Here is Bishop Stephen's Lent 5 Reflection: Power and Status in the Kingdom of God
Lent 5 Reflection: Power and Status in the Kingdom of God
A very faithful disciple died and went to heaven. He presented himself at the Pearly Gates. A rather distracted St Peter directed him to a small side gate. This disciple was rather disappointed that the welcome was so subdued. Surely, all disciples were equal in heaven? As he got his bearings inside the heavenly Jerusalem, He heard fanfares and happy shouting coming from the entrance of the Pearly Gates. As he drew near, he saw a fully robed bishops being carried in shoulder high to great jubilation. Our friend approached St Peter, puzzled and concerned. Why was he sent to the side door and this bishop was getting this treatment. “Well”, said Peter. “We get lots of saints like you; but we get so few bishops that we make a fuss when we receive one”!
Today I want to reflect on power and status in the kingdom of God as Jesus teaches his disciples and others by words and by inter-action with strangers. We are looking at Chapter 9.33 – 10.52. We begin with 9.33-37. Just before Jesus is with his disciples Capernaum, he told them a second time that he would suffer and die and rise from the dead as he was teaching them on the move through Galilee. Now Jesus is indoors with them, possibly in Peter’s house , the ruins of which I have visited many times. They still do not understand what he has been saying to them and they prove this by bickering about their status and who was the greatest or favourite. You may have seen the film with Olivia Colman as Queen Anne called The Favourite which reveals the toxic nature of favouritism and people’s abuse of proximity to someone important. Jesus challenges the disciples by turning their conversation on its head. It is the servant of all, the ignored foot-washing slave who will be first in the Kingdom. Those who lord it over others will be the least of all. To prove the point he beckons a little child of the household and wraps his arms around the kiddie and identifies himself with the child. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me but the One who sent me”.
This is amazing. Since Victorian times and the end of mass childhood mortality across all classes, we in the West have come to idolise and sentimentalise childhood. This was not the case in Jesus’s day or for many centuries afterwards. So many children died as babies or infants that adults protected themselves from the potential levels of grief by not identifying with them until they were at least on the verge of adulthood. Children had no status or value until they were deemed to be adults. For a person outside a child’s family to welcome that young person turned social mores on their head. Jesus was putting aside all adult status and importance to be an equal, child to child with that little one. The God worth believing in comes among us as a servant in the guise of a child. It was scandalous then and it remains so for the church now, with people like me living in grand houses. Before Covid I loved going into schools and listening to children. I have been gently put in my place by them many times. Like the first disciples, we are our journey with Jesus to the cross. It is only there that we shall apprehend what status and power really mean.
Jesus reinforces this teaching of the disciples in Chapter 10.13-16. One of the huge privileges of being in Africa as a bishop has been meeting and blessing loads of children. Just as here in the Gospel, parents just thought it was natural to bring their children to be blessed. Because of the language barrier, I tried hard to do mimed and physical play with crowds of children in every village. I made other bishops skip with me and all the children knew the Morecombe and Wise Bring Me Sunshine Dance. My minders did not seek to prevent any of this, but the disciples saw the children as a nuisance. They are just insignificant youngsters. Jesus upbraids them because these children represent who the Kingdom is for. Our salvation is a pure gift of God’s grace. Children cannot earn anything or do much useful work. Any benefit they receive is unmerited. The only necessity of our conversion is to see that our generous God gives freely and without counting the cost. Jesus does not only bless the children, he embraces them. Imagine for yourself what it is like for you to be hugged by God with wrap-around love?
The next episode of Chapter 10.17-31 expands on Jesus continuing to teach the disciples who still do not want to grasp the consequences of responding to this love. The rich man who comes to Jesus is not named and so could be any one of us. He kneels before Jesus which Jews did not do to the priests or the rabbis. He recognises that Jesus is the gateway to eternal life. Jesus confirms this by speaking not just for God but as God. Fulfilling the Commandments was one thing, but Jesus invites this man whom he looks with love to become his follower. Obedience to God is demonstrated by declaring that God meets us in Jesus. The call to discipleship is always about total commitment. The sadness of the man is palpable. He is offered right now fullness of life forever but he cannot because he wants to weight things in the balance. There is the story of the man who was walking a cliff-top path when suddenly the earth gave way and he fell. Thankfully, he managed to grab hold of a branch sticking out of the side of the cliff. As he swings in the wind he calls on God to save him. A voice from heaven says. ‘Let go. Underneath are the everlasting arms’. The man paused and then said, ‘Is there anyone else up there’? As disciples we often hedge our bets with God, like the constantly revised revision timetables of teenagers. We can create beautiful rules of life for ourselves and then fall at the first hurdle of a tough choice. God does not ask for perfect confessions, just real ones that re-orientate us towards God’s mercy and forgiveness. The metaphor of the camel passing through the eye of the needle is rather grotesque prophetic exaggeration; but it powerfully makes the point that Jesus is speaking about the miracle of divine grace. Jesus is not making poverty a special virtue. He is saying that only when God is pre-eminent will people see that discipleship is a miraculous gift. The demand to give up family and other relationships is shocking for us. It is, positively, living life in all the joy of knowing that we are blessed sons and daughters of God. Again, Jesus overturns worldly expectations of status and power. The little ones will become great.
