“Not So Among You”
“It is not so among you.” Those were the words of Jesus that really struck me in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus is saying that the fellowship of his followers is different from other communities in some important ways.
Contrasting the community of disciples with the way that the Gentile communities functioned, Jesus said, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you.”
It made me think of a parent or perhaps a grandparent reminding another family member that “That’s not the way we do things in our family.” The statement is not so much a description of how things always are, but an aspirational statement that reveals a community’s values, goals, and vision for how they will be together.
In the Smith family, everyone comes home for Sunday dinner and there’s always plenty of food and extra chairs for guests to come along.
In our Grade 4 class, we take turns speaking, and we never use fowl language.
In the Jones family, hard work and education are most important. No matter what path we choose, we give it our best effort.
In our Seniors’ Coffee Club, we are loyal to one another. We may have differences that we need to work out, but we never speak behind each other’s backs.
Families, work teams, organizations, and faith communities often have shared understandings of how they function and what their values are, whether these have been formally adopted or developed organically over time. Some of them are positive and helpful, while others may reinforce power imbalances or even abusive relationships.
I invite you to think about the communities that you have been a part of over the years, and to consider your present communities. Think of the ones that were good experiences, and the ones that were hard, discouraging, and painful to be a part of.
Although the difficult experiences of community might have been related to a few difficult people who were cruel or controlling or that you just plain didn’t like very much. But more likely, there were shared understandings of how the community functioned that would have benefitted from listening to the teaching of Jesus in our Gospel reading today.
Of course, Jesus is teaching the first community of his followers what Christian community will be like, in contrast to other communities with different values. So our church communities, in particular, are called to pay attention to this lesson.
Since I am a Presbyterian, when I think about the Christian community that is the church, I quickly start thinking about the structure of the community. After all, our denomination got its name from our insistence on a particular structure for the church that includes being “ruled by elders” (the literal meaning of “Presbyterian”).
Our forebears chose that structure in reaction to the problems they saw when bishops ruled over the rest of the people of God. Rather than having one person raised up to a position of authority over others, the Presbyterian structure has groups of people discerning together what should be done. Lay people and clergy together exercise authority, rather than one person “lording it over” the others.
Now, of course, we know that bishops in our sister denominations do not always “lord it over” the people of the church, but often exercise servant leadership with great care and concern for the well-being of all. But our Presbyterian system of government that took the power away from a few individuals was certainly a reaction to the times when bishops did get off-track.
But this morning’s teaching from Jesus is not specific about church structures. There was no institutional church at that time, and probably Jesus had no intention of forming one. What he did want to teach his followers that day was a lesson that can be applied to all our various churches (whatever the formal structures) and to every community of which we are a part.
So, what did he teach? Well, the whole thing started when two of his most prominent disciples asked him for a little recognition. James and John were two brothers who had been with Jesus pretty much from the beginning. They were fishermen that he called to follow him, just after Peter and Andrew.
In the couple of Gospel stories in which Jesus brings only a few disciples with him – up on the mountain where he is transfigured, and later to Gethsemane to pray with him before his arrest – James and John were among the few. If any of the disciples should have been recognized as the leaders of the group, it would have been James, John, and of course Peter.
So they say to Jesus, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
They want the seats of honour. They want some prestige. After all, they’ve been faithful. They’ve given up a lot for this mission. When are they going to be rewarded for all that they have done?
And we have to admit that we want that too. I’m not sure I ever would have thought of asking to “sit beside Jesus” in heaven. But one person in our Bible study pointed out that it’s not that different from kids at a birthday party where everyone wants the honour of sitting next to the birthday boy or girl, right? And when we’ve been giving our time, talent, money, and great efforts for the work of the church – sometimes for many, many years – I think we have to admit that we crave a little recognition too.
Well, Jesus tells them that he’s not in charge of the seating arrangements in heaven (if there even are seating arrangements in heaven). But more importantly, they’ve misunderstood what being leaders in the Christian community will look like. It’s not that James and John aren’t going to be leaders. They are. But their status will not lead to seats of honour, or positions of privilege and power.
When they drink the cup that Jesus drinks, and they are baptized with the baptism with which Jesus is baptized, they will accept the suffering and death that Jesus accepted before them. Their love and faithfulness will not be rewarded with honour and glory, at least not in the way that people might expect.
When the other disciples hear that James and John have been asking for special positions, they’re angry with them. Maybe because they know that the Jesus community doesn’t work that way. More likely because they wished they had thought of asking first so that they could sit in those seats of honour.
But Jesus teaches them all that leadership in the Christian community does not look like that. Among the Gentiles, the rulers lord it over the others and the great ones become tyrants. But it is not so among you, Jesus tells them. It is not so among the followers of the Jesus Way. In the Christian community, whoever wishes to be great must be the servant, and whoever wishes to be first must be slave of all.
If there are bishops, they must be servant leaders. If there are moderators, they must remember that they too are called to serve. There’s a reason why Jesus stooped down to wash the feet of the disciples, and then told his followers to do the same for each other. That’s what our leadership is supposed to look like.
Jesus says that “it is not so among you.” And when I hear that, I am struck by the guilt and shame of knowing that it has been like that among us at times. Within our churches, whatever the denomination, and whether at the national, regional, or local level of church structures, we demonstrate again and again that we are very much like James and John. We want to be recognized and appreciated for all that we have done. And we want to get our way, even if it means “lording it over” others who have different ideas.
But I’ve also seen glimpses of the beloved community that Jesus envisioned for us – the one in which the leaders stoop down to serve, the low ones are raised up, the outsiders are welcomed in, and there are no fights about who is sitting in which seat.
One of those experiences was at a Christian camp many years ago. Of course, there was a staff structure that involved supervisors for program, kitchen, and maintenance, and younger staff answering to their superiors. But somehow, perhaps by divine inspiration, and perhaps because of the humility and intentionality of the leaders, we developed a community that felt more like a circle than a hierarchy.
When we gathered for fellowship, we found ourselves standing in a circle so often that it became a symbol of our community. We reflected on the fact that in a circle, everyone is equally included. When you talk together in a circle, each voice can be heard, each face can be seen, and all the seats are just as good as the others. And a circle can easily expand to make space for someone new.
Just like the parent who says, “That’s not the way we do things in our family,” Jesus says to us “In the Jesus community, we do not lord it over one another. In the Jesus community, we humble ourselves to serve one another in love.”
We all know that we’re not there yet. Like the first disciples, we still have a lot to learn. But like the Kingdom of God that has not yet arrived, but is coming, together we are learning the Jesus Way.
May the Spirit help us to live the Jesus Way in our church, in our committees, in our choir, in our fellowship, learning, and mission groups. May the Spirit help us to live the Jesus Way in our families, in our work communities, in our friendship circles, and in every community in which we participate.
And may we all sit together around the Table of the Lord in the Kingdom of God that is on its way.