Ambition and the Gospel

Mark 10.35-45: A sermon preached at Stainbeck United Reformed Church, 2018

We are given this morning an important and challenging reading, that points us to the heart of being Christian and being human. So I am glad to be called to speak about it. 

I read this text and at the same time, I reflect on my life, on myself through 80 years. The story shows me some key steps in my life-story . I find myself in the movement of the story. It would be disastrous if I talked about myself instead of listening to the Gospel and talking about the word and the way of the Lord. But this story, like many others, calls us to see ourselves in our real lives, from within the story. 

So I will talk about the reading, and try to tell you how I find myself in it. 

You may want to do the same for yourself: listen to the story, look at your life, and find yourself within this story. Find yourself in a fresh light and a better way. 

These two disciples were young and ambitious – To be ambitious is in itself good. Don’t discourage ambition in a person of any age. But beware: ambitious is ambiguous, it can be healthy and unhealthy. 

John and James were alert to a great opportunity and they went for it energetically. Those are two key features of ambition. 

They had been called to be close to Jesus, they believed this wandering healer and preacher was God’s anointed who was on the way to coming into his glory as king. When he did, they wanted to be his right hand man, and his left hand man. 

I was healthily and unhealthily ambitious when I grew up. I wanted to be great at everything, I was very competitive. As I discovered that I could not be top at everything, I channelled my ambition into being top in a few things, in passing some examinations, winning scholarships and academic prizes, becoming expert in one or two little fields of study – and at the same time being a fairly pleasant helpful civilized person. And in all that, I liked to think I was doing it for Christ, because I was a committed and determined Christian. 

When I look back at my young self, sixty years ago, I can’t simply regret my ambitiousness. But I do see that it was healthy and unhealthy. And I see how slow I have been to know the difference and then to act on it. 

Jesus saw the ambition of these young disciples was healthy and unhealthy. He set about freeing them from unhealthy ambition, without damping down the healthy ambition. 

So he talks to them. You don’t know what you are asking. 

Let me help you to know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptised with the baptism that I am baptised with? Can you take up your cross and follow me? 

Yes, they say, We can. So they thought. So they all said at the Last Supper, We will die with you. 

Then they went to the garden, and Jesus prayed in agony, Father let this cup pass from me, but nevertheless not my will but yours be done – while they slept for sorrow instead of praying with him. Then they fled or denied him. They said they could, only to discover they couldn’t. 

The growing up of ambitious people involves painful self-discovery – unless they take refuge in denial, in blindness about their own living as I think many of us do, to some degree, and sometimes to pure make-believe. 

Jesus does not tell them they won’t be able to drink his cup; he leaves them to find out later. 

Instead he says: you will drink my cup – I can give you that. I can and do offer you the chance to share my life and to go my way. When Jesus called his disciples, he said Come and die (Bonhoeffer). [Churchill echoed that: I have nothing else to offer you, but blood and sweat and toil and tears.] 

Yes, says Jesus, you my disciples, I will hold on to you through even the crisis of my dying, and see to it that you drink my cup in your turn… 

But what your self-centred ambition is driving you to ask for, to sit each side of me, is not mine to grant. It is in the gift of the Father in heaven, and it is reserved for those for whom it has been prepared. Who that might be, Jesus cannot say. Jesus does not claim to know all the secrets of God. Jesus lived in humility and faith and obedience to the Father. 

So the disciples of Jesus have ambition, and their ambition is sifted by going with Jesus. 

This sifting of ambition did not happen dramatically, in any sudden crisis for me, but I can see now it has been a long constant element in my life. It was early on a question, but the question has become clearer and more searching over the years. 

This questioning is not a nagging negative undermining of all ambitiousness, of the restless energy to be the best that I can be. The questioning takes the form of an invitation to channel ambition away from the self into service. 

The other disciples give Jesus the chance to put this invitation to all of them. They are incensed by the ambition of James and John. Who made them better or more important than us? How dare they destroy the unity of the company of equals around Jesus by claiming privilege? 

They show they are as self-interested as James and John, but to their self-interest, they add grievance and bitter hostility. (They go to the extreme of Trumpishness). 

