Sunday 21st October 2018 – Pentecost 22 (B)
Text: ‘Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’
I wonder if some of you remember seeing that very popular British comedy film of the late 1950s, The Admirable Crichton, starring a young Kenneth More. The film is based on a stage play by J. M. Barrie, and tells the story of an aristocratic family and their butler, Crichton, who find themselves – somewhat improbably - shipwrecked on a desert island somewhere in the South Seas. Although Crichton had been their servant and very definitely knew his place in the strictly controlled social order of the time (think Downton Abbey), he turns out to be the only member of the party who can cope with their desperate situation, and keep everybody organised, alive and well on the island. Before long roles get reversed. Crichton the butler is appointed head of the marooned family, and is known by everyone as ‘Guv’, while his former employers take on the role of the servants. Even the Earl happily takes on the task of becoming Crichton’s valet. Strangely, the arrangements work well, and each person appears to enjoy their new place in the pecking order. But then, after a couple of years of contentment, a passing ship rescues them, at the instigation of Crichton who lights the beacon he had prepared for such an eventuality. Even if you’ve never seen the film, perhaps you can guess what occurred next: after their rescue butler and family immediately revert to their original class roles, and carry on as if nothing untoward had ever happened.
Today’s reading from Mark is also about the leadership of a servant, only it’s Jesus the Master who freely becomes that servant, and in doing so He Himself would fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah (our first reading) that a totally innocent man – the ‘suffering servant’ – would give up His own life in order to save the lives of others. No matter how many heavy hints Jesus drops to His disciples, however, they completely fail to understand what He’s doing. In three successive chapters of Mark’s Gospel Jesus had warned them of His impending death in Jerusalem. But they didn’t grasp the message, and the penny failed to drop. They caught the words ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Son of Man’, and assumed that Jesus was at last about to reveal Himself as the long-awaited Messiah, and claim His kingdom in majestic and powerful triumph. All the enemies of God would then be put down, and not least - they had no doubt - the despised Romans. And when this happened, it would be the disciples, those closest to Jesus, who would share in the earthly power and the heavenly glory. They hadn’t appreciated the significance of Isaiah’s suffering servant, and how that would relate to their own Master. Perhaps it was just too much for them to imagine the coming condemnation, rejection, mocking, spitting, flogging and execution of Jesus as He poured out His life for their sake, and that of the world.
At this point in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus had set His face for Jerusalem, and was on His way. But it was not going to be the coronation the disciples were expecting. It’s in this context, then, that James and John approached Jesus with their rather self-serving question - ‘Grant us to sit, one on your right hand, the other on your left, in your glory.’ In the courtly etiquette of the time, to be seated at the king’s right hand was to take the top position; to be positioned on the left side was to be ranked just below that. In other words, James and John wanted the number one and two spots. It also sounds as if they had thought long and hard about it before approaching Jesus. They were after power and prestige. They understood leadership to be a matter of where you sat, rather than how you served. They had yet to see Jesus on His knees at the Last Supper, washing their feet like a common house-servant. And the sad thing is that when the others discovered what James and John had been up to, they were filled not so much with disgust, but with anger and jealousy – perhaps because they hadn’t got in first!
It must have been so disappointing for Jesus to discover His closest friends bickering and still not getting what He was about. But His reaction is not to rebuke James and John for their ambition. Instead, He tries to lead them into a deeper awareness of the things He had been trying to get them to see. ‘Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptised with the baptism with which I am baptised?’ He asks. Without thinking, they answer ‘yes’ – without even questioning Jesus further about what this cup and this baptism might entail. They are too confident, and their answer is shallow and not thought through: they have no awareness, as yet, of the personal cost that will be involved. The Old Testament understanding of ‘cup’ was that it was filled with God’s condemnation of sin and evil, and ‘baptism’ held a similar message. The cup that Jesus will drink, and the baptism He will undergo, is the willing complete submission of Himself as the victim, the recipient, of the punishment that was destined for humankind. The suffering servant drinks the cup to its dregs that we might escape spiritual death and condemnation, and rise to new life. He turns His face towards the baptism of fire that awaits him in Jerusalem, because no one else could. He dies on the cross, and through His blood the world and we are healed.
‘Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant’, Jesus had taught His disciples on their way to Jerusalem. That should be our template for Christian ministry and leadership, too. We have to relearn that lesson and example Jesus gives us over and over again – that we are to be a servant Church – to one another, and to the world. And it can be costly. Our own Bishop Mark knows this. Now that he is also Primus, he has become the public face of the Church to which we belong. There must have been times in the past year for him that he wished he had not been chosen for this role. It would have been entirely understandable. I remember it being reported that the first words Pope Francis said to his brother cardinals after his election were: “May God forgive you for what you have done to me!” Christian leadership is a sacrificial leadership, a self-emptying leadership, a servant leadership – not, by and large, what the world understands about leadership at all. A truly Christian leader who hears the words of Jesus is often called to walk the way of His Cross. But so also are those who follow the leader. So this call is to all who name and own Jesus as their Lord and Master.
And where and when are we called to do this? Always and everywhere! And perhaps, most importantly, in the little things of life. Jesus reminds us in Luke’s Gospel that we should be faithful in the small things, and only then can we be trusted with the bigger things. This is not a call to self-glory, but a response to the call all Christians receive. James and John missed – perhaps – this most vital part of what Jesus was all about – but it seems that by the time they came to give their lives, rather than deny their Lord, the penny had finally dropped. Thank God that we, unlike them, have a life-time to get it right!
