25 July 2009

Ruling as slaves from an emptied tomb

St James the Apostle: 2 Cor 4.7-15; Matt 20.20-28
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Sisters of St Mary of Namur

None of us can claim—come the end of this life—that we didn't know. We knew. How could we not? It's not in the fine print or in the interpretation. There's no need to guess or wonder. Jesus says again and again that following him is a dangerous gamble against the probability that trial and tribulation await us. That you will bear a heavy cross and find yourself nailed to it is the best bet you can make. Your cross may be intensely private or spectacularly public; you may be nailed to a physical or mental affliction or, quite literally, to an actual cross—or a prison cell or by a bullet. However you end, by whatever means you are lifted up on the cross, you will not go alone. Nor will you go in any way bound. Paul writes to the Corinthians: “We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed...” Afflicted, perplexed, and persecuted, we are nonetheless freed from constraint, despair, and destruction. So long as we “always carry about in the body the dying of Jesus,” we carry the hope of God's “surpassing power,” the treasures of a life—an eternal life—lived in Christ. But first, we must drink from his chalice “so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh.” The most delicate sip is death. But what must die for us to live?

The mother of James and John pushes her sons to the front of the apostolic line, pushing past the other disciples in the hope that Jesus might secure their positions as leaders in the kingdom to come. We can almost hear the sorrow in Jesus' voice when he says, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the chalice that I am going to drink?” Perhaps a little apprehensive or embarrassed, or maybe sensing that their elevation is at hand, James and John respond, “We can.” Though they believe that they are about to take their places of honor, Jesus tells them that to rule is to serve: “...whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.” Jesus is doing more here than turning his students' expectations about inherited social power upside-down. He is telling them—all of them and us as well—that we best live a life of authority, power, and influence when we die to self in him and rise again with him to serve God by being slaves to one another for his sake. We will rule, but we will rule as slaves from a throne built on an emptied tomb.

Remember what Paul teaches the Corinthians, so long as we “always carry about in the body the dying of Jesus,” we carry the hope of God's “surpassing power.” What power we receive from carrying in our bodies the dying and rising again of Christ is not the power of princes or merchants; it is not the authority of law or money. The power we wield when we live as both tombs for his resurrected body and tabernacles of his abiding presence is the “spirit of faith,” the fire, the force, the nerve of believing, trusting, and hoping in the audacious truth that we are once again free to live as the children of his Father. From this truth, all blessings flow in abundance.

What must flow from us then? Paul points to the Psalms: “I believed, therefore I spoke.” Because we strive to live in the spirit of faith, we speak the Word and do his work as servants not kings, as slaves not masters. We are raised from a living-death to a life in Christ to work as stewards of the kingdom, proxies for heaven, prophets and priests at the altar, offering ourselves as sacrifice for the salvation of the world. We know this. How could we not? Our Lord hangs on his cross for us; he is raised from his tomb for us; he sits at the right hand of the Father for us. Though we are afflicted, perplexed, and persecuted, we are nonetheless freed from constraint, despair, and destruction. We are free to serve in the spirit of faith; and so, believing ,we speak; trusting, we work, hoping, we become hope and rule as the least of his, if we but will it.

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