Proper 24B 2003 Isaiah 53:4-12; Mark 10:35-45
When Bishop Lee met with his Deans and the Regional Council Presidents in a special session at Shrinemont on the 30th
of September, the focus of the discussion was naturally enough on the recent and ongoing controversy facing the Episcopal
Church. What emerged from the discussion was that it seemed that those most partisan on either side of the issue have lost
touch with our Anglican roots and the traditions of practice in Anglican Christianity. What I mean by Anglicans is that we
are a people who worship God according to an authorized version of the Book of Common Prayer and at the same time are in communion
with the see of Canterbury. And Episcopalians are American Anglican Christians.
At Shrinemont the consensus among those present is that clergy need to exercise more often the Magisterium of the Church
-- the teaching function of the Church -- to restore that time proved Anglican sensibility. And it is very timely, even providential,
that the New Churchs Teaching Series of some twelve volumes is now complete. We have received our copies and they will be
in the parish library shortly.
It is interesting to note that two of those volumes Opening the Bible by Roger Ferlo, and Engaging the Word by Michael
Johnston address Scripture and the authority oif Scripture. And given the apparent intensity of the current controversy, this
is what I want to address for us now.
Let me begin by saying that Scripture is normative for us. To begin with, the Prayer Book itself is at least 80 per cent
Scripture. And in the course of a three year lectionary cycle, the three synoptic gospels are read aloud almost in order and
entirety in our worship. And there are Bibles in our pews. And surely there is one at least one -- in each of our homes.
But having said that about the primacy of Scripture, what then? From that point on, the meaning of Scripture leads us
into disagreement, often politely and with a willingness to hear and learn from each other, but in the current controversy,
not so much it seems.
It was the great 16th Century Anglican theologian Richard Hooker who described Anglican faith and Christian practice as
resting on a three legged stool. The three legs are Scripture, Tradition, and Reason and it has applied directly to Anglican
ways of reading the Bible since that time.
In Opening the Bible, Roger Ferlo notes this:
"Like Anglicans everywhere, Episcopalians enjoy the freedom to read the Bible anywhere and at any time, and revere
it as Gods own word to Gods own people. But we also inherit Hooker's judicious moderation in interpreting Gods word a moderation
grounded in respect for traditions about the Bible shared by the Christian church from its earliest days. We reserve the right
to exercise our God-given reason in applying the wisdom of these ancient and often difficult texts to our own lives and to
our own experience. For present day Episcopalians, this faith in Scripture, tradition, and reason guides everything we do
when we read the Bible. For us, as for Hooker, to read the Bible responsibly, context is paramount:
-- the context of public worship in which the Bible has been heard, prayed, and preached;
-- the context of ancient cultures and languages in which the Bible first was written and published;
-- the context of tradition, especially the first four centuries of Christian believing, when characteristically Christian
methods of reading the Bible began to take coherent shape;
-- the context of almost two thousand years of intellectual, scientific, religious, and social change, in the midst of
which, in diverse times and places, Episcopalians along with other Christians have wrestled with the meaning of the Bible
in our lives." (Ferlo, pp 5-6)
That's quite a mouthful. The best way I have found for doing all that is to ask these three questions of the text whenever
1. What does the plain text say as it appears on the page?
2. What is the Biblical writer trying to say (that's the context of the text)?
3. And having done that work, ask: What is this text now saying to me in my context?
Now let me say that in Anglican sensibility there are many acceptable ways of engaging the Bible, from the extreme of
Biblical literalism on the one hand to the extreme of wide ranging interpretation on the other. I understand that.
I had some folks tell me the other day that they believed a seminary education got in the way of understanding the Bible.
I personally don't agree but as an Anglican I found it an interesting observation worth thinking about from time to time.
But I will say that there have been times in my ever longer and sometimes troubled life when I have found strength, clarity,
and comfort in the simple reading of Scripture with a helpless childlike faith. And I have to say especially that the 91st
psalm was such a help to me during a year of combat operations in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967. I think I reflected on it every
night and still do rather often. So I am pleased it is our psalm for today. And that is why I asked us to read the whole thing.
Now because I believe that the Gospels are at the heart of the Scriptures, the Good News of Jesus Christ himself, the
Son of God, God in Christ himself, and that where the other Scriptures serve primarily to illuminate our understanding of
Jesus Christ they are most useful, let me turn to today's Gospel. And the Isaiah Suffering Servant passage, the psalm, and
the Hebrews reading particularly help illuminate our understanding, I think.