Thanksgiving for the Harvest – 2018
Now that I’ve effectively hurdled the milestone of my 62nd birthday, I feel I now have even more carte blanche to bemoan the fact that even reminiscing just isn’t what it used to be! For instance, I remember when a shopping trip to the greengrocers would reveal a small assortment of locally grown produce - various root and leaf vegetables, a selection of apples, pears, bananas, oranges and possibly some plums, the odd melon, pineapple or coconut if you were lucky. The vegetables tended to be mostly the sort which you could grow in the garden, greenhouse or allotment - though perhaps delivered a few weeks earlier than you might expect from home-grown produce. But everything had its season, and one could look forward with eager anticipation to the first strawberries of summer, or the arrival of the cauliflower, cucumber or tomatoes. This seasonality in the food that we ate meant that each season held its own delights for the lover of fresh food.
How things change! Now I’m not necessarily saying that this is a bad thing, and that we should go back to the "good old days". For one thing it’s opened up some new markets for smaller countries to export the crops that they can grow and we can’t – and Fairtrade has made us more aware of our duties to pay properly for these goodies. But it does mean for children growing up today the whole concept of a Harvest Thanksgiving really doesn’t mean as much as perhaps it did to my grandparents. Silage gathered into round bales wrapped with pink or black polythene doesn’t have the same mystique as the sight of a combine harvester and fields of gently waving golden corn. And anyway, by the time the Churches get around to celebrating harvest, most of the crops have already been safely gathered in for some time.
Not so of course in some countries. We’ve all seen those horrific television pictures of the problems some African countries have had with a total lack of rain. In some cases the seed hasn’t even managed to germinate, let alone get anywhere near ripening. In such places there is little chance of a shortfall being made up for by imported produce. So if there is no really defined time in late September when we can breath a long sigh and say that the harvest is safely gathered in, why do we still continue to have Harvest Thanksgiving? It seems a question worth asking - I mean, is it simply tradition - a throwback to the Victorian lifestyle with echoes of Constable’s Haywain? If we no longer rely on a satisfactory harvest in this country to supply our needs in the way that our forefathers did in the past, then why all the fuss?
Of course, like many other ancient pagan customs, harvest rituals - such as the offering of the first fruits to the gods - were taken over by the early church in an attempt to water down the influence of the traditional pagan beliefs. By the Middle Ages, on 1st August (Lammas Day) the first corn from the harvest was made into the unleavened wafers for the Eucharist. But when the harvest had been gathered, "Harvest Home" would be celebrated in a farmer’s house – not at Church.
Nowadays, harvest is usually observed in late September or early October - a tradition that I was surprised to learn only goes back as far as the middle of the 19th century and courtesy of a Cornish clergyman. This is all a bit depressing isn’t it? The closer we look at the harvest celebration that has been handed down by the established Church from its pagan past, the less it seems to have relevance to our modern world. To understand the real significance of this festival, it seems we have to go back much further - back to the real roots of our Christian faith within the Old Testament and among the Jewish people, and their relationship with God.
From very early times the Jewish year was punctuated by festivals – known as the "Feasts of the Lord". They were occasions of joy and celebration reflecting on all the good things that God was perceived to have given to and done for His people, as well as being those times where the people could come close to God and ask for forgiveness and cleansing. Among the various festivals that the Jews celebrated was one which seems relevant to this Sunday - the Feast of Weeks, which you can read about in Leviticus 23. Celebrated fifty days after the beginning of Passover, it was essentially an agricultural celebration at which the first fruits of the harvest were offered to God. The priest offered two loaves of bread made from the new flour, along with animal sacrifices. The festival later became known as Pentecost - from the Greek word meaning "fiftieth" (as it fell on the fiftieth day). Doesn’t life get confusing? Now it seems we ought really to be having our Harvest Thanksgiving on Whit Sunday!
In a time when it is difficult to relate to Victorian prints depicting harvests of old, and Constable’s ‘Haywain’, and when so many inner-city children wouldn’t recognise peas or broad beans if they saw them growing in a field, maybe we should be looking for a deeper spiritual meaning to harvest. In this way, the offering we bring, the fruit and vegetables, the beautiful flowers and foliage which decorate so many Churches at harvest time, can still serve to remind us of all the good things that the Lord has given to us, and about which we can too easily become complacent. And while we’re saying thanks for the food we eat, what about the gas and electricity that’s used to cook the food, the petrol that gets it and us to the supermarket, the shelter of the homes where we eat it - there are so many things in our lives that we should be grateful for. And today, of course, our giving of harvest gifts has the added dimension of food banks.
But Jesus’ words in John’s gospel remind us that our needs are not just met by a constant supply of broccoli and sweetcorn. “Do not work for the food that perishes”, He says “but for the food that endures for eternal life”. As we know, Jesus had a way of taking the ordinary things of life and bringing out of them a tremendous and eternal truth. And so it’s entirely fitting that our own thanksgiving for the harvest is offered within the context of the Great Thanksgiving of the Eucharist. “I am the bread of life,” says Jesus, and so Jesus – the well-spring of all the good things we enjoy – becomes the centre and focus of all our thanksgivings.
And each time we gather to “do this in remembrance of Me”, it’s in and through the staples of life that we meet with our God – in and through that “which earth has given and human hands have made”, and then in “the fruit of the vine and work of human hands”. Ground wheat and pressed grapes - not enough bread to satisfy the meagrest of appetites, nor enough wine to slake a thirst – but just enough, just enough to remind us what a precious harvest we are in God’s eyes, and just how much He longs to gather us together and bring us home.