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No Box Seats In The Kingdom

No Box Seats in the Kingdom
Sermons For The Sundays After Pentecost (Last Third)
Historically speaking, the church has usually painted a pretty picture of the twelve original disciples of Jesus. All except Judas have been considered saints. Pious people have named churches after them, often referring to the first disciples as the rocks upon which Christ has built his church. Yet anybody who hears the Gospel of Mark's stories about the disciples gets a different picture of who they were and what they wanted. Sure, the disciples walked the road with Jesus. They listened as he taught. They watched as he did signs and wonders. They followed where he led. However, according to Mark, they never really got the point. In fact, they frequently looked foolish.

Today we hear about James and John scurrying up to Jesus while the others weren't looking. "Teacher," they said, "we want you to do whatever we ask." That alone is a shameless request. They really didn't have the right to ask for a blank check. Jesus, in his eternal patience, decided to sound them out. "What do you want?" he said. They replied, "On the day when you enter your glory, when you ascend to the throne as King of kings and Lord of lords, we want to sit at your right and at your left."

Well, it was a ridiculous request . . . and when the other ten disciples heard about it, they got angry with James and John. They were upset, not because they thought it was the wrong thing to ask for, but because James and John asked for it first. Those two lowly fishermen wanted two box seats in the Kingdom of God, two chairs of honor for that day when Jesus will finally shine in the fullness of his glory.

Today we catch a glimpse of those disciples, looking like children who play "King of the Hill." They shamelessly tried to scramble to the top of the heap. We hear them beg for power, and shake our heads in disbelief.

Perhaps it shocks us to see such blatant self-promotion within the ranks of Christ's disciples. Outside the church, these attitudes are present every day. The world out there encourages us to take the initiative, climb the ladder, and push to the front of the line. "Blessed are the aggressive," says our culture, "for they will get what they want." If that means pulling the boss aside and making a private pitch, then that is what must be done. Like it or not, this is how the world works. Here in the church, it disturbs us to see the same attitudes, even if they may not be immediately obvious.

A Methodist pastor once wrote about power and politics in his denomination. Methodist preachers, he notes, are under the care of a bishop. Bishops, in turn, are Methodist preachers who are elected by fellow Methodist preachers after an extensive campaign for the office in which the candidate tries not to be caught campaigning. As he observes,

It is a long-standing Methodist tradition that bishops must not appear to have sought their office and, once elected, the new bishop must make a public declaration that "I didn't seek this office and I didn't want it but, once the Lord calls" ... Methodist preachers take all of this with a grain of salt, the same way Baptist congregations have learned to be somewhat skeptical when one of their preachers moves on to a better church claiming, "I hate to leave this church and I would rather stay here, but the Lord calls." Baptists note that the Lord rarely calls someone out of one church into another church unless that church has a higher salary. Methodists have likewise noted that there have been few preachers who, once they are elected bishop, turn the job down.1

"Teacher, we want you to put us on your right and on your left. But keep it quiet. Don't make it too obvious. Others may become offended that we asked first." By telling us this story, Mark knows what you and I know: we are prone to the same desire for privilege and protected status. We want a Jesus who will give us what we want, a Lord who can shower a little power on us, a Savior who can make us better than we are.

A number of years ago, a small book appeared for ministers. Titled The Penguin Principles, it attempted to help naive clergy get a handle on the people of their congregations. Most of the material in the book was written with tongue in cheek, so it has some truth in it. According to the book, the first principle of church life goes like this: "Despite the pious things we say, at any given time, less than five percent of any group in the church is operating with purely Christian motivation. The other 95 percent is asking, 'What's in it for me?' "2

When I first read those words I thought, "Oh, no. That's not true. Church people are inherently generous and gracious. They are always eager to help, remaining free from selfish motives and concerns about getting their own way." Then I tried to gather a youth group from a list of Senior Highs, and one after another said, "What's in it for me?" Somewhat discouraged, I attempted to gather some adults to help me share the work as a youth group advisor. Each one said, "What will I get out of it?"

"Teacher, give us what we want." In one sense Jesus is wrong when he replies, "You don't know what you're asking." We know perfectly well what we are asking. We want God to meet our unlimited needs and help us get ahead.

Yet in a deeper sense, any request for cheap success reveals we do not know what kind of God we meet in Jesus. "Look," he said to his disciples, "we are going up to Jerusalem. And it's uphill all the way. The road is hard and difficult. We face painful twists and turns. There will be suffering, humiliation, and death. There is no easy road to glory. Are you able to drink this cup? Are you able to bear this kind of baptism?"

James and John reply, "Sure, no problem." But do they really know? Do we know?

Jesus came to proclaim the kingdom, the mysterious reign of God that grows like a secret seed, ever so gently, ever so silently, until it becomes the greatest of all plants. One morning, God willing, we will wake up and see this gift of God and we will wonder how it happened. We won't know. The kingdom grows in spite of us, in ways we cannot comprehend.

