Like everyone else I know, I am troubled. More than troubled, I am distressed by the increasing divisiveness and mounting conflict in our public life. As seldom in our lifetime, we are all being forced to ask with a sense of urgency: who are we as a nation, and where are we headed?
Lately, I have been reading a new book entitled These Truths: A History of the United States. The author is Jill Lepore, an American history professor at Harvard. Let me warn you: it’s not a quick read. Don’t plan to take it to the beach on your next vacation because at 900 pages it will weigh more than your beach umbrella. Yet for all its details, there’s an unmistakable red thread that runs through this retelling of the history of United States from 1492 to 2018. It’s a story of a daring and still continuing experiment, testing whether a democratic nation can be built and sustained on three fundamental truths which are enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence. These truths are: the equality of all people before the law; the rights of all to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and the consent of the people as the required basis of a government’s power. From the nation’s beginning to the present, “these truths” have been, in Lepore’s words, “fought for, fought over, and fought against.”
As everyone knows, the fight continues today. Indeed, in recent months and weeks it has reached red hot ferocity. Books have appeared with titles like How Democracies Die and The Death of Democracy. Even if these titles may appear overly pessimistic, Lepore’s history of the American saga convincingly shows that there is nothing inevitable about our democracy’s survival. The great American experiment, she concludes, is not a “reassuring bedtime story” but “a stirring, terrifying, inspiring, troubling, earth shaking epic.” In her final lines, Lepore describes the American ship of state as sailing in deeply troubled waters, and whether the ship will make it safely through mighty wind and wave depends on whether all on board, and especially its captains, “learn an ancient and nearly forgotten art: how to navigate by the stars.”
So what does all this have to do with our morning Gospel text? The answer, I suggest, is a great deal, more than we might at first imagine.
As the evangelist records, Jesus and his disciples are on the road to Jerusalem where the final days of his ministry will take place. Two of the disciples, James and John, sons of Zebedee, approach Jesus and ask for a favor. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus replies. They say, “Rabbi, when you come into your glory, let us sit at your right hand and at your left hand.” In other words, we want you to give us a special place in the exercise of that power and glory that you will have as lord of the coming Kingdom. Jesus responds to James and John: “You don’t know what you are asking.” In effect, Jesus tells his disciples. “I neither have nor want the kind of power you have in mind.”
Jesus then says, “Look, among the Gentiles, rulers are those who lord it over them, and those considered great are those who are tyrants over them. But among you, my disciples, those who are great will be servants, and the first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man has come not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” These are unsettling words that shatter the disciples’ assumptions about the meaning and uses of power. They shatter our assumptions about power, too. They are all about the difference between power to lord it over others for the benefit of the few and power in the service of others for the benefit of all.
Should we really be surprised that the disciples are confused? What can it possibly mean to be a lord who doesn’t have the power to dominate others. What could it possibly mean to be great if one is a lowly servant?
The scene reminds us of an earlier incident in the Gospel account when Jesus asked the disciples, Who do you say that I am? Answering for all the disciples, Peter exclaimed, you are the Messiah, the one who has come to restore Israel to its former glory. And when Jesus tells them he will soon be killed, Peter is upset, and Jesus has to tell him and the rest of the disciples, you are thinking like Satan. Your mind is on narrow self-interests and goals rather than on God’s interests and God’s purposes. Jesus is telling his disciples that when they finally come to understand the power of God not as domination over others but as service for the good of all, they will have grasped what Jesus means by the kingdom of God which he proclaims and puts into practice in his ministry. Look, he is saying to his disciples, you have to stop thinking about power as controlling power, power solely for your own benefit and glory, or solely for the benefit and glory of your group or your people. You have to begin thinking about true power as serving power, power that builds a just, peaceful, flourishing community for all.
Now note a small and easily overlooked detail in our morning Gospel story. The evangelist tells us that the other disciples got angry with James and John. Why were they angry? The text doesn’t tell us. Was it because they were saying, “Shame, shame on you, James and John, for thinking such selfish thoughts?” I doubt it. I suspect the other disciples were irked because their two colleagues had made a preemptive move for a bigger share of power in the coming kingdom. The other disciples must have thought that James and John were, to use a modern expression, throwing them under the bus. This interpretation is not my fanciful invention. It fits with Mark’s description of the disciples throughout his Gospel. As Mark presents the disciples, they simply don’t get it. I am a fan of the Gospel of Mark partly because it’s so honest about the misunderstanding and self-centered reaction of the disciples to the message and ministry of Jesus. The disciples of Jesus are not cardboard saints, and neither are we. I was so impressed by the honesty and realism of the Gospel of Mark when I first taught a course on it at Princeton Seminary that I persuaded Margaret to name our new born son, Mark.
