Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came over and spoke to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do us a favor . . . When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left.” But Jesus said to them, “You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink? Are you able to be baptized with the baptism of suffering I must be baptized with?”Today we begin a Lenten sermon series that will help us get in touch with some important qualities of spiritual seekers. This is, after all, a season of growth and change – a time when we are focused on becoming the best “us” that we can be, as individuals and as a religious faith community. Lent is our time to think about what it means to be good Christians, and to live into the hope of new and transformed life together.
“Oh yes,” they replied, “we are able!”
Then Jesus told them, “You will indeed drink from my bitter cup and be baptized with my baptism of suffering. But I have no right to say who will sit on my right or my left. God has prepared those places for the ones he has chosen.”
When the ten other disciples heard what James and John had asked, they were indignant. So Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant . . . For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:35-45
Being a good Christian isn’t easy, by the way. I’ve had people tell me that they don’t feel like good Christians. I’ve had people tell me that I’m not a good Christian. What makes someone a good Christian? Is a Christian the same as a churchgoer? Is a Christian a good person with strong moral fiber? Is a Christian someone who believes and confesses the correct creeds and doctrines? Sometimes we hear that a real Christian is someone who makes a decision to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior – someone who is filled with joy and never has one’s faith shaken. Is a Christian a conservative Republican or a passionate liberal? Is a Christian someone who acts just like you do?
I went to Google and typed in the words “true Christian” to see what would come up. You won’t believe how many people out there claim to have the correct litmus test for whether you are a real Christian, including lots of Christian dating sites where you can find God’s true match for you. Of course, Rick Santorum came up in my Web search, since he recently told some Ohio Tea Partyers that President Obama promotes "some phony theology.” He didn't come right out and call the president a Kenyan Muslim, but it's hard to see where else Santorum was headed with that statement.
Many sites say have more traditional claims about what makes a real Christian. A true Christian will desire to obey God and study the Bible. Real Christians will increasingly understand the Bible, admit they sin, follow Jesus, sin less and less, love others, not love the things of world more than God and have the fruit of the Spirit.
The Atheist Foundation of Australia has a test to be able to spot a true Christian. They say that a true Christian is one who follows the words of Christ literally. So, true Christians will be able to literally handle snakes, drink poison, and walk over scorpions. They must hate their families and also be hated by their families. True Christians can move mountains and wither fig trees. The site goes on to say “There are many different types of Christians, many sects and denominations. In their pride and arrogance they all claim to be true believers. But it is important to make sure that we have the real thing because Jesus said that there would be many fakers. In [many Bible passages] Jesus tells us about false prophets, false Christians. When dealing with Christians ask them if they are 'true' Christians. If the answer is 'yes' then chuck a [poisonous snake] at them and stick a few scorpions in their shoes.”
What these sites all have in common is that Christianity is defined by following a certain set of rules and behaviors. First you pick and choose Scripture passages that you think are the most important ones to follow. Once you fulfill an unreasonably long list of requirements, you can know that you are (or someone else is) a Christian.
I want to change the definition. Instead of true Christians, I want to talk about authentic Christians. On Ash Wednesday, Pastor Amy and I put ashes on the heads of those who came to worship and said, “Receive this outward sign of an inward journey.” Lists of rules for Real Christians are all about the outward signs. They are about proving to others that real Christians behave certain ways. But, they neglect the inward journey. Christians are spiritual seekers who want to harmonize outward expressions of faith with the inward journey of devotion. In other words, Christians are, of nothing else, authentic.
For me, authentic Christianity starts when we give up the notion that Christianity is God’s favorite religion. In today’s Gospel story, two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, ask for a favor. “When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left.” I can’t really blame them for asking. To have a special place helps to overcome the fear of being nobody and the fear of having no power. Christians claim special access and favored status all the time. It’s a way of claiming power.
Notice how Jesus changes the focus of the conversation. As soon as the other ten disciples hear about the request made by James and John, they get angry. Jesus does not tell James and John that they are wrong or bad for wanting to have a special status. Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant.” Jesus understands that a special bond can form, and it happens we put our lives in service on behalf of others.
There's an old phrase from 2000 years ago: "The dust of the rabbi". When rabbis and their disciples used to walk everywhere (like Jesus and his followers), the greatest disciple would be the one following the teacher most closely, listening to every word and watching every gesture. This one would be covered with the dirt and dust the rabbi's feet kicked up as he walked. Authentic Christians are like that. Their overriding concern is not seeking status, but walking in the dust of the Rabbi. Is it costly? Oh yeah! It means loving, no matter what; serving, no matter what; speaking the truth, no matter the cost. Authentic Christians allow our word and action to be rooted in showing God’s mercy, not positioning ourselves in the religious pecking order.
So, authentic Christianity harmonizes our outward faith and inward journeys in ways that help us own our limitations. Authentic Christianity is also concerned with our efforts to make us more HUMANE. In every human encounter, we have an opportunity to reach out in common humanity – to listen, to encourage, to reach out, to lift up . . . and to recognize in every person the presence of The Holy One.
Let’s begin this Lenten season thinking about harmonizing outward signs and inward journeys – our authentic selves. We affirm the importance of taking responsibility for our thoughts, words and actions. We join side by side to identify, challenge and move beyond excuses and the ways we limit and side step much of life and relating. We humbly affirm, encourage and commend each other to live fully in a spirit of service to others.
I find it interesting that the early church did not call one another “Christians”. They called one another sister. They called one another brother. An authentic Christian is not only a follower of Christ, but a brother or sister to others. An authentic Christian is one who strives to be like Jesus AND embraces the Jesus in others. An authentic Christian is one who loves Jesus and also loves the Jesus in others – even if the person is different – even if the other person disgusts us, or hates us – even if the other person is an enemy.
May our resourcefulness and resiliency be more fully demonstrated; may our god-likeness and divine presence be known, heard and felt; may this community of care cause inspiration and be inspired as this day unfolds.