Jesus says: my companions on the way, don’t have some who are lords and tyrants , who are Great, and others who are underlings and have to tell the lords You are Great. This is not how we live, now, because it is not how things are in the kingdom of God. 

If you want to be great, then you have to respect each other as equals, and then you have to go further; you sit loose to your claim to equality, and have the freedom to serve others.

Gaining and defending equality can be without love; we can respect others in a distant way, careful not to risk ourselves. We don’t aim to be greater than they are, but we don’t want to risk being less: we want fair give and take. 

In many situations in our society, it would indeed be a great improvement if everybody enjoyed equal respect, equal rights, equal freedoms. Equality is not a bad standard as a goal to aim at in society, because many suffer from massive inequalities. So I think we should aim at equality, but also aim beyond equality towards love and free service and self-giving, which is at the centre of the way of Jesus and the kingdom of God. 

If you want to be great, you must be servant, said Jesus, for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.

I don’t pretend to have responded to this invitation fully, but it has set the framework within which I understand some of the most significant things in my life

I got married and have been for happily for 52 years now. I am grateful that Hilary and I were clear from the beginning that it wouldn’t work if we were competing to be greatest. I had to learn to become servant. The hymn ‘Brother sister let me serve you, let me be as Christ to you’ shows us the way for all human relationships, but when I sing I can’t help singing it in my heart to and with Hilary.

Brother, sister, let me serve you;
let me be as Christ to you;
pray that I may have the grace to
let you be my servant too.

And then we have children and grandchildren, and like a lot of people, it is children who call us to come down from our ambitions to be greatest, and instead to put ourselves at the disposal of others, to be a servant. A parent is a good servant, placing all the power and competence that an adult has at the service of the child, to help her through the years to grow into adulthood. Of course parents have to lead, and control children but we need to learn to do that without dominating and squashing them or fitting them to our plans and expectations for them. 

And now I have been a University person for 60 years. When I started out I had great ambitions to be a scholar who was dominant in my field, even if it was only a narrow and trivial one. And I think I taught as though I had the truth that I could pass on to students, and I knew the best way to handle problems in my area so that, as students followed me, they would be well-trained. I was slowly freed of working in that way. Instead of being a teacher who displayed impressive mastery, I learnt to be a servant of my students in their efforts to become mature and independent thinkers and investigators for themselves. Instead of living my life through them, they were to find their way into good living with a little help from me. 

I came to see Teaching not as training, but as liberation. The teacher not as great master but as servant. That is the truth of the Gospel, the reality of following Jesus, I discovered through the practice of teaching. 

And that gave me many worries and sadnesses as well as joy. Let me share just one. 

The teacher serves the maturing and liberation of the student. What does the student do with the freedom they enter? 

A student asked me to write her a reference when she was finishing her degree in Theology. I asked her what she was aiming to do. Like quite a lot of students, she said, She was going to become an accountant, because she wanted good money. I said to myself, I can’t remember whether I said to her, I am sad it comes to this: we have been reading round the good news of God in Christ in our work together, good news such as the wisdom of this text, and now it sounds as though it has no effect on your career choice. The Gospel does not put a block in the path of becoming an accountant, but it does put a big question mark against the motive, of becoming rich. The Gospel asks the accountant, asks us all, whatever the way in which we get our living wage, or our luxury wage, what are you really seeking? Are you seeking the kingdom of God and his righteousness, which means becoming a useful servant, or are you seeking to be a great lord, by getting money? 

I cannot say as an individual person that I have fully turned from the way of seeking great things for myself, to be a servant of others, in the human community. I think it is fairly obvious that our society, economy and culture has not decisively passed from darkness to light on this point. That being so, we can expect all the Jameses and Johns to go on striving to get to top places, and so this story will not be redundant. We must pray that God’s voice is still constantly heard, arguing with us as Jesus argued with his disciples, and calling us to follow him in practical living, so that at the very least we never have an easy conscience, and we are always learning, and trying to follow in his way more closely. And if we have that basic healthy ambition, to be with Jesus, to hear him, to let him show us the way, and sift our motives and our actions, to convict us when we fail, and to restore us by calling us again and again to be with him, as learners and servants, then all will be well by the goodness of God. 

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