Sermon: Twenty First Sunday after Trinity, 21 October 2018, St John the Divine

Reading  Mark 10.35-45

Preacher  Revd Alan Sykes


Once upon a time there were two scientists. They were both working – separately – on an important potential breakthrough in the treatment of a serious disease.

Both were on the brink of success. They were both aware of the other’s work but they didn’t cooperate in any way. They didn’t even like each other. In fact, they were deadly enemies.

Secretly they were both coveting a Nobel Prize.

Such was the rivalry between them that their main motivation had become to beat the other in finding this medical breakthrough.

They’d long since ceased to care much about the benefits to people that their research might bring. They were obsessed by being first.

Because of their all-consuming competitiveness they had both developed some very unappealing personality traits.

The breakthrough was finally achieved by one of the scientists. Thousands, millions of people were spared intense suffering.

The successful scientist duly received a Nobel Prize.

The other was consumed for by envy and resentment at being pipped at the post by someone he (or she) regarded as a self-serving snake.

In our society at least there are few spheres of human activity – if any – in which the search for status doesn’t rear its egotistical head.

Even the sciences in their allegedly objective search for truth are far from immune. Even the church isn’t immune.

I remember preaching on today’s gospel passage some years ago. Basically, I took the line that James and John were being unhealthily egotistical in wanting to sit on either side of Jesus in his glory, that the desire for personal aggrandisement is perilous, a danger to the soul as it were.

That’s the obvious way to interpret what Jesus says. And it’s an approach I still largely hold to.

But I was upbraided after the service by a member of the congregation who said that, without ambition and competitiveness and the drive they bring to human history, we’d still be living in caves – or words to that effect.

And I have to confess that the point hit home. I think there’s a real quandary here.

Now, I’m far from thinking that everything deemed as progress is genuinely progressive but at the same time there are many things in modern life that I really wouldn’t want to be without and that seem, from any point of view, to be genuine assets to us human beings – electricity, modern health care, modern plumbing. Take your pick.

Could it be that, if everyone – two thousand years ago and ever since – had taken to heart this story about James and John, we would never have had any of these beneficial advances?

Perhaps people would have rejected all ambition as unchristian and would have been completely satisfied with their lot. They would simply have accepted life as it was and been content.

They would never have discovered or invented anything!

One problem with that as a possible scenario is that competitiveness in one form or another seems to be an intrinsic part of human nature.

And I do think that there is such a thing as human nature. We’re not totally blank slates when we’re born.

We can’t just make aspects of our human nature that we don’t like go away.

I’m no expert in child development but it seems that competitiveness emerges very early on. When children play, they want to win – especially boys.

I read somewhere that human males tend to compete with each other and human females tend to compare themselves to each other.

That’s obviously an oversimplification – and perhaps untrue – but competitiveness, in forms subtle and unsubtle, seems to permeate our individual lives and the life of our society.

And yet Jesus clearly implies that the desire to climb the status ladder of our choice is fraught with spiritual danger. James and John are admonished for wanting to be top dogs in the kingdom of heaven.

The other disciples are angry at them – probably because they themselves want to be the top dogs.

Now, I can’t claim that I’ve got all this sorted out in my own head but there are a couple of things that I think can usefully be said.

Firstly, Jesus emphasises that service to others should be the prime motivator of our actions. Service is what our lives in society are about. He says to his disciples:

Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.

Service should be the thing that gets us up in the morning. In some sense we are to fight a battle against our own nature, so that service and not competitiveness gets the upper hand. I believe we have a powerful instinct for service. It’s an instinct that’s akin to our instinct to love.

And I dare to believe that it’s a deeper instinct than the instinct to compete but it tends to get crowded out when all the pressures in society are enticing us towards the search for status.

If service – the putting of love into practice – were our top priority, we would become first, as it were, by accident – as a kind of by-product. It wouldn’t be our main driver and neither would it be of any great importance.

Service would be the driver of truly progressive change. So we would still have the motivation to discover and to invent.

And secondly, Jesus still feels able to use the language of status. He says: whoever wishes to become great and whoever wishes to be first among you and so on.

Perhaps Jesus is suggesting that we can harness our competitive instincts for something greater. Perhaps, as we become united with God, the search for status will just fall away. It will become irrelevant.

It would be naïve to imagine that, with a flick of our fingers, we will ever rid the world or our psyches of that competitive instinct.

But if, by the grace of God, we can foster that even deeper instinct for love and service, perhaps we can mitigate its effects – perhaps harness it for the good – perhaps even transcend it.

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