the way of the Cross? And we have to earn a living. We have to participate in the infrastructures of our society. We have ties to the world that we cannot simply discard. What then are we to do? Perhaps a kind of hypocrisy or duplicity is inevitable. We desire friendship with Christ alone, but find ourselves unable to renounce even very far our friendship with the world.
Perhaps God is teaching us humility precisely in our failures of faith. Perhaps he is teaching us to confess, “God of all goodness, I cannot be the disciple you call me to be.” Perhaps in this way he is teaching us that we must relinquish our lives to the mercy of the God of mercy. Perhaps God is teaching us that salvation is by grace and not by works: that is, by what we receive from God and not by what we give to God.
And yet (there is always an ‘and yet’), even as we throw ourselves upon the grace of God because we fail to be the disciples we have been called to be, we cannot cease striving live the life of servanthood. After all, it is not ‘salvation’ that God calls us to, but to a life dedicated to the manner of Christ. We are called to serve in the service of God; we are called to delight in the delight of God! And the moment we stop striving to love in the way of Christ, even as we perceive we never shall live this love perfectly, at that very moment we stop desiring this Love to be all in our all. And at the moment we stop desiring Christ be our all in all, that is the moment we stop believing that the Love of God is the most important thing of all. So we must never stop striving to perfect our discipleship – though we must fail. For God is teaching us in our failures of love to throw ourselves upon Love all the more earnestly.
Think about this: since God is infinite in Love, no matter how greatly we succeed in the world, no matter how wonderfully we measure against the efforts of others, in comparison with God we are all, equally, every one of us, always only at the beginning. By the world’s measure, you might reckon yourself far ahead of the person next to you. You might own a house on every continent while your neighbour lives in subsidized housing. And that might fool you into thinking you are greater, more important, than your neighbour. Even if you yourself try not think this way, inevitably the world will treat you as if you were, and you will inevitably grow accustomed to this kind of treatment. But when you do, you will be forgetting that God is the measure of all things. You will be forgetting that compared to the mansion in heaven, the difference between owning a home on five continents and living in a unit of subsidized housing is nothing. Next to the infinity of God, even the greatest of differences comes to nothing, for no matter how far ahead one seems next to the other, in fact you both remain infinitely far from the end.
So, my friends in Christ, we must strive, you might say, to let go of our striving; we must learn to measure success, not by ‘success,’ but by the Cross, which by the world’s measure, means only failure. It is in being servants that we express our faith that Love is all in all. Which makes me wonder: how is God calling us to servanthood? In November we will be setting aside a Saturday for a parish ‘visioning day.’ St Barnabas is entering its 125th year as a parish, and that seems to call for opportunity both to give thanks and to discern where and how God is calling us to serve Him now and in the future. We will need to consider, “what does it mean to be a ‘successful’ parish?” We will need to ask ourselves, “by what measure do we determine failure and success?” By the measures of the world – by size, number, wealth, influence and accolades? Or by how deeply we yearn to walk the way of the Cross, loving God, serving God’s people and God’s world in Christ’s name?