The rest of Chapter 10 is set explicitly on the road the Jerusalem and it is not surprising that we read the third prediction of Jesus’s suffering and death. He knows who his enemies are and that somehow his lonely death will be a matter of mockery. This is the most serious offering of obedience ever that will change world and salvation history; but Jesus points out to his disciples that this will a matter of cynical smiles and a minimising of damage to the establishment. Jesus knows all this and yet he travels with full resolve and perfect humility. Christ divested himself of his glory to become a slave for our sake. God reveals to us in Christ that the divine power is intrinsically humble. All disciples are called to grow in the humility of total dependence on God and in the offering of loving service. Humility begins as we recognise our own finitude and createdness. Nonetheless, as those seeking to be servant leaders within a humbler church, bishops must attend to the ways in which language around self-emptying and humility is problematic. People have to have power in order to give it away, and as Lucy Winkett has observed, the Church must not expect people to kneel down unless they have been able to stand up first. Making space for others to grow is what God does in creation and then in the redemption. In salvation history God is constantly making space for his people to find and use a voice and bears the cost on the cross. True humility brings about deep repentance for sin and a readiness to be changed by God’s mercy and forgiveness; this is as true for institutions as it is for individual disciples. Humility is creative love that makes equal space for all and supports the true dignity of every person. The humble exercise of power is always for human flourishing and not subordination. The disciples will only learn this from their own catastrophic reaction to the ready sacrifice of Jesus. The way in which James and John respond in asking Jesus whether they can sit on his right and left in glory demonstrates perfectly that they have not been listening. It is interesting that Jesus does not refuse their request. Rather, he sets out to explain what he would mean for them. The word ‘cup’ is often used to signify what someone will receive from God. ‘Baptism’ is not referring to the sacrament, but to turbulence and violence. James and John are inviting themselves to suffer the same fate as Jesus. Unlike James, we are mostly not called to be martyrs by our death; but the word ‘martyr’ simply means ‘witness’. As we approach Passiontide and Good Friday, how are we feeling about being a living witness to the saving love of Christ?
Part of this, Jesus tells his disciples, is in the exercise of leadership. Disciples who lead only do so for the benefit and building up of others, like we were the servants and slaves of God’ ‘little ones’. This is the pattern set by Jesus himself who has come to serve and not to be served. The whole of his ministry has revealed authority and power but only with the goal to release people from the bondage of sin and death. Again and again he has sought to show his disciples that the climax of this ministry is to give his life as a universal ransom, the word ‘ransom’ here being used like freeing prisoners of war. Our service as disciples has no place unless it is rooted in the redemptive work of Christ Jesus.
The false ambition of the disciples is amply highlighted by the healing of blind Bartimaeus on the outskirts of Jericho, the last stop of Jesus before Jerusalem. The healing of this man corresponds to the healing of the blind man as the journey to Jerusalem started in Chapter 8.22. They effectively bracket Jesus’s attempts to cure the spiritual blindness of the disciples. There is no need to silence Bartimaeus from saying who Jesus is because he is near His Passion when all that is necessary will be revealed. Bartimaeus is full of an energetic determination to get through any barrier between him and Jesus. He flings off his cloak and jumps up to reach Jesus. This energy underlines the blind man’s complete trust in the Lord. He is not bartering or jockeying for his place in the Kingdom. Unlike James and John, he wants to see clearly the coming Kingdom. He receives his sight and salvation at once. Bartimaeus is not going away, no. He is going to follow Jesus on the Way of the Cross. With the open eyes of faith, we walk beside Bartimaeus into Jerusalem with Jesus.
Have a blessed week with God as we make the journey together.