We really shouldn’t be surprised at the anger and conflict that erupts among the disciples over the request of James and John for plum positions of power in the coming kingdom. Whenever power is understood as control over others, as more power and glory for me in contrast to you, more power and glory for us in contrast to them, it will tear people apart. You can write it in ink. You can safely bet the farm on it. Life in the public domain is often a struggle for such power and glory. It doesn’t much matter whether the setting is the Vatican in Rome or the Senate of the United States. It’s part of our sinful human condition, and we are all caught in it more than we like to admit, my friends. We are all tempted to seek power that serves only our own interests. Jesus calls us to resist this temptation and to think and hope and act in ways that serve the well-being and flourishing of all.
And there’s more to be learned from our morning text about the nature of true power. When Jesus tells the disciples not to think about power as do the Gentiles, he is not making an ethnic slur. It’s a theological statement. It’s a statement about the very nature of God, a statement about what the power of God is really like, and what God’s intentions for the world are.
The “Gentiles,” as Jesus uses the word here, are best understood as all those who think of power as the authority and ability to control and manipulate others. The “Gentiles” stand for all those whose gods and rulers are tyrants and who cannot imagine a God being like the One that Jesus calls Abba, Father. The “Gentiles” represent that tendency in all of us to project on to God the idea of power as god-almightiness, as domineering and coercive power, aimed at conquest and control. Now who of us does not sometimes think like the “Gentiles” who consider it foolishness to worship a crucified God, one who humbled himself even to the point of the cross for the sake of humanity’s salvation? If we no longer think and live like the rulers of the “Gentiles,” it is because the revelation of God in Jesus has awakened us to the truth that the real power of God and the power to be truly human are in the service of the common good. To follow Jesus is to live and work for new and inclusive community, always with special concern for the well-being of the poor and the little ones, as Jesus showed in his own ministry.
The spirit of service that Jesus embodied, and that he calls us to participate in, has several distinguishing marks. It’s marked by a spirit of humility, a recognition that life is not all about me. It’s about my part in a larger reality, a larger community than just me in my corner, or me and my family or intimate friends. And the spirit of service to which we are called by Jesus is always marked by special concern for the little ones and the neglected of the world. They are a dear part of the new community that God intends for the whole creation.
Now does all this talk of service for a new community have anything to do with Jill Lepore’s description of the present American ship of state sailing through fierce wind and wave with the real danger of breaking apart on the rocks? Well, let’s be very clear: Jesus is speaking primarily to his disciples, to those who are his followers, to those who gather as a people to worship and serve the servant Lord. Jesus is saying to them, to the small community gathered in his name, in your life together, you are to learn to pray and sing together, to serve one another, to forgive and build up one another, to love one another. And if you become that kind of community of faith, love, and hope, your witness of service for others will spill over into caring for people outside the walls of the church. Jesus is speaking primarily to his followers. He is not aiming his teaching of life in service of others at citizens of the Roman Empire, or at the future citizens of the United States of America. So in that sense, the words of Jesus are not in the first place a political agenda.
Nevertheless, Jesus’ call to his disciples to live a life of service to others contains a relevant message for the understanding and practice of power in every domain of life. And this includes the sphere of public life and civic responsibility. So how does the Christian spirit of service play out in the public domain?
We live in a pluralistic democracy. The founders of the American Republic made no effort to inscribe the articles of Christian faith into the Constitution. The Declaration of Independence speaks of “these truths”—equality, inalienable rights, popular sovereignty--as “self-evident” truths, not as owing anything either to the teachings of Jesus and his gospel, or to any other religious tradition. Indeed, the word “God,” as you know, is conspicuously absent in the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution specifically disallows a state preference for any particular religion, while also granting people of faith of whatever sort the freedom to bear their witness, if they so choose, not only in their churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples, but also in the American public square.
In view of this, some people insist that the church ought not to be involved in politics. Now this claim is right if it means you cannot, or should not, identify the gospel message and the ministry of the church with any particular political party. The gospel of Jesus Christ and ministry in his name must not be hijacked in that way, although efforts have been made again and again in that direction and are being made by some religious groups in our country today. Yet, while the gospel message is not to be politicized, it has social, political, and economic implications.
