In the 1980s there was a movie called "Jesus of Montréal.” which placed the life of the Lord in the middle of contemporary Canada, which is a pretty radical move in itself. But one of the great moments in the film comes when Jesus is tempted by Satan - here a kind of public relations-advertising genius: unctuous and smiling and smooth to the point of slimy with very big plans for the church — outlines of glory and vivid visions of how this brand of religion can be a resounding winner. But in the film, Jesus tells Satan he can, essentially, go to hell, and goes on to live out what the writer Frederick Buechner calls this “magnificent defeat.”
I thought of this when I heard the part in todays Gospel where James and John are making their bid for power positions in Jesus’ new community. “Put us right next to you,” they say, “and success is assured.” They are so sure that they are right, that they know what to do, and they are so very wrong, so missing the point.
The disciples do that a lot. Peter – just a while ago – goes up to the top of the mountain to see Jesus with Moses and Elijah and then, quite logically, wants to start the first church building campaign. But God basically says, "shut up and listen” and Jesus tells him they're going to Jerusalem to face a future that will feature everything that Peter’s ever feared. When Peter protests, Jesus tells him that God sees an entirely different kind of opportunity in the coming crisis and Peter better learn to look at this in a whole new way.
So maybe the truth is that Peter, James and John and some of the rest of us disciples are still somewhat deaf and blind to what God might want here, in this new style of leadership and community, with this new definition of success in ministry. At least that is where I am today. For there is still something in me that stands with James and John and even envies the plans of the advertising man in the movie: I look at our church and I want to improve our corporate image and our community outreach in innovative ways. I want to do something successful so that world round us realises what an eternal treasure we have in these fragile earthen vessels.
Because in the last hundred years or so we have come into a future that is like a foreign land, where we have to learn to sing the Lord's song in a new way, to meet a new people with this timeless message, this precious Gospel. And I feel sadness and some fear for the process of death and resurrection that the church must – I think – undergo in this new Jerusalem. So even though Jesus seems to say we have everything we need in the cup we drink and the baptism we’ve undergone and the ministry we share, I am just not there sometimes.
Woody Allen once said that he wasn't afraid of his own death, he just didn't want to be there when it happened. I understand that completely, but I also know there is a bigger truth than death: I am just not sure how to get there sometimes. But maybe hope comes in the three things Jesus says are central to the life of the church in today’s Gospel: Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry.
Because St Paul rightly says that all of us who are baptised in Christ are baptised into his death, and at each and every Eucharist we celebrate our incorporation in the life of Jesus, the body of Christ, to become who we are, the bread of life and the cup of salvation – but there’s a cost in getting to this truth. For, as one English theologian says, we are “invited to exchange our living death for Christ's dying life,” to give away our closely-held plans and join with Jesus in the dying-rising rhythm of a life given in the hope that the resurrection shines in the darkest places in the earth. Nobody ever said it would be easy to get there from here, but I think that’s where Peter, John and James, Nicodemus and you and I have to be born again.
For as the Gospel goes on to say,
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 this is not easy.
St Augustine gave some good advice to Peter some 1600 years ago. Maybe it stands for the rest of us as well. He writes:
Come down, (from the mount) to labour in the earth; in the earth to serve, to be despised, and crucified in the earth. The Life came down, that He might be slain; the Bread came down, that He might hunger; the Way came down, that life might be wearied in the way; the Fountain came down, that He might thirst; and do you refuse to labour?
Because Jesus bears forth, labours with, a new order of creation, a new language of relationship and membership and ministry that was never heard before in Jerusalem or Rome or London or New York or Melbourne: a language of love forged by a man who would be nothing but a servant and friend to all, a man convinced that this is the true, the basic, the only way to show the saving work of God, to simply give his life away — and we are called to live that same life.
But two thousand years have gone by and we have forgotten a lot and learned more, and the Spirit continues to blow us into new beginning, I always think of a bumper sticker I saw many years ago that said “Please be patient, God isn't finished with me yet,” and the question is still, “How do we get there from here?”
A recent translation of the fourteenth century “Book of Privy Counselling” says:
“My dear friend in God,, go beyond your intellect’s endless and involved investigations and worship the Lord your God with your whole being. Offer God your very self in simple wholeness, all that you are and just as you are…”
So maybe it does all goes back to Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry.
According to Fr Gregory Dix, the Eucharist has four parts: “take, bless, break and share,” as a pattern of countless ways in which God reaches out in love to embrace the whole creation. That fourfold model can enable us to pattern our whole ministry as the baptised body of Christ as well.
We simply take all our questions (along with the old memories, new pain, unknown futures, wanting faith, needy neighbours and our very own selves) and we present them all to God as a corporate offering. Then we lift up our lives and everyone else's and let God bless us all, sharing this ongoing journey with family and friends and any passing stranger, and helping them lift their light and love up too. Then, by Grace something happens, and knowing ourselves to be surrounded by such a cloud of unlikely witnesses (including Peter, James and John and the rest of us), we find the faith to break apart and share, to minister, the gifts God gives, to look at what we have with hope, to aim to let it spill the seeds of love so that each moment of time might also be a newborn message of good news for ourselves and for many others
For most days I am convinced that every moment of life contains seeds of heaven, gifts of God, of new faith and hope and love; and that we are called to share, administer, in all the times where life asks living questions and offers loving answers in the midst of all these old crises; that we are called to make new beginnings, to share food and hope and love; to gather as the body of Christ to make Eucharist and ministry, to start the faithful journey beyond Jerusalem one more time. In the end what a gift it is that life can be this big, and that love can come so close.