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17th October 2021

Growing Confidence

Passage: Mark 10;35-45


It was Roy Castle, host of the show, Record Breakers, who sang the song, “Dedication’s what you need if you’re going to be a record breaker…” To be the best at anything you need first, talent; second, vision of where you want to be, and third, dedication. All the record-breaking geniuses we can name have worked with total dedication to reach their goal. And that is wonderful. We salute them.

James and John- in our story today- wanted to bring that same dedication to their faith. They wanted to reach the highest pinnacle of Christian discipleship. And they were prepared to do whatever it took. Immediately before this story Jesus had been telling his disciples that it was time to travel to Jerusalem, where he would be rejected, imprisoned, and executed. Can you do this? He asks James and John. Can you drink the cup of suffering that I must drink? Can you be baptised into the death that I must die?
Yes, they said, we can. We are ready. And they were: ready to give everything in the cause of following Jesus.
We can probably name people who have given everything to their faith and who have reached tremendous heights of service for the sake of Jesus Christ. And that is wonderful; we salute them too. Yet there is a “but” in this story, isn’t there? Something is not quite right.

James and John’s vision of what it looks like to reach the top in the kingdom of heaven has been shaped by the culture in which they grew up. Taught by their Roman rulers that the “greatest” person in the world is Caesar, who sits on a throne of authority; told by their Jewish teachers of the golden age when their own King David sat upon his throne of power; hearing the promise of the prophets of a new golden age when God will send an even greater ruler than David, to sit in authority in Jerusalem; it is inevitable that James and John believe that to reach the top as a disciple of Jesus means sitting alongside him in the place of supreme power.

This is how things go, isn’t it? Our ideas of what it means to be supremely successful in life are shaped by our culture; by what we are told and by what we see for ourselves.
I mean, right now we are thinking about the future of our church- what we would like to be and what we should be. And I would guess that our visions for the church are influenced heavily either by our own memories of what church was like in the 1950s: filled to bursting and children counted in treble figures; or by our modern mega-churches, where literally thousands of people gather for worship, comparable to Premier League Football. There is nothing wrong with these visions- for goodness’ sake, let’s get Christianity back into the heart of our communities! There was nothing wrong with James and John’s vision: the kingdom of God was said to be about justice and peace; healing and mercy, so they pictured themselves seated in authority making this justice, peace, mercy, and healing happen. Wonderful. Good for them! But we still need to bear in mind that even our aims for faith and our faith community can be hugely influenced by our culture and by our understanding.

I am saying this because, right now, we are having a few issues with dreams and visions. The pandemic (plus a few other major issues) has created a great deal of chaos and confusion. Huge parts of our culture are now being challenged; ideals which once shaped our nation and even our world are being questioned. We are not entirely sure what we should be dreaming of.
We are also, many of us, lacking in confidence right now: confidence in ourselves, confidence in our world leaders, confidence in our church, confidence even in God. There are times when we are not sure that anyone, anywhere has what it takes to bring our dreams to fruition. We want to dream. We need to aim high. Putting one’s head in the sand has never achieved anything good. We are just a bit confused right now. Back in the story, Jesus tells James and John that places of honour and authority were not his to give. Is that bad news, or might it just possibly be good?

The trouble with having a fixed aim in life is that, if you do not achieve it, you feel that you have failed. Right now, there are hundreds, if not thousands of young people in their twenties who believe themselves to be failures because, despite rigorous dedication, they have not made it into the Royal Ballet Company or a Premier League Football Team or a place at Oxford or Cambridge. There are thousands of Christians who believe themselves to have failed because their personal or family relationships have not reached the standards they were told their faith demanded of them. There are thousands of local churches who believe they have failed because, despite fervent prayer, they are not packed to the rafters every week. Feeling like a failure does not grow confidence.

Do you know what happened to James and John? James, tragically, was murdered in the early years of the Christian church. King Herod had him killed, along with other Christians, because he feared a threat to his own authority. John lived to an advanced old age, but he never became a lifelong missionary as St Paul did. Nor did he become a figure of great authority in the wider church, as St. Peter did. He was more of a local minister, a long-term pastor to the church in Ephesus. It was not an easy life. He suffered persecution and was sent to the prison island of Patmos for some years, where he wrote his book of Revelation. But he returned to Ephesus and ministered there, even when he had to be carried into the church.

So, neither James nor John reached the place they had hoped to be. Do you think they thought they had failed? Being fortunate enough to have some written record of what John thought, I don’t think he felt like a failure. Rather, I think he allowed his aims and ambitions to change. From what we heard, John came to believe that to “reach the top” in terms of Christian discipleship meant simply surrendering your life to the will of God, offering to Him each day, each activity, each challenge, each opportunity to be used for making the love of God in Jesus Christ a living reality in the church and in the world.

Looking at their lives from this perspective, you cannot begin to assess just how much James and John achieved. There is a saying that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Certainly, we know from totally independent sources that the courage and spirit of forgiveness with which the early Christians faced persecution and death inspired many, many more to believe in Christianity as something real and authentic. Who knows how many new Christians came to birth directly or indirectly through James’ death? And who knows the extent of that influence on political leaders down through the ages, convincing many that widespread religious persecution does nothing for their own authority or credibility?

And John- who knows how many people he inspired to faith in Jesus, and how widely his influence spread down the generations? Who knows how precious were his teachings as he became the last living person who had walked with Jesus through his earthly ministry? I cannot help wondering if John could see the time coming, as certain prominent Roman citizens converted to Christianity, when Christian believers might just end up occupying thrones of political power and if John could see the dangers as well as the opportunities there. Hence his insistent teaching on love above all else. Because reaching what he had once thought of as “the top” could very quickly turn out to be the bottom if you lost love en route.

The stories of James and John teach us that although it is good to dream and to aim high, especially when it comes to our faith journey and our commitment to our church, our dreams and our aims need to be directed by God and not by ourselves. We are not called to be “successful” as we understand “success.” We are called to be faithful. Jesus was right- he cannot allocate positions of power because power does not depend on your external status but on your internal Spirit and if that Spirit is the Spirit of God then you have incredible power for God, whether you are sitting in Parliament or in a Nursing home; whether you are worshipping with three thousand people or with half a dozen; whether you feel like a success or feel like a failure. I love that verse from John- God is greater than our worried hearts and knows more about us than we do ourselves. This is what growing confidence is all about, isn’t it- trusting God to be greater than we are?

So how are you feeling right now about your Christian discipleship? What would you most like to be for Jesus Christ? Or put it another way- what do you think Jesus Christ would like you to be right now?

I would like us to end by looking at a famous reflection on prayer requests-rather like the one James and John made- how they come to be answered:

I asked for strength that I might achieve;
I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey
I asked for health that I might do greater things;
I was given infirmity that I might do better things
I asked for riches that I might be happy;
I was given poverty that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men;
I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life;
I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I had asked for, but everything that I had hoped for….I am most richly blessed.