March 10th, 2014

Lent is a time to think differently about greatness.

Matthew 20:20-28

March 9, 2014

The power of conversionary missions

The cover story of the January issue of Christianity Today magazine included a fascinating article by a man named Robert Woodberry.  Woodberry earned his Ph.D. in sociology at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.  (And I didn’t mention that school just because of its basketball game against Duke last night!)  Woodberry’s research countered a long-held assumption that the 19th century Protestant missions movement was in part responsible for the negative effects of colonialism, including brutal dictatorships and the oppression of women and minorities.

The work Woodberry started as a doctoral student, and has continued as a sociology professor at the University of Texas, proved otherwise.  Woodberry proved that the effect of Protestant “conversionary missionaries” – as opposed to Catholic missionaries and missionaries from state-sponsored churches – was remarkable in improving the lives of people.  Woodberry was able to make a sweeping claim:

Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovern-mental associations.

Christianity Today added, “In short: Want a blossoming democracy today? The solution is simple—if you have a time machine: Send a 19th-century missionary.”

I loved that article.  As the son of Protestant missionaries, there is a certain validation in what not only my parents did with their lives but what two hundred years of missionary effort has brought about.  The Protestant principle of “the priesthood of all believers” has a measurable and visible effect on the way people see themselves.  The message of the Gospel adds dignity, it empowers individuals, it gives hope.  And you don’t have to be a Christian to see and celebrate that impact.  Woodberry’s research is at first glance further evidence of how much good Christianity does.

But a certain caution also rises in me as I read and digest that article about Christian missions and democracy.  Democracy is near-universal value in the developed world.  People who are Christian and non-Christian, liberal and conservative, old and young – we all love democracy.

So here’s the caution, and the connection to today’s lesson from Jesus in Matthew 20.  Jesus says that we are to be “different.”  If everyone loves democracy, should we at least be suspicious of it?  I’ll come back to that point.

A Conversation about the Cup (20-23)

Our passage opens in verse 20 with the mother of two of Jesus’ disciples approaching him for a favor.  She kneels down, showing her respect.  Her boys are with her.  By comparing descriptions of her found in various places in the gospels (Matthew 27:56; Mark 15:40-41, 16:1; Luke 8:3, 23:55; John 19:25), we know a little more about her.  We know her name: Salome.  We know Salome was Jesus’ aunt (his mother Mary’s sister), making James and John his first cousins.  We know she was among a group of women who traveled with Jesus as a support team, including financial support.  We know she stayed with him all the way to the end.  She was at the cross when he died, at the tomb when he was buried, and back at the empty tomb Sunday morning.

Unlike Matthew or Peter or Thaddeus, James and John and their mother knew Jesus long before his public ministry – probably all their lives.  Mark tells this same story with a different twist.  He puts the request in the mouths of James and John.  To me, it’s quite obvious that all three of them decided to be proactive.  I rather suspect that all three of them spoke to Jesus.  Mark emphasizes the sons’ role, and Matthew emphasizes the mother’s words – perhaps even to protect the image of James and John.

“What is it you want?” Jesus asks his kneeling Aunt Salome. She answers, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom” (21).

Her question grates on us, but it doesn’t seem to grate on Jesus.  First, she has made the request respectfully.  Second, she’s his elder and his aunt.  And third, this request about sitting in places of honor didn’t come out of the blue.  Jesus himself had planted the idea of “thrones” in their minds in the previous chapter when to the twelve, “You who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28).  The men begin to play out that scenario in their minds, and they realize somebody is going to be close to Jesus.  James and John have been up the Mount of Transfiguration.  John is becoming Jesus’ best friend.  Salome and her boys don’t want to let anyone else cry out, “Shotgun!” before they do.  If someone else is going to get those spots, it won’t be because they asked first.

Again, I’m a little surprised that Jesus doesn’t rebuke them.  Instead, he seems concerned for them.  Turning his attention away from Salome to James and John, he says in verse 22 (and I hear compassion in his voice), “You don’t know what you are asking.”  Jesus knows that when he is lifted high above the earth in triumph over sin and death there will indeed be someone on his right and left, but they will be writhing in pain on their crosses.  He recoils at the thought of seeing his cousins in that place.

“Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” he asks. The “cup” is your lot in life, your “fate.”  In the Old Testament it’s often a negative symbol (wrath, judgment, suffering), but not always – think “my cup runneth over” (Psalm 23:5). The cup comes in different sizes and shapes, and includes different liquids.

“We can,” say James and John with some blend of boldness, persistence, and naïveté.  “You will indeed drink from my cup,” Jesus tells them in verse 23.  James will suffer a premature death (Acts 12), becoming the first of the Twelve (besides Judas) to die.  John will suffer a long life of witness and trial.  Then Jesus defers to the Father the question of who will sit at his right or his left.

A Discourse on being Different (24-27)

We’re not told who leaked word of this private conversation among Jesus, James, John, and Salome to the other disciples.  Maybe someone overheard.  Maybe John was humbled by Jesus’ response and admitted it on his own.  Maybe Salome told one of the other women who passed it on.  What we do know is that the other ten disciples were “indignant” (24).  As you can imagine, much emotion is expressed in this word, which is related to pain and grief.  The Message says the ten “lost their tempers, thoroughly disgusted….”  I picture yelling, red faces, tears, maybe even some pushing and shoving.

Jesus steps in to calm them down and grab a teachable moment.  I keep saying this, I know, but I’m really surprised he doesn’t do this with the original request.  It’s the conflict among the disciples that prompts a discourse on being different.

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority,” Jesus says in verse 25.  I’m not completely sure whose name or what situation would have come into the disciples’ minds when Jesus said that.  Tiberias was emperor, but for most of his rule he was reluctant to exercise raw power.  Herod Antipas ruled Galilee and Perea during Jesus’ time, and he had already imprisoned and beheaded John the Baptist.  Pontius Pilate was governor down in Judea, and the soldiers under him kept the populace under control.  The hierarchy of tax collectors would have been in the mix.  Then there were powerful local landowners and businessmen with their wealth and slaves.  Any of those could have popped into the heads of a given disciple when Jesus spoke of Gentile lords and officials.

“Not so with you,” Jesus continues.  “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave” (26-27).

The New Living Translation renders the beginning of verse 26, “But among you will be different.”  This past week at a gathering of pastors I heard about an upcoming leadership seminar in the Hickory area. It’s sponsored by churches, but one of the reasons we were told this is so good is that the leadership principles work well anywhere – church, business, politics.  Some of the presenters aren’t even Christians.

I’m planning to go to this event, and I expect to learn.  But the comment I heard was a caution light.  Anytime a leadership theory works as well in the world as it does among believers, it’s suspect.  It’s not automatically wrong; it just has one strike against it.  I’m weary of Christians taking their leadership cues from the world, where the test of effective leadership is results.

We are called to be different.  And when whatever values we proclaim sound remarkably similar to the values of the world, we should at least raise our guard.

This was my concern with the Christianity Today article on missions and democracy.    I’m going to say something that might cause you to bristle a bit, but hear me out.  Democracy is not a Christian value.  Anything that sounds like “Christianity is good because it advances democracy” ought to make us pause.

Why is that?  Because democracy gives power to the people.  And Lord Acton was right: power corrupts.  So while Christianity has advanced democracy, democracy has not returned the favor.  Over time you can trace that democracy first allows Christians to worship without persecution, but eventually the freedom to worship as I please creates spiritual arrogance and moves people away from their need for Christ.  We live in the most stable democracy in history, but one that is moving further from the Gospel – not toward it.  What democracy promotes is personal freedom and rights – and the result is a culture that has even infiltrated the church with commonplace proverbs like, “I have a right to be happy” and “If it works for you.”  You won’t find those proverbs anywhere in your Bible.

I need to clarify.  I’m not against democracy.  In fact, I’m still thrilled about Woodberry’s research and the effect of Protestant “conversionary missionaries” on health and economy and the lives of women and children.  I’m not for dismantling democracy or replacing it with anything else.  I would agree with Winston Churchill that democracy is the worst form of government ever invented – except for all the others.  From a political standpoint it’s better to give power to the people than it is to a few, no matter who they are.  But Christians especially need to understand freedom corrupts more often than it sanctifies.

