Sermon preached by the Revd Prof Paul Foster on 18th October


Mark 10.35-45; Hebrews 5.1-10

If you stroll into nearly any bookshop you will find a section entitled something like self-help, or personal success. A recent scan of such a section in an Edinburgh bookshop presented me with titles such as ‘Find Your Strongest Life’, ‘How to Get Everything You Want Out of Life’, or ‘8 Steps to Create the Life You Want’. It pains me to tell you that that last title is a so-called Christian self-fulfilment book, written by a person with the wonderful name of Dr Dollar. Flicking through various of these books, I have to admit that much of the advice is sensible, many have a realization that treating others well will yield positive benefits, and most encourage reflective thinking. My problem is not so much with the individual pieces of advice, rather my issue is the entire underlying philosophy. Books such as ‘The Slight Edge: The Secret to a Successful Life’ all advocate a highly individualistic philosophy, they encourage measuring one’s own success by ensuring one does better than others, and in the end, however subtle, they all advocate personal betterment at the expense of others.

To the best of my knowledge, I believe the apostles James and John, the two sons of Zebedee, had not read any of the titles I have just listed. In fact it appears they did not need to, for they were quite adept at self-help. As the scene is set in our gospel reading today, just after Jesus has announced that the first shall be last, and declared for the third time that the Son of Man was journeying to Jerusalem to be put to death, James and John squirm up to Jesus and not so much ask as tell him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.’ My friends who have children regale me with such stories: the child says I will do such-and-such, if you promise to give x or y; or the common strategy of ‘Mummy, Daddy said I could have or do this or that.’ The transparency is obvious, the subtlety undeveloped, but the latent human desire to get what one wants is already too apparent. The approach of James and John in our reading verges on the infantile. Like an experienced parent, Jesus refuses to sign their blank cheque, but asks for more information: ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ Their subterfuge is exposed – and they are made to articulate their self-seeking request, namely to have the two best seats in the heavenly house, one each either side of Jesus.

Now that the request is out in the open, James and John receive two answers to their demand. First, Jesus challenges them by asking whether they can undergo his baptism and drink his cup. The perceptive reader of Mark’s Gospel will recognize that Jesus does speak about his cup again, later in the Gospel. This occurs when in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prays the following words: ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for you, take this cup from me. Yet not what I will but what you will’ (Mk 14.36). In our reading today when James and John are challenged as to whether they can drink Jesus’ cup and partake of his baptism – they confidently assert, ‘We are able’. When later in Gethsemane Jesus speaks of his cup, which is a metaphor for his death, he is not alone. He has taken three companions with him. Not just the ubiquitous Peter, but also James and John are on the scene. As Jesus faces the ordeal of his cup, his death, these three are asleep and the cup is one which Jesus drinks alone.

Our gospel reading today ends with a famous saying – famous at least to New Testament scholars – so you can judge how famous it actually is! Instead of self-help or self-promotion of the type James and John seek, Jesus instructs his disciples that such attitudes should not be found among them. Instead, Jesus promotes servanthood. He concludes with the so-called ‘ransom saying’: ‘the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mk 10.45). Service, giving one’s life for many, these were not topics I could find in any of the books on personal success that I flicked through recently. Instead, they were about getting people to do what you wanted, and even the thought of giving one’s life for another would probably evoke the most allergic reaction imaginable from the authors of those best-sellers.

The name of Arland Williams was not one I knew until recently. On the 13th of January 1982 Arland Williams was on board Air Florida Flight 90, which took off from Washington National Airport during an extraordinary period of frozen weather and at the time of a heavy snowstorm. After take off the plane failed to gain height and crashed into the 14th Street Bridge, where it hit six cars and a truck, killing four motorists. After the devastating crash on the bridge, the plane then continued forward and plunged into the freezing Potomac River. Soon only the tail section, which had broken off remained afloat. Only six of the aeroplane’s 79 occupants who had survived the initial crash were able to escape the sinking wreckage in the middle of the ice-choked river. Some 20 minutes later, a helicopter arrived to rescue the survivors. After getting one man to safety, the helicopter threw a life-ring to Arland Williams, who immediately gave it to the passenger next to him. When the helicopter came back for a third time, Williams did the same thing again. Then again, a fourth and a fifth time. When the helicopter came back a final time, Arland Williams was dead. While the other five were being taken to shore, the tail section of the wrecked Boeing 737 shifted and sank further into the water, dragging Williams under the water with it. He had used his last ounce of strength to save a complete stranger. I suspect Arland Williams had not read too many books on personal success, if he had he had the good sense not to let them shape the essence of who he was.

