Isaiah 50.4–10; Galatians 1.11–24; Mark 10.35–45
a sermon at the Annual Readers’ Service for the Diocese of Durham
Durham Cathedral, Saturday September 16, 11.30 a.m.
by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright
James and John said to Jesus, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘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, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ That remains one of the all-time great statements, not only of Jesus’ understanding of his own forthcoming death, but of one of the key implications of his work in going to the cross: that he was standing on its head the normal way that people look at the world, and the normal way that people look at leadership and power. And we are here today because we believe in that vision of a world renewed, turned the right way up; we have seen it in Jesus, we discover it in the work of God’s Spirit in our hearts and minds, and we want to be renewed in our calling to translate the Servant-work of our Lord and Saviour into the servant-work of the gospel in communities and individual lives.
Mark 10 echoes, of course, the prophet Isaiah. Jesus quotes Isaiah 53 when he speaks of ‘giving his life as a ransom for many’. But – as a good Reader should notice at once – that towering statement of Jesus’ work in ransoming us for God is not a detached saying. It is the ultimate answer to the question of James and John, and the anger of the disciples, as they all show they haven’t understood what Jesus’ kingdom-work was all about. They were assuming that this was a movement like other worldly movements, aimed at power and glory for themselves. Jesus’ reply, insisting that true greatness lies in servanthood, is directly and organically related to what he was about to do on the cross. You cannot have the one without the other: a Christian political theology without an atonement theology, or vice versa is a recipe for disaster. That’s a theme for another time.
So, as we chase the reference back to Isaiah, we go once again not just to a detached verse but to a whole section of the book. Isaiah 40—55 sets out on a grand scale the purpose of Israel’s God, YHWH, to reveal his sovereign power, his lordship over the kingdoms of the world, his reality over against the hollowness of the idols of the world, to demonstrate in action that he is true to his word as the creator and as the covenant God. He will do this, more specifically, by rescuing his people Israel from their exile in Babylon and by making them, in addition, a light to the nations, with the eventual result of the renewal of all creation.
But how is God to accomplish this work, this renewal of covenant and creation, this overthrowing of empires and idols and the establishment of his sovereign rule of healing and justice? The answer comes in chapter 42, expanded in four great sub-poems climaxing the chapter Jesus quoted in Mark 10, chapter 53. ‘Behold my servant’. At first it’s not clear whether the Servant is the nation, or the remnant within the nation, or an individual who stands over against them both, because in a sense all three are true: and when we reach the picture of the one who is despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, we discover that, as an individual, he is the true remnant in person, and hence the true Israel in person, representing God’s people who were called to be the means of God’s saving purposes for the whole world.
But – and this is vital to any proper understanding of Christian ministry – precisely because the Servant thus embodies the role of all God’s people, when the work of the Servant is finally completed in the person of Jesus Christ and in his death and resurrection, the task of those who believe in the completed work of Jesus Christ as the means of their own salvation is at once to resume, in a new mode, the task of being the Servant-people, the Jesus-people, for the sake of the world. In other words, the strange means by which God overthrows the kingdoms and the idols of the world didn’t stop with Jesus’ crucifixion, as though Jesus had to be a Servant but we can go back to doing things the world’s way. Of course not. We are called to be servants because we follow the Servant King himself, and seek to implement his victory in the world by his own methods. That is why, in Galatians and elsewhere, Paul picks up the langauge of servant-vocation to describe his own apostolic ministry; and that is why, as we celebrate and reflect on our own ministries today, we do well to go back to the servant-theme and explore it in more depth.
And as we do so we discover, in Isaiah 50, the theme which, I suggest, should be woven into the very rhythm and pattern of life for all those who are called to be Readers. It is so as well, of course, for us clergy, but there is something special, something sharply focussed, about Reader ministry, and it comes to clear and evocative expression in Isaiah 50 verse 4: ‘The sovereign God YHWH has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens – he wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The sovereign God YHWH has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backwards.’ The purpose of your calling is that you should not only have the eye of the reader, but also the ear of the servant and the tongue of the teacher. There is a wonderful dynamic sense of the servant’s calling in this threefold rhythm: we read in order to hear as obedient servants, we hear in order to teach as comforters and prophets, and our teaching in turn sends us back to our reading as we realise how much more we need to learn, in order once more to hear with the servant’s ear and speak with the teacher’s tongue. That rhythmic vocation, my friends, is your special calling.
And as myself one who is committed to hearing what scripture says, not what I’d like it to say, I cannot but note that in each of today’s passages it is a costly calling. Jesus is telling the disciples that their dreams of glory are going to end up in the shame and horror of the cross. Paul speaks of an extraordinary revelation of God which resulted, for him, not in a cheerful ministry carrying all before him, but in misunderstanding, suspicion, and distrust, only eventually getting to the point where the Jerusalem Christians really did believe he was a proper Christian, a genuine apostle and evangelist. And Isaiah’s servant discovers that when God opens your ear morning by morning, and gives you a word to sustain the weary, there will be insults and spitting and physical assault. And so we discover that the servant-ministry itself is contested and dangerous. It is tough and difficult.
