Serving in love in times of crisis

by Ryan Eikenbary-Barber

Text: Mark 10:35-45

Jesus confronts our fear, our controlling behavior, and our desire to avoid suffering. In our text, a couple of Jesus’s disciples are struggling with power issues, namely James and John. They attempt to control Jesus: “We want you to do for us whatever we ask…. Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory” (emphasis added).

Jesus responds, “You don’t know what you are asking.” Neither do we whenever we presume to tell God what to do. Jesus gave James and John, and all of us who struggle with power issues, a way to stop controlling other people. Jesus told his disciples to be servant leaders. Our personalities change for the better when we get down on our knees and wash the feet of others. Our fears start to disappear when we prioritize the needs of other people.

James and his brother John were known as the sons of Zebedee, or the “Sons of Thunder!” The Bible never explains that odd nickname. The story in our text gives us a clue. The Sons of Thunder were Peter’s old fishing buddies from Galilee. James and John never appear in the Gospel of Mark without Peter – except in today’s story. James and John caused a storm of controversy when they went behind Peter’s back and asked Jesus to be his right and left hand men.

What exactly are they asking? They might have expected Jesus to be crowned king in Jerusalem. In that case, they are asking for thrones on either side of King Jesus. They might be thinking about the heavenly banquet, where believers will feast for all eternity. In that case, they are asking for the best seats at the heavenly table. Or, they might be trying to push their old friend Peter out of the leadership circle. In that case, James and John were seeking more control. It is unclear exactly what the Sons of Thunder were aiming for, but the disciples heard enough! Peter and the team were indignant when they learned about James and John’s secret bid for power.

James and John had no idea what they were asking. Jesus came into his glory at the cross. Jesus asked James and John, “Can you drink the cup I drink?” He was talking about suffering on the cross. Jesus prayed before the crucifixion, “Father … take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). Jesus asked James and John if they could be “baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” Jesus was talking about death on cross. The Apostle Paul declares “We were therefore buried with [Jesus] through baptism into death” (Romans 6:4). James and John believed they could pay the price, but then they ran away from the cup of suffering and baptism into death. At this point in the story, the Sons of Thunder were all noise and no follow through.

Note the profound irony at the end of Mark’s Gospel. Mark writes, “They crucified two rebels with him, one on his right and one on his left” (Mark 15:27). James and John were hiding from the Romans while a couple of thieves suffered and died on the right and left of Jesus. The Gospel of Luke teaches us that one of the thieves mocked Jesus. The other begged, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). As Jesus died to save the world from sin, he paused to invite the sinner and the stranger. Jesus told the repentant thief, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Not James! Not John! It was a thief at Jesus’s side in his moment of glory.

Jesus said, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” Servant-leadership has become trendy in business literature. Robert K. Greenleaf (1904-1990) was an executive at AT&T and later taught at Harvard Business School. Greenleaf taught that people are most responsive to leaders who have demonstrated their ability to serve. He had observed the opposite in the authoritarian leadership style that had become the norm in mid-century corporate culture, and took an early retirement in order to bring positive change to American business practice. Greenleaf was right of course, but Jesus was not talking about earning business credibility or worldly respectability through servant leadership. Jesus taught that Christians must become servants to all people, pick up their crosses, and follow in his footsteps.

The Coronavirus pandemic that we find ourselves in presents us with precisely the kind of opportunity to model servant leadership. As with the disciples, Jesus models for us how to face our fears, our desire for control, and our desire to avoid suffering.

We can take an object lesson from church history on this point. The early Christians took a strange approach to pandemics. The Roman Empire was hit with the Plague of Galen in 165 AD. Scholars suspect it may have been the first incidence of smallpox in Europe. A quarter, or maybe even a third of the Roman Empire died during the Plague of Galen. There was another terrible epidemic in 251 AD, this time probably measles. The city of Rome lost five thousand people a day to the disease. Today, because of vaccinations, smallpox and measles are now largely under control. But these diseases are still devastating to unexposed populations.

The typical response of people at the time was to flee. Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria wrote in 260 AD, “At the first onset of the disease, [the pagans] pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead … hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease.”

Meanwhile, Christians became servants to the suffering and slaves to the dying. Again Bishop Dionysius writes, “Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains.”

In The Rise of Christianity, Sociologist Rodney Stark argues that one of the key reasons that “the obscure, marginalized Jesus movement became the dominant religious force in the Western World” in just a few centuries was because Christians sacrificed themselves for others in this way. Many Romans were impressed when Christians died caring for strangers. They were even more impressed when Christians miraculously survived the plagues and became inoculated from the disease. Most of all, those who joined the early church were persuaded by the revolutionary Christian belief that God loves humanity, both the living and the dead. Rodney Stark crunched the numbers and argues that pagans only had a fifty percent chance of having friends after the plague. Christians had an eighty percent chance of having friends after the plague. The Church grew exponentially over these centuries for a miraculously practical reason: Christians laid down their lives for their neighbors.

How have contemporary Christians acted like servant-leaders in this time of social distancing? We are not permitted to run away from the problems of the world. Neither are we to behave in a foolhardy manner that makes the crisis worse. We can wear our masks without grumbling. We can deliver groceries to the sick and elderly. We can encourage socially distant friends with a phone call or Zoom chat. We can treat this pandemic as a monastic moment and pray for the salvation of the world. Covid-19 should motivate Christians to get more creative in our service to others.

We keep on praying, keep on serving, and keep on sharing Christ’s love, remembering that we are not in charge of this. God the Father is in charge, and Jesus is sitting at his right hand. Jesus never asked us to save the day. Jesus has that job covered. People will know the story of God’s saving love, if we serve in love.