Whether the great truths on which our country was founded, and which our founders called “self-evident,” would ever have taken root without at least some mostly hidden influence of the Christian faith heritage is a matter for historians to argue about. But let me suggest a little list that might remind us of mostly unmentioned Christian contributions to the founding and shaping of American democracy. “All people are created equal.” Self-evident? Maybe, or maybe not. And if not, where did that truth come from? Probably from many sources. But wasn’t the Bible, indeed the first chapter of the Bible, at least an indirect source in its declaration that God created humankind in God’s own image? That’s a declaration of the dignity of all human beings beyond compare.
Then there’s the Constitution itself, which carefully divides the powers of government over three domains--the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. This is done with the clear intent to build checks and balances into the distribution and exercise of power in a democratic government. Why was this separation of powers thought to be necessary? Self-evident? Maybe, or maybe not. James Madison, who was a major contributor to the making of the Constitution, had no doubt learned from his personal experience and his wide reading that there is an insatiable lust for power among human beings, and he knew that it needs to be held in check. But wasn’t Madison also a student of a clergyman named John Witherspoon who would surely have reminded Madison that human beings were not only creatures made in the image of God but also sinners, fallen creatures, who are more often than not inclined to put their own interests and comforts first? So the Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr is spot on when he states memorably: “The human capacity for justice makes democracy possible; the human inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” Necessary, of course, provided that there are ample checks and balances on all exercise of power, on that human tendency to want more and more power to control others and benefit oneself, and when unopposed, to grasp as much power as possible.
Return now to our morning text, in which Jesus redefines the meaning of power as tethered to the service of others. His redefinition of power as service is not only normative for life in the church but it also has implications for our common citizenship in a democratic society. Indeed, promotion of the common good is, I think, one of the greatest of all Christian faith contributions to the shaping, and perhaps to the rescuing, of a democratic society always in danger of coming apart at the seams because of inevitable power conflicts. Understanding the meaning of life as service for the common good may just be the crucial factor in guiding a free people as they struggle to weather the storms of their inescapable disagreements and conflicts. True power is the power not of lording it over others but of service for the common good. At least for Christians, this idea of true power in service is grounded in the understanding of God contained in the ministry of Jesus and in gospel of Jesus crucified and risen for us all. But the spirit of life in service aimed at the flourishing of all also has wider implications for our life together in the public, secular world.
In a modern, pluralistic, democratic society such as the United States today, not all people will have the same motivation, the same incentive, the same religious, or perhaps lack of religious reasons, for building public life around the theme of service for the common good. That’s the reality of our common life today in the society in which we live. To repeat, our motivation as Christians to serve the common good comes from the teaching, the ministry, the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We are moved to serve because we have a servant Lord. And we are moved to serve because the servant Lord is not just an example for us, but by his sheer grace and forgiveness he creates and nurtures in us the power to want to serve. From that motivation we will, when opportunity arises, tell other people about this gospel story. They may not have heard it. That telling is called evangelism.
But as citizens of a pluralistic democratic society, we will also respect and cooperate with people of all faith backgrounds who may have different motivations from ours for serving the common good. With our particular motivation in our hearts, we will as Christians in a democratic society gladly work in the public domain with all people of good will for life together in the service of the common good.
“The Son of Man has come not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom, a liberation, for many.” May Jesus’ call to service for a community always larger, always more encompassing than we may have imagined, free us and guide us in our life together as his followers. May it inspire us as his disciples to build a community of love and forgiveness and the bearing of one another’s burdens in our own relationships with our fellow Christians. But knowing that the Spirit of God sometimes works secretly and in unexpected ways, may we also be free to cooperate with other folk in our society who may, from whatever faith background or lack thereof, hold up the cause of the common good, and gladly offer their service on its behalf.
So in these days shortly before a national election, may our prayer be that this Christian community that gathers in West Orange, New Jersey will be a beacon of life in service of others in the name of Christ. And may our prayer also be that something of the spirit of service for the common good will somehow, from whatever source, find root in the life of every citizen and every community of American society. Maybe, just maybe, that would be . . . like rediscovering the lost art of navigation by the stars that Professor Jill Lepore says we are so sorely in need of, if the American democratic ship of state is to make it safely through perilous waters.