And this is not just because we are hard of hearing or unwilling to speak, not just because it is intellectually and emotionally demanding to wake up morning by morning to listen for God’s voice and to go out and speak it – though it is, since our minds need to be stretched and challenged, and our hearts enlarged, lest we cut God’s word down to the size of our tiny imaginations and our fearful half-believings. No: it is hard and costly because obedient hearers and ready teachers – in other words, Readers who are true to their calling – are inevitably involved not simply in explaining things to people who don’t understand them, but in thereby challenging the way the world is, the way the principalities and powers are, the rule of the idols and the empires. Both by what you hear and what you say, and by the very fact that you are listening to the Sovereign God who in Jesus has triumphed over the idols and the empires, you are walking into the eye of the storm, sailing straight towards the hurricane. It isn’t that the costly discipleship, and the challenging and contested work of the gospel in the world, is something over here, and the listening to God’s word and the teaching of it is the easy bit, over here, which merely describes that other reality. No. The very activity of reading, of listening, of teaching God’s word – the triple calling of the eye, the ear and the tongue, if you like – is at the centre of that work, and shares its essence and its character: the dangerous, contested, embattled and (please God) eventually hard-won work which God is doing in his people, in the church and especially in the world.
Therefore, my friends, do not expect that your task will be an easy one. The moment you set yourself to read, distractions will come upon you – perhaps you should just make a couple of phone calls, perhaps you might just read something else instead, whatever it is. The moment you set your ear to listen for God’s word, all kinds of other voices will crowd in, whispering and wheedling and clamouring for attention. And the moment you loosen your tongue to say what it is that you’ve seen in your reading and heard in your listening there will be not only delight but also dismay: delight from those who find their hearts touched and their weariness comforted by the word you speak, but dismay from those who find their idols challenged and their empires undermined. That is how it was with Jesus’ answer to James and John. That is how it was when Paul preached Jesus as Lord within the empire that believed that Caesar was Lord. And that is how it is today, as our society loses its last remaining grip on the vision of God in Christ and lurches towards the idols which sustain the normal worldly dreams of power and glory. And so you Readers have the special ministry of reading, listening and speaking which demands prayer and patience and stickability and a resolute determination not to be put off by other tasks, other voices, other powers than that of God’s word itself. You are to be like someone lighting a candle and then walking down a windy street to someone who needs that light: you must shield what you read, what you hear, and what you are about to say from the winds of temptation and distraction and fear until you can shine the light in the dark room, the dark heart, the dark world, or (God help us!) the dark church where it is most sorely needed.
And the reward for that patience is the vindication of the Servant. ‘The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?’ – words which Paul echoes as he reflects on his own Servant-vocation in that great passage at the end of Romans 8. This isn’t (of course) an excuse for arrogant or self-willed insistence that you’re always right and above criticism. Sometimes the listening ear hears the fresh word from God precisely in the wise and prayerful criticism of friends. Being unpopular doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in the right! But again and again the faithful ministry of reading, hearing and speaking will work its way through, as Jesus’ own Servant-ministry did, to the new day in which hearts are changed, lives are transformed, communities are built up and God’s kingdom is revealed afresh in the world; and the faithful servant who is not put off by the distractions and the dangers, but who sees the task through, has the reward of seeing the fruit of the travail of his or her soul.
There, then, is the vocation which scripture itself holds before you as readers, listeners, and teachers. And as I close let me say this. The worldwide church just now is greatly exercised by the question of how we can together listen to scripture; of how our reading of God’s word works together with other people’s readings, in Africa or America or south-east Asia. We all say that scripture is God’s authoritative word, but we are having great difficulty in discovering how that authority works in practice. These are huge issues and I ask your prayers as I and others try to work on them at this very time. But the large global issues must be earthed, grounded, in the local and the specific and the particular. And the faithful servant-ministry to which you are called, of morning-by-morning reading and listening, and week-by-week or month-by-month teaching and consoling – this ministry lies at the very heart of the life of the whole worldwide people of God. Without this, the game is over, and the idols and the empires have won. With this, even though it may seem that we sometimes walk in darkness, we may trust in the name of the Lord, and rely upon our God, that his fresh, healing and creative word will do its work, and that the true power and glory which we see in Jesus will be established on earth as in heaven. So may God give you the eye of the Reader, the ear of the Servant, and the tongue of the Teacher; may he give you faithfulness, patience and joy in his service; and to his name, Father, Son and Holy Spirit be all praise and all glory, now and in the age to come. Amen.