Jesus called us to be different.  To think differently about everything.  We think differently about greatness – it comes through serving.  We think differently about serving – it is a privilege.  We think differently about leadership – it is not about getting others to do what I want.  We think differently about suffering – we embrace its redemptive purpose.  We think differently about sinners – we move toward them, not away.  We think differently about freedom – we have the freedom not to sin, the freedom to serve others instead of self, the freedom not to demand our rights.

A Manifesto on Jesus’ Mission (28)

The final sentence of Jesus’ response to the request of James and John is the most important of all.  “…just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (28).

What would you do if someone kidnapped your child and demanded a ransom?  In those situations people rarely think logically.  They don’t stop to think that the promise to release might be a hoax.  They don’t consider that payment of the ransom will only encourage other kidnappings.  It’s all about how I can get my child back home.

In what situation would you give your child as the ransom payment?  In what situation would you ask your child to consider being a ransom payment?

Verse 28 is the clearest expression in the gospels of what Paul will unfold in the book of Romans.  Jesus, the Father’s only Son, gave himself at his Father’s bidding as a ransom for the world.  The “many” just indicates all.

The early church wrestled with who was on the other end of the ransom payment.  Origen believed it was the devil.  Others took the issue even further, theorizing that Jesus was the bait to catch the devil.  Jesus himself had nothing to do with such silly postulating.  The point is not who received the ransom payment.  The point is the substitution – one life for (in place of) another.  We are simply to kneel in worship and thanks that it cost the life and death of Jesus to pay the full consequence of our sins and bring us to God.

This is a powerful statement on Jesus’ mission, but as in Philippians 2, the reason it is expressed is to provide a model for how we should think and live.  Jesus states the gospel here, but the gospel must change how we think about others.  Jesus “came not to be served, but to serve.”  Go and do likewise.

The Lenten journey

Someone asked me this week whether last week’s sermon in Caesarea Philippi (Matthew 16, when Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do you say I am?”) all the way through the triumphal entry is roughly comparable to the forty days of Lent.  Yes and no.  It’s been six months or more since the Caesarea Philippi conversation.

But look at where we are now.  Between today’s story about James and John (Matthew 20:20-28) and Matthew’s record of Palm Sunday (Matthew 21:1-11) there’s just one more story – about two persistent blind men outside Jericho.  We are getting very close to the final week of Jesus’ life.

Look just prior to our passage, at Matthew 20:17.  “As Jesus was going up to Jerusalem….”  This is the final ascent, and Jesus reminds his disciples once again the reason they’re headed to the holy city.  He will be condemned, mocked, flogged, and crucified when they get there.  They know better than to object.

So yes, this passage is appropriate for the Lenten season.  If you were with us this past Wednesday, we received ashes on our foreheads as a symbol of our mortality, of our sorrow for sin, and of Jesus’ sacrifice.  It’s one of those times when Christians really do look different – with that rough, black cross on our faces.  We pondered the meaning of Lent – a preparation for Easter through a passion for holiness.  It’s time to go up to Jerusalem.

Pastor Paul reminded us Wednesday that few people lose their holiness is one giant fall off a cliff.  We take baby steps away from the Lord.  Lent is a time to ask where those baby steps down have been occurring.  Where have I lost a step in my discipline, in my worship, in my devotional life, in my thoughts, in my witness, in my gratitude, in my care for the poor?  Where have I become more prideful?  More self-centered?

I shared on Wednesday night that in my case, I’ve noticed an increased willingness to let my task list consume me all day long, every day.  Sometimes it’s work; sometimes it’s home.  It doesn’t matter.  I always have to be accomplishing something.  My devotional life gets cut short and for me, even reading the Bible is often about “work.”  So my Lenten discipline is two hours a week of silence.  No e-mail, no TV, no book, not even the Bible.  Just quiet, alone with the Lord, thinking, praying, listening.

That’s different, isn’t it?  Lent is a time to think about being different.  Amen.


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