The key is Jesus himself, who comes with a kind of paradoxical, left-handed power. Recall what Jesus does in the Gospel of Mark. One minute, he screams away the demonic forces that torment human minds, telling them to hush. The next minute, he gathers little children and lepers into the embrace of God. One day he shouts at wind and waves and all the turbulent powers of an unruly creation. Another day he rides a humble donkey into a hostile city. Once Jesus put his fingers in the ears of someone who has never heard the good news of God. Immediately he uses his words as a scalpel for cutting away the cancerous lies that keep people from the health which God intends. In every way, Jesus Christ has come to make a difference in this painful, haunted world. He has come to serve, not to sit on a throne with dull-minded disciples on his right and his left. He has come to give his life to pay off our ransom to the powers and principalities, to set people free from all that can damage, hurt, and destroy.

Are you able to drink that cup? Are you able to share his baptism? Anybody who would follow Jesus must be a servant as he is a servant. It requires a total change in how we live. If we want to follow Jesus, we can't live for ourselves anymore. We must give our lives in service to others.

Richard Foster tells about receiving a phone call from a friend. The friend's wife had taken the car, and he wanted to know if Richard could take him on a number of errands. Richard was preparing to teach a college class, but since the man was his friend he reluctantly agreed. As he ran out the door, car keys in hand, he grabbed a book to read along the way. It was a book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer called Life Together.

Foster picked up his friend, and the errands did not go well. There were plenty of stops and starts, traffic was bad, and precious time kept ticking away. Finally they pulled into a parking lot, the friend got out, and Richard stayed behind with his book. He opened it to the bookmark, and read these words:

The second service that one should perform for another in a Christian community is that of active helpfulness. This means, initially, simple assistance in trifling, external matters. There is a multitude of these things wherever people live together. Nobody is too good for the meanest service. One who worries about the loss of time that such petty, outward acts of helpfulness entail is usually taking the importance of his own career too solemnly.3

Are you able to drink that cup? Are you able to share his baptism? If we want to follow Jesus, we must change some of the ways our culture does business. We live with a kind of institutional selfishness, where many industries stop at nothing to make a buck, regardless of how the common good is affected. We have more fast food restaurants than factories, more catalogs than cattle, more microchips than meaning. We live in a service economy. Ironically, there is little service in ways that really count. As sociologist Robert Bellah notes, a lot of companies couldn't care less about making the world a better place. If they have any kind of social responsibility, it is "a kind of public relations whipped cream decorating the corporate pudding."4

What if church people who work for our great corporations decided to speak up? What if we served the world by advocating the things we really need: like an equitable wage for anybody who can work, an environment that nurtures human health, a means for strangers to live in peace, and, most of all, a sense of holy purpose whereby our daily work counts for something?

Are you able to drink that cup? Are you able to share his baptism? I don't know. I do know if we want to follow Jesus, we must rethink what it means to be the church, especially in a culture that worships success. The kind of church God wants is not a church that bows down before stature, power, or worldly achievement. No, it's the kind of church that sets people free to serve God, every day, in the places where God sends them. We need a church that produces people who are servants just like Jesus.

A few years ago, Joel Gregory became the pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, an impressive congregation with almost thirty thousand members. It was the crowning achievement of his career. First Baptist Church occupies five city blocks in downtown Dallas. It houses two schools, a college, and a radio station. The church gave him a nice home, memberships in exclusive country clubs, and luxury box seats for Dallas Cowboys football games. They weren't box seats for the kingdom, but in Dallas a box seat for one is as good as a box seat for another.

But something went wrong in Gregory's pastorate. Church leaders wanted more members; thirty thousand weren't enough. People wanted the physical plant to grow; five city blocks wasn't big enough. Most of all, everyone expected Gregory to tag along behind his predecessor, W. A. Criswell, who had served that congregation for 46 years and who, despite his announcements to the contrary, showed no signs of retiring. "There wasn't room for both of us," Joel Gregory said. "The whole zoo of human ambition and power and ego is the fabric of some superchurches." A power struggle began, dividing the church into opposing sides. One day in September 1992, Gregory stunned many Southern Baptists by resigning from that prominent pulpit.

Today he travels through Fort Worth neighborhoods as a door-to-door salesman. A lot of people say he's a failure. Joel Gregory says otherwise. "For the first time in my life, at 46, I'm learning what it means to be a servant," he says. "It gives me a different view of Christ, and a different view of the real needs of human beings."5

Jesus said, "Are you able to drink my cup? Are you able to share my baptism? Are you able to walk with me, giving yourself to others in a life of service?" If we dare say yes, we must remember the road of discipleship is uphill all the way, and it leads to the foot of the cross. Whoever would follow Jesus must follow him there. He never promised anything else.

1. William H. Willimon, And the Laugh Shall Be First (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1986), p. 94.

2. David S. Belasic and Paul M. Schmidt, The Penguin Principles (Lima, Ohio: CSS Publishing, Inc., 1986), p. 17.

3. Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1978), pp. 117-8.

4. Robert Bellah, et. al., Habits of the Heart (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985), p. 290.

5. David Briggs, "Ex-superchurch pastor now sells cemetery plots," Scranton Times 2 October 1994.

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