Jesus said, ‘whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant.’ Arland Williams was a servant, and I suspect in the last moments of his life he proved himself to be great – not that he was seeking greatness. On the 25th of January 1982, Time Magazine reflected on the life of Arland Williams. It wrote, ‘So the man in the water had his own natural powers. He could not make ice storms, or freeze the water until it froze the blood. But he could hand life over to a stranger, and that is a power of nature too. The man in the water pitted himself against an implacable, impersonal enemy; he fought it with charity; and he held it to a standoff. He was the best we can do.’

In Mark’s gospel Jesus concludes his correction not just of James and John, but of all the disciples by informing them that the Son of Man came ‘to give his life as a ransom for many’. We could spend hours debating the theory and mechanics of the Atonement – a word which was a neologism coined by William Tyndale being a compressed form of at-one-ment. Atonement is an act that restores believers to being one with God. In the Old Testament that renewed unity with God was achieved on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, by the sacrifice of seven male lambs. In the New Testament being made one with God was achieved through another sacrifice, that of the perfect lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.

In our first reading today, the unknown author of the book of Hebrews reflects on the sacrifices offered by the high priest on behalf of the people and of himself. Hebrews states that the high priest needed to offer sacrifice both for the sins of the people and for his own sins. The author then recalls the Gethsemane story. He states of Christ that ‘in the days of his flesh he offered up prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the one able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his piety.’ The thing that I find amazing in that statement is, that according to the author of Hebrews, Jesus was heard. His prayer to have the cup removed though not granted was heard, heard by a loving father. Hebrews goes on by saying that the Son ‘learned obedience from the things he suffered’ and hence he was made perfect. Suffering for the sake of others was another heading I could not find in my self-fulfilment books – not even in the Christian one. Yet, I believe it is what the heavenly father calls some of his children to do. That is not an easy or comfortable thought. Yet exemplifying the sufferings of Christ as a witness to the world, and being an icon of the crucified one has been the lot of many of his disciples. It continues to be the form of discipleship to which many believers are still called, and we remember them in our prayers. However, the obedience and suffering of Jesus, according to the author of Hebrews, is more than exemplary – as the Son his obedience and death became the source of salvation for all that obey him. Thus unlike the long ancestral generations of high priests whose offerings and sacrifices atoned for their own sins as well as for those of the people, Jesus is described as being in the likeness of Melchizedek that mystical priest in the book of Genesis who appears without a priestly ancestry. Jesus who has no need to atone for personal sin, who appears without high-priestly pedigree, through his obedience and suffering becomes both the sacrifice and the sacrifice giver, both priest and victim, both saviour and sufferer in that act of loyalty to his heavenly father.

The Christian faith is full of apparent contradictions – the way of life is found by taking up the cross, self-fulfilment is only found through self-giving, exultation through humbling oneself. None of this is a particularly trendy philosophy, none of this makes sense without the eyes of faith, none of this is possible without the example of the Son who obeyed through suffering. As we come to this table, we gaze on the one who is both priest and victim in our Eucharistic feast. James and John who could not drink the cup with Jesus in Gethsemane were told in our reading today that ‘the cup I drink you shall drink’. According to the book of Acts, Herod Agrippa I had James put to death with the sword, presumably beheaded, for his leadership of the Jerusalem church. By contrast, at least according to tradition, John lived to old age dying in Ephesus. There are indeed different ways to drink the cup, different ways to be disciples. May we each learn to be obedient and faithful to the one who calls us to himself, to the one who calls us to be servant of all. And now as we draw near to this table, to be fed, to drink the cup, may we learn the same obedience to the father that was shown by him who is the true high priest and the true lamb of God, for he is the one to whom belongs all honour, glory, dominion, and power both now and in the age to come. Amen.