The story today from the 10th chapter of the Gospel of St Mark is a very human story about something all of us have done at different times in our lives. Two of the apostles of Jesus, the brothers James and John, walk up to Jesus and they say: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Now, when we are children, we sometimes walk up to our parents and friends and say, “I want you to do whatever I ask.” As adults, we sometimes approach God and say, “I want you to do whatever I ask.” Does it work? No, whether we are children or adults, the response we will receive is precisely what Jesus said to James and John: “What do you want me to do for you?
Let me tell you a story, a true story, an important story. Back in the 1920s, some 90 years ago, the father of my wife Sylvia, Cyril Timpson, was a young man, working in London. One Friday night he received a telegram from his sister, Elsie, in Northampton. The telegram was quite important. It read: “Mother dying. Come home immediately.” Well, Sylvia’s father decided to work at his job in London on Saturday morning, and he prayed to God, “God, keep my mother alive.” Unfortunately, while he was working on Saturday morning, his mother died. Sylvia’s father was very angry with God. He told God, “You didn’t do what I asked of you. Therefore, I am not going to have anything further to do with you. You wouldn’t listen to me,” said Sylvia’s father, “so I am not going to listen to you.”
For the next sixty years, Sylvia’s father maintained that attitude to God. Each Sunday morning while Sylvia and her mother went to church, Sylvia’s father went down to the pub and played billiards. While Sylvia and her mother were growing in faith, Sylvia’s father was growing in his ability to play billiards, winning many local tournaments. However, as the years passed, he grew older and wiser, as we hope happens to all of us; and he became interested in God. His eyesight was failing, and he could no longer read, but he began to listen to the Gospels on tape, to all of the Gospels, again and again. He became interested in the Church. One of his friends at the pub suggested that he should go to church. “No,” said Sylvia’s father, “the Church should reach out to the people, before people go to church.” The only problem with that approach was that the Anglican priest of his church didn’t know that Sylvia’s father was now interested in listening to God and coming to church. And Sylvia’s father was hesitant to confess his newly found faith.
So, what happened? Sylvia’s father, then 89 years old, had a minor stroke. He had to go for a few weeks to recover at a rest home where there was a chaplain. The stroke had made him aware of the possibility of his own death. That was the situation in which James and John now found themselves, because Jesus had just told them that His death was imminent. James and John, like Sylvia’s father, were afraid. However, this time Sylvia’s father no longer wanted God to do whatever he asked. He wanted to find out what God wanted from him and to reach out to God. It was the spring of 1989; and Sylvia’s father said to me, “I wish I had been confirmed when I was young. If I knew then what I know now, I would have been confirmed. I was angry with God,” he said, “but I can’t remember why.” I did not remind him. I simply said, “There’s a chaplain here. Why don’t you ask him to confirm you?”
Next week, when I came back to see Sylvia’s father he was radiant. He told me, “I’ve been confirmed. I’ve become a Christian.” Sylvia and I were very happy. We had been praying for him for twenty-seven years. Having become a Christian, Sylvia’s father announced firmly, “I want to have a communion service at the local church.” It took some time to arrange; the Anglican vicar was slow to recognise that the request of a man of 89 needed to be honoured quickly. On the evening before Sylvia’s father was 91, he sat down in the chair lift to ride upstairs to his flat; and he had a major stroke. He died immediately. A week later that communion service was held as part of his funeral.
I preached at that funeral and I took as the Gospel, St Matthew Chapter 20, in which the landowner hired many labourers throughout the day, and then paid them all the same amount, because the landowner told the labourers, “Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you.” That is how Jesus treats each of us. Like James and John in this story from today’s Gospel, whether we are children or adults sometimes when we are afraid we might try to control Jesus, to ask Him to do in our lives just what we want. However, Jesus tells us exactly what He says to James and John, “You do not know what you are asking.”
James and John were asking to be honoured, much to the annoyance of the other apostles. However, Jesus was trying to communicate that His path led through suffering and humility. Commenting on this passage, St John Chrysostom has pointed out that when Our Lord Jesus Christ humbled Himself by dying on the cross, “His humbling of Himself did not make Him have less but … made his glory shine forth with greater brightness [in the resurrection]. God wants for nothing and has need of nothing,” reflected St John Chrysostom. “Yet, when He humbled Himself, He produced such great good, increased His household, and extended His kingdom. Why then are you afraid you will become less if you humble yourself?”
In other words, each of us receive benefits from God not when we demand them, but when we humble ourselves. The words of the prophet Micah, uttered seven centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ and set out in the sixth chapter of the Old Testament Book of Micah remain true for St John Chrysostom and for us: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness [chesed] and to walk humbly with your God.” As Father Gregory explained a few weeks ago, that Hebrew word chesed means not only kindness, but trustworthiness and loyalty. We can all learn to trust Jesus Christ.
To conclude, you see, James and John misinterpreted the nature of authority, just as we sometimes do. We might think that if we are in authority we can order people around, including telling Jesus what He should do for us. However, in this story from the Gospel of St Mark, Our Lord Jesus Christ tells James and John and Sylvia’s father and us that “whoever would be great among you must be your servant.” St James and St John learned to be outstanding humble servants of God, of the Church and of others. Sylvia’s father learned to be a humble servant of God, of the Church and of others. And so can all of us.
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit always now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.