Let me read the Gospel again for our hearing of the plain text:
"James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, "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 to him,
"Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." But Jesus said to them, "You
do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized
with?" They replied, "We are able." Then Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and
with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to
grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared."
"When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, "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; but 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.""
So how about its own context? Here commentaries are most useful. To do a thorough job, one should really start with one
of the Church Fathers, probably Augustine, and then read a contemporary commentary. But I'll use the one from Synthesis, an
adaptation of which is used in our Sunday morning Bible study group.
Synthesis begins by relating the Isaiah passage, the Palm, and the Hebrews passage to the Gospel. Then it sets this particular
Marcan passage in the context of Saint Mark's Gospel itself.
"In this passage we read of the disciples debating as to which of them was greatest. And we have seen how Jesus dealt
with their dispute by saying that whoever would be greatest must be willing to be last of all and servant of
"Apparently James and John had not learned the lesson. So a chapter later in Mark, they ask for the places of honor
at Jesus' right or left hand when he enters into his glory as Messiah (10:35-37). So the Lord had to present the lesson of
humility once more, but in a different way. The other ten needed the teaching as much as James and John: they were not seeking
to be last of all, and were not ready to defer to James and John or to anyone else.
"Mark's Gospel (10:45) proceeds to define Atonement in a single sentence: The Son of Man came not to be served but
to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. The disciples were thinking of their own futures, their own benefit personal
glory. They had no thought of how that glory was to be attained. They simply sought privilege and recognition.
"Jesus did know: There was a cup of humiliation that he must drink. He must claim the sin of the world for his own.
There was a baptism he must undergo. Once he claimed that sin, he would need to take it to the cross. To enter into his glory
at all, let alone to seek places of honor, anyone else must undertake to share in that humiliation and suffering as well.
"The other disciples are enraged by the presumptuous actions of James and John. Jesus addresses all of them to set
them straight. Worldly leaders assume the trappings of power and demand obedience from their subjects. But the followers of
Jesus must not imitate this worldly pattern...." (Synthesis for October 19, 2003)
The point of the Synthesis contextual commentary is that those who desire only worldly power can do nothing to transform
the world in which they seek such power.
So what is this Gospel passage telling us in our own context? It seems to me that it is saying to us that we have to be
careful that the current debate is properly framed. It is about human sexuality. And it claims to be about the authority of
scripture. And certainly issues of sexuality cause a visceral response in some that is very painful for them. But the weapons
that are being urged on the one hand by the people who went to Plano, Texas, seem more characteristic of power plays: withholding
of pledges to their dioceses and to the national church and threats of schism. It is about power, about winning, about who
shall have their way instead of working together to do the work we have been given to do.
And on the other hand, the timing of the issue, forcing it to be brought before General Convention, also was a power play
in my opinion. Somehow God the Holy Spirit doesn't seem to have been left much room to work.
I was pleased that the Primates' meeting in London under the wise leadership of the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury chose
to follow the classical and time tested via media, the middle way. Yes, they said: The actions of the American Church has
caused problems for some of us. But there is still considerable unity on the essentials of the faith. We will study the current
issue some more in a commission that will make recommendations to the Archbishop of Canterbury. And we believe we now understand
more about how the action of one part of the Anglican Communion can effect other parts.
The Primates' meeting remind me of a story from the Tradition: The story is in Acts of the Apostles, when Peter and others
had been arrested and some members of the Council wanted them killed for preaching the Gospel, Gamaliel, the Pharisee, a teacher
of the law, someone respected by everyone, stood up and said: "...if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin,
it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them -- in that case you may even be found fighting against
In other words, it is time to let go and let God; give God room to work. And us to get on with the work we have been given
And to close with a modern parable, also in Synthesis, from Visions of Justice (1994, p. 26), the publication of the Lutheran
Human Relations Association:
"Once there was a woman who lived in a little central European village. She was a nurse and had devoted her life
to caring for her neighbors. She was there at birth and at death; she bound up scratches, bruises, and broken bones, as well
as sitting through many nights with the seriously ill.
"In the course of time she died. She had no family, so the villagers decided to hold a lovely funeral service for
"But the village priest had to remind them that she could not be buried in the cemetery, as the town was Roman Catholic,
and the woman was a Protestant.
"The villagers protested, but the priest held firm. It was not easy for him, since he too had been nursed by her.
"Nonetheless, the canons of the Church were clear. She would have to be buried outside the fence.
"The day of the funeral arrived, and the whole village accompanied her casket to the cemetery, where she was buried
outside the fence.
"That night, after dark, a group of villagers went back and moved the fence."