29th Sunday of Ordinary Time/ Trinity 20.
On the way from the Jordan valley with a steep climb to his final Passover in Jerusalem, Jesus knows that his disciples are still thinking in worldly terms about his kingdom. They ask to “sit in state” and have important positions supporting him. Within this minor event are crucial lessons for every Christian community.
The brief incident recorded by Mark, in Matthew’s version has James and John are supported by their loving mother asking for the favour. “Grant that we may sit on your right and left hand in your glory”. Jesus answers “you do not know what you ask”. But in Luke’s gospel, [Luke 9; 46] this reasoning about status within the fellowship adds that it is fast becoming a dispute. If the disciples continue to misunderstand the unique fellowship they must become, the future Church would be dead from the start!
At this present testing time for Christians, the unique character of the Christian fellowship itself must become our urgent concern. Jesus believed his followers needed to distinguish between the kingdom of the world and that of God especially when, as so often happens, conflicts build. The members of each community cannot live in isolation, like a good team they need each other but must find a way to live in the unity that imitates the Lord’s spirit of humility. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in “Life together” observes that “no Christian community can come together without the seeds of discord soon emerging”. Discord may develop over matters of doctrine, but even these will often be fed by the flaws and distortions of human personality. Rarely do people leave churches over matters of dogma but regularly because of personal conflicts. Communities have to resolve the human predicament first if their fellowship is not to implode in life and death struggles. Students of human dynamics are well aware of these issues and so too was St Paul who spends a great deal of his energy dealing with the same problem of human nature. From prison he warns the Philippians [in AD 61 to 63] of the fatal vices of conceit and self self-delusion, “let nothing be done through selfish ambition, let each esteem others better than himself”. Even when there is harmony in matters of belief, the human self can cause mayhem.
There can be no more important teaching than this; to see that being the body of Christ we must live in communion as the baptised but ever aware that this unique fellowship goes beyond socialising. It means being driven and moulded by the person of Christ as he lays out in the Sermon on the Mount. “Not thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought” [Rom.12;3]. Any desire for status and position not only hinders the health of the soul but destroys the life of the small community itself. This does not mean adopting a contrived demeaning behaviour, which was not the way of Jesus, but knowing ourselves honestly as we believe we are known by God. When Jesus placed a child in the midst of his disciples, he is teaching them to know that humility contains transparent simple honesty.
St. Thomas a Kempis in his classic writing begins by saying that every follower must “not walk in darkness or blindness of heart but imitate the humility of Christ”. Looking again at all the great spiritual teachers of the Church over the centuries will reveal how central this imitation of Christ is to “being the Church and its absence in much of the fellowship we see today may give a clue to so many of our problems.
Fr. Geoffrey Neal