When we bring all of these readings today together we see this image of the greatness and awesome beauty and power of God:
Psalm 104: 1-2: O Lord my God how great you are! Clothed with majesty and honour; wrapped in light as in a garment.
...and this stunning reading from Job which really puts all of us in our place! There are long speeches by Job and his friends in the chapters before these particular verses; speeches about who they think God is, and who they think he listens to and doesn’t listen to, and what ‘I’ve done right and what you’ve done wrong’… and while they are having this heated debate together, God just looms over them ‘out of the whirlwind’ and says:
Job 38: 1: “who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?... where were you when I created the Universe..?”
While on retreat recently, I was reading a book called ‘The Sacred Gaze’ and the author mentioned these verses from Job and said that God is basically saying, ‘you of little brain, shut up!’
I think these verses from Job are a lot more poetic and beautifully powerful way to say that and give us that sense of the majesty, mystery and awesomeness of God. As the prophet Isaiah says: 'God’s ways are far above our ways, and His thoughts far above our thoughts…'
Our readings today talk about the power and authority of God, kingship, spiritual leadership, and humility.
The reading from Hebrews refers to this very enigmatic person Melchizedek. Who’s he? Well, he is mentioned in Genesis 14 and was a King Priest of his tribe living about where modern day Jerusalem is:
Genesis 14: 18-20: 'Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying,“Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And praise be to God Most High, (sounds very St Francis actually!) who delivered your enemies into your hand.” Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.'
And that’s it! The main points are: his name – Melchi- my king (Arabic-Malik); Zedek – righteousness – King of Righteousness.
He was king of the town Salem meaning peace– King of Peace.
He was priest of El Elyon, God Most High meaning he believed in One God… most unusual among the cultures of the region. Monotheism, or worship of one god, was rare in the ancient world. Most of the people worshiped several gods and many had dozens of local or household gods, which is mentioned a lot in the OT. We know Abram and his family were called by God to leave their homeland in the north of Iraq and travel to Canaan. It is obvious that God also revealed himself to other groups of people already living in Canaan.
Understanding Jesus' role as our high priest is a key point in the book of Hebrews. The Israelite priesthood were all Levites from the tribe of Levi. You couldn’t be a priest unless you were of that tribe but Jesus was of the tribe of Judah and so, as the writer of Hebrews points out, couldn’t be a priest by Jewish regulations. The Jewish readers of this book of Hebrews knew that, which is why the author of Hebrews refers to Jesus as a High Priest appointed by God and not by the regulations. Melchizedek was not Israelite and in fact lived hundreds of years before the Levitical priesthood was established and therefore, argues the writer of Hebrews in chapter 7, he too was appointed High Priest by God and not by regulations. Therefore Jesus and Melchizedek are of the same order.
The other comparison drawn here is that Jesus and Melchizedek are both High Priest and King. When James and John came to Jesus with their question, they didn’t really understand what they were asking but they did understand one thing – they knew he was a king and had a kingdom. He talked about that kingdom quite a bit… but they didn’t yet understand the nature of Jesus’ kingship and his kingdom nor his destiny as the sacrificial lamb described in Isaiah, the high priest sacrificing himself for the redemption of the world.
James and John, along with Peter, were Jesus’ ‘inner circle’ if you like, his ‘leadership team.’ We see many times written – “he took Peter and James and John” – and went up the mountain e.g. at the transfiguration. So they would have seen themselves as leaders in the community of disciples and so they were and so they would become in the early church. Jesus was grooming them for that leadership so they assumed their natural place was by his side in his kingdom. James and John, with Peter, were the logical choices for this role (they thought) and so, perhaps when the other ten heard it and were indignant, Peter was more indignant than any of the others!
And so… they came, in Mark 10: 37: “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” But the path to Jesus’ glory is through suffering and death and humility. In Luke 24:26, Jesus says “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”
Jesus said to the two brothers; “you don’t know what you are asking.”
“Drink the cup that I drink” is a Jewish expression that means to share someone’s fate. In the OT the cup of wine was a common metaphor for God’s wrath against human sin and rebellion. (NIV foot notes v. 38).
“Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”
WE CAN! They answered! We can share your destiny, probably thinking of leadership and glory, without understanding what that destiny actually was. Jesus spoke a very poignant and prophetic word when he said: “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with,”… James would be the first of the apostles to be martyred within 10 years of Jesus’s death and resurrection , the only one recorded in the Bible. In Acts 12:2 we read that Herod had him executed with the sword. Tradition tells us that all of the apostles, except John, were martyred.
This whole incident became an opportunity for Jesus to teach them what ‘leadership’ in his Christian community meant, what the Christian attitude to leadership is…
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
What an extraordinary statement that is… Jesus, the Messiah, did not come to be served but to serve… and to give his life… the Master of all things…
‘Lording it over them’ is so descriptive and implies a wrong exercise of authority, in the interest, not of the subjects, but of the rulers. Accordingly, Jesus endeavours to check the disciples’ ambition by insisting on the humble spirit of the servant as the way to true greatness in the ranks of His followers. Christian leadership is an exercise of authority in the interest of the subjects, not of the rulers and the humility Jesus speaks of here is an attitude of the heart.
Jesus is a King, yet he is a servant as he taught us when he washed the disciples’ feet after the Passover before his death: ‘I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.’
Secular leaders as Jesus described usually become leaders for wealth and power. Our leaders are called to serve the community and so there is always this tension between authority and humility.
Peter came a long way in his understanding of what ‘greatness’ and leadership in the kingdom of God really is, through this incident with the brothers James and John, and also when Jesus washed his feet at the last supper. Peter then went on in later years to describe Christian leadership in his own letter to the church:
“Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock." (1Peter 5:2ff).
Peter clearly heard Jesus’ teaching that day and learned to be that sort of ‘Shepherd’ to the Body of Christ…
Brother Francis, when speaking about those in authority said; “…if he is promoted to office, he preserves his humility, and the more he is honoured, the more unworthy he is to think himself.” But humility is not having low self-esteem. One is a stronger, more effective and caring leader with humility!
Now, the gospel reading today is relevant for those who would hold positions of leadership and authority in the Body of Christ but it is not just for priests and pastors, bishops and Sunday School teachers!…in the paradoxical way of the gospel that Jesus taught us it is talking about all of us in the Body of Christ – the greatest will be the least and the least the greatest… the first will be last and the last first…whether we are a ‘little one’ in the Kingdom of God or hold a position of authority, all of us are called by Jesus to serve each other in humility and love, building up and encouraging one another and seeing other people as more important than ourselves…giving our lives for each other:
Philippians 2:3: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility, value others above yourselves.”
It is a high ideal and we will stumble and fall many times but it is the path that Jesus would have us strive for … St. Bernard of Clairvaux said, ‘No spiritual house can stand for a moment except on the foundation of humility.’ It is the first condition of a joyful life within any community.
Humility, say the Franciscans, simply confesses that we have nothing that we have not received and admits the fact of our insufficiency and our dependence upon God. It is the basis of all Christian virtues.