It has been the same since the very beginning – at least according to the Bible. In the garden of Eden, according to the book of Genesis, the devil in the form of a serpent encourages the man and the woman to eat of the fruit of the forbidden tree so that they can become like God. For that, he tells them, is what will happen if they eat. Not content with what God has given they want more – and to be like God, to be equal to God, seemed so desirable – so they ate. And they are expelled from the Garden of Eden as a result of their disobedience. The story of Adam and Eve being thrown out of Eden is what we call The Fall. Even from the beginning, says the Bible, people got the whole idea about status and power upside down. They wanted to be raised up to be equal to God – not realising that God had different ideas. We’ll come back to that thought in a while.
Around ten years ago the Guardian newspaper published a list of the thousand novels that everyone must read before they die.
I think I have some way to go. I looked through the list yesterday and I have now managed to read 87 of them. In case you think that actually sounds rather impressive I should explain. The list contains many of the great classics from around the world, Dickens, Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Jane Austen and so on, and many of the books are seriously heavy going. It also contains great modern novels that you probably know better as films – Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith, the great Philip Marlow novels of Raymond Chandler, Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. I managed to resist cheating and didn’t include those in my total even if I’d watched the film.
I was actually helped along to my total of 87 by the inclusion in the list – and remember this is the thousand novels that everyone must read – of such great classics as Asterix the Gaul and Tintin in Tibet, the Discworld novels of Terry Pratchett, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, and The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13¾ by Sue Townsend.
If I’m to read the rest and assuming I reach normal life expectancy I need to get through the remaining books on the list at the rate of just over one a week. Which in reality means the list has become one where I can cross off the books I’m now never going to read.
Well, one of those thousand books is one which now regularly comes in lists of the nation’s top novels – the famous trilogy by Philip Pullman “His Dark Materials” which begins with “The Northern Lights” … It is well worth reading – but it really is a heavy read. By heavy I mean that being a trilogy of three quite long books, it’s worth buying a Kindle for. My own copy is still packed in a box following our move into the new vicarage seven years ago, but it’s at least as big as this Oxford Companion to Music. It’s one of those books which will save you having to splash out on gym membership.
It tells the story of Lyra, a girl with an important destiny, who lives in Oxford in a parallel universe, though one which crosses over into ours. She lives in a world where the Church, which Pullman calls the Magesterium, controls every aspect of life.
And it is Lyra’s destiny to bring the world to a new understanding of the meaning of life. The ultimate task of Lyra and her friends is to overthrow the Ancient of Days, the Authority in heaven; to throw God down from his throne; to abolish the Kingdom of heaven and replace it with a Republic, in which human beings will decide their own destiny. No longer will God or the Church decide how people must live – what they can or can’t do. Essentially the books described how people decide they have had enough of God telling them how to live so they overthrow him and run heaven themselves.
In some ways the books are very anti-Christian. Philip Pullman is well-known for having no love of Christianity. He sees the Church as being some kind of dictatorship, controlled by a bullying God who makes everyone behave how he wants. And he is simply echoing the way many have viewed God and the Church down the ages. But in a way, the truth about which he writes – that God’s realm should really be a community where all are equal and not like a Kingdom where some rule over others – is profoundly Christian, as today’s Gospel reading shows.
In the Gospel reading Jesus and his disciples discuss the nature of power in the Christian community that is to be. James and John want to make sure of that they will have a special place – they are a bit like people who want to be the teacher’s favourites in school. They want to be better than everyone else. But no-one likes that kind of person do they, and the other disciples are angry with them for getting above themselves. They really should have learnt from the story of Adam and Eve that trying to exalt yourself and make yourself equal to God – or in their case, sitting either side of Jesus in his glory – really isn’t the way God works.
Well, the argument provides Jesus with an opportunity to talk about relationships among his followers. Mark, who wrote the gospel, is reminding everyone in the Church – you and me as well as those who first read this book 2000 years ago nearly – about what it means to be a leader in the Church of Jesus Christ. He is wanting to remind the fledgling Church that true leadership is not about exalting oneself but humbling oneself – we do not raise ourselves to God’s level – rather, he comes down to us and serves. And expects us to do the same.
For what Jesus does is to tell us that in his Church things are different. The Christian Church is not to behave as if it were any other organisation, he insists. Christian leaders are not to boss other members of the Church. In fact, quite the reverse – those who are in a position of leadership must set an example of humble service. And he doesn’t just mean the bishop – or the vicar – but anyone who wants to play a part in running the Church.
They must even, says Jesus, be servants to other members of the community. They must do this in order to follow the example of their one true leader, Jesus himself, who, the Gospel says, “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many”. The whole of Jesus’ life, ministry and death was an expression of submission, of service to the human race.
He modelled a new kind of leadership. His kingship is one gained through the ultimate act of service, his death on the cross. If his followers are to be true to him, they must behave like him. We Christians – the Christian community – are to be a community of mutual service and love.
There is perhaps no other teaching of Jesus that has been harder for Christians to follow. Jesus showed his disciples that he meant it by washing their feet at the Last Supper. Imagine washing everyone else’s feet! We don’t really like being servants to other people. We enjoy our own importance. We like to be honoured by others. We work hard for recognition, and enjoy receiving our due reward.
But just imagine how different life would be we followed the example that Jesus sets us. If we think about it, we can see that an attitude of service modelled on that of Jesus would transform all our relationships, from international politics to family life. Only God can bring about that transformation; but that does not excuse us from trying to follow Jesus’ example in our local churches and in our personal lives.
How many of those quarrels between Christians, between church members could be avoided if everyone adopted an attitude of mutuality and service? The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.
Just think back for a moment to the vision of Philip Pullman, of a despotic God who controls people through the power of the Church. It’s a reality that many people think that’s what God must be like, and many people think that’s what the Church is like.
But that’s to misunderstand – just as James and John misunderstood – the God who shows us in his Son Jesus his true nature of love and service. Yes – Jesus is a king, a role we usually associate with power and dominance and control. But the kind of king Jesus is, is quite unlike any normal human kind of king – quite the opposite in fact. In our gospel reading James and John didn’t yet grasp that! They did in time – just as we must if we are to continue to build the Christian community of love that Jesus began and demonstrated.
May we follow the example of service set us by Jesus, as here at St John’s we create a Christian community in which all are welcome, all are equal, all are loved, and all both serve and are served after the manner of Jesus himself.