There has been a great deal in the press about the next Archbishop of Canterbury. We’ve had rumours, leaks from the Crown Nominations Committee, a great deal of detail on the various odds offered by bookmakers, as though this where the church’s equivalent of the Grand National. Will he be a ‘liberal catholic’ or a ‘liberal evangelical’? To be honest with you, the only thing that I care about is that he looks and feels like Christ, an authentic Christian. This morning’s gospel reminds us that Christian leadership is not about lording it over people, but being like Christ. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a bishop, a priest, a deacon, or simply a baptised Christian; we all have to live up to the same standard: Jesus Christ.
It is a big ask, I grant you, we will all of us fall short, fail to hit the mark, but we are to try, and keep trying, and we can have confidence ‘since we have a great High Priest who has passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God’. The author of the letter to the Hebrews encourages to do this, and to hold fast to our confession: we can be sure about both WHO Jesus is, and WHAT he does. He is truly God and man, tempted but without sin, He loves us and makes peace by the blood of the Cross. The Cross is at the centre of all this, through the mystery of the Atonement we can ‘have confidence to draw near to the throne of grace and receive help in time of need’. It is a mystery, not something to be explained, but something both to be experienced and lived out. It is a mystery prefigured in the prophets, especially Isaiah. In Acts when Philip meets the Ethiopian eunuch he is reading this passage and he cannot understand it, or what it means, so Philip tells him about Jesus, and how Isaiah’s prophesy is fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus, and he is baptised.
But in worldly terms Jesus looks like a failure: he is deserted, denied, and dies the death of a common criminal. But we are NOT to judge by the standards of this world: ‘it shall not be so among you’. We are not being counter-cultural to be rebellious, to swim against the tide; instead we are being faithful to Christ, we are holding fast to our confession, because it is TRUE, because it comes from him who is the WAY, who is the TRUTH, and the LIFE, Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
In the verses which precede this morning’s Gospel, Our Lord has foretold his suffering and death for the third time in Mark’s account. He knows the cost, he knows what will happen: ‘to give his life as a ransom for many’. He does it willingly, gladly, for love of us, a love made manifest in his birth, life and death, made manifest in the grace and mercy of God who creates and redeems the world, and who comes among us not as a king but as a servant. This changes us, and changes the world, it turns it around, and it asks us to do the same.
In the person of James and John we see what it is to be a Christian, to live a Christian life: it is to be conformed to Christ. It is to be open to the possibility of suffering and to accept it. In worldly terms it looks like a failure, but in bearing witness to our faith we show how that we too are able to drink the cup. We are able to become an example which people want to imitate and follow because we point them to Christ, the restorer of all relationships, the healer of the world, who offers life in all its fullness. It is the most terrific news. People may not want to hear it but they need to. They prefer to ‘lord it over’ others and to go after the false gods of worldly power, money, and success: things which are empty, things which are of no value or worth compared to the love of God in Christ Jesus, the greatest free gift to humanity.
In this all human existence, all life, all death, and all suffering find both meaning and value. This truth is unsettling, it is deeply uncomfortable, and yet it is deeply liberating. In living out the truth in our lives we live a service which is perfect freedom. In conforming ourselves to Christ we find meaning and identity. So let us lay down our lives that we may live fully and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory dominion, and power, now and forever.