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St Matthews Church Oxhey Hertfordshire

Fr David's Sermon

19th October 2003

Fr David Shepherd

Trinity 18

If you like comedy programmes you'll be familiar with the kind of sketch that has two characters in dialogue. Good examples used to feature in 'the Two Ronnies' and 'Alias Smith and Jones' Two men would be sitting in the pub deep in conversation. The problem was that there was no real connection between their two narratives. They were speaking but neither listening or communicating with each other.

No doubt you will have experienced such conversations in real life and if you are married often taken part in one yourself!

Behind the comedy a more serious point is being made. All too often in human affairs people fail to engage successfully. The problem is compounded by differences of language and culture. Both sides in a dispute speak and listen but fail to understand each other. I suspect such a difficulty lies behind the current dispute within the Anglican Communion. Those who are certain they are right somehow fail to understand those who are equally certain that their point of view is correct and vice versa.

Such profound failure of understanding is found in the Gospels. The story of Jesus and that of his disciples seem to be on parallel lines, never converging. Jesus speaks: the disciples speak but have obviously missed the point. The only difference is that Jesus can always be presumed to fully understand the motivation of his wayward disciples.

We have a good example of this in today's reading from Mark. It is by no means the first. (Remember the dialogue between Jesus and Peter we read a few weeks ago?) Now it is the turn of James and John to err.

Basically they want Jesus to grant them a favour. They want the best place in heaven. 'Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory'. They had obviously taken rather too literally some of Jesus' teaching about his kingdom and the place of the disciples within it.

Jesus corrects them with a question about sharing his cup and his baptism. They reply that they are able to share it, not yet understanding that Jesus is referring to his death. One day they will share in it but not in the way that they think. But as for the best places in heaven that is not for Jesus to grant.

At this point the misunderstanding deepens. James and John miss the point, but now so do the other ten disciples. They vent their anger on James and John for trying to get the best seats at their expense. In churches (though not in this one!) people can get very possessive about their pew. The newcomer can incur the wrath of Mrs. Ponsonby-Smyth who has been sitting there since the relief of Mafeking!

So we see several layers of misunderstanding, all having their root in human desire to gain at the expense of others and in fear of being left out. All of us wanted to be noticed and included.

Now exasperated, Jesus spells it out more clearly. The disciples are not meant to be like secular rulers lording it over their subjects. Rather they are to be like servants. 'Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be the slave of all.' Why? Because the 'Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.'

Here is the hard teaching of the Gospel that stands the values of the world upside down. If we took it seriously the next time someone put us down in an overbearing manner, far from being affronted we would offer to be their slave! Sinful as we are we cannot live like that. Thus we remain cut off at a deep level from our fellow human beings and ultimately from God.

The early Church recognised Jesus in Isaiah's vision of the Suffering Servant (Is.53). Isaiah's words from centuries before seemed to fit with what they remembered of his crucifixion. On the cross, Jesus the suffering servant took on our human condition and redeemed it. Communication is now possible at that profound level.

All this is hard to understand but it has been the experience and hope of Christians down the centuries. We can grow in understanding by reflecting on words from the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews that describe the gift of eternal life that comes through Jesus. I'd like to end with them.

'Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him' Heb. 5.10


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Last updated 19/10/2003 09:00 Author: Fr David Shepherd