Monday, October 19, 2009

The Nature of the Commitment

Mark 10:35-45

“It's not bragging if you can back it up.”
“If you even dream of beating me, you'd better wake up and apologize.”
“I'm so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark.”
“I'll beat him so bad he'll need a shoehorn to put his hat on.”
“I am the astronaut of boxing. Joe Louis and Dempsey were just jet pilots. I'm in a world of my own.”
“When you are as great as I am, it is hard to be humble.”

But the same man who made these entertaining statements is also said to have made this one: “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”

And that epiphany must surely have come after this one: “If you view the world at 50 the same way you viewed the world at 20, you’ve wasted 30 years of your life.”

Muhammad Ali will arguably go down in history as the world’s greatest boxer, but it wasn’t until years after his retirement that the non-boxing world begrudgingly gave him his due. He was a great boxer, very hard to beat. But when he talked all his smack and rubbed everyone’s noses in his victories, it just made it hard to swallow and more difficult to accept him particularly on his terms. He was just noisy, too big for his britches, and folks just got tired of listening to him (except his fans, of course). And it didn’t help that he was coming into his own during the Civil Rights era when blacks were still expected to “know their place” and stay there. It also didn’t help that he converted to Islam, changed his name from Cassius Clay, and refused military service. That cost him his heavyweight title, which he would subsequently regain with very little trouble. At least, in the ring.

Throughout a great career in which Ali could just about have anything he wanted when he wanted it, he finally came to understand that the world does not revolve around any one individual, that there is a whole great world out there and a lot of folks who need help. He is said now to be generous almost to a fault and, absent his physical challenges due to Parkinson’s syndrome, merely a shell of the loud, boisterous, proud braggart he once was.

Though he was a great fighter and won most of his contests, there is nothing to say he has not taken a few beatings in and out of the ring and learned a thing or two within that span of “30 years” he apparently refused to waste. Like most of us, it takes some time to finally come to terms with the fact that we are no longer invincible, not that we ever were, but try telling that to a 16-year-old who’s feeling his oats! In fact, it is more likely that we have to get knocked upside the head more than once before we finally come to terms with the fact that we are no longer as young as we used to be! Only after we suffer some sort of trauma or sit in a chair with muscles so sore we can barely walk across the room do we finally come to realize that we have our limits. It is one of the curses of our humanity, but it is also one of our greatest blessings.

But this is not about Muhammad Ali. It is about being committed to something greater than self and the nature of that commitment. It is about what it means to be a disciple of Christ and what, if any, ulterior motive there may be in making such a commitment. It is about a counter-measure against a pop culture in which the so-called “prosperity gospel” talks about the Good News in a very materialistic way, reward without work, salvation without suffering. It is about why we choose to follow Christ and whether or not we are doing it for our own sake – or for His glory. It is about looking upon the face of one we would consider to be an ungrateful wretch who would take from our hands without so much as a “thank you”, and realizing that but for the grace of God, we are looking at a mirror image of ourselves.

We’ve heard “those who are first will be last” so many times that it is almost treated as a cliché more than it is a warning about how we regard this life against the Life which is to come and which we value more. But Jesus has found himself in the big middle of an argument in which two of His disciples have come to either regard themselves as “great” among the disciples, entitled to a special place in the coming Kingdom (which, incidentally, they still do not fully understand) or they have determined for themselves that “greatness” is merely for the asking, or will come to those who are willing to pursue it as a worthy goal. So even though they may well be faithful followers of Christ, the nature of their commitment comes into question and their motives become highly suspect.

The challenge that comes to them from Jesus regarding the “baptism” with which He has been baptized and the “cup” from which He will drink is a nice idea and one they are willing to abide by … as long as they get what they want out of the deal. And even though they say they are able, even if only physically so, the “willingness” to endure that “baptism” and drink from that “cup” remains to be seen because all they are expressing in that moment is their own selfish desires and ambitions. They are clearly in the pursuit of “greatness”, not salvation. And certainly not service!

It reminds me a great deal of a point where I once was in my life. I had all kinds of delusions of grandeur when I was young, and I was cock-sure of the idea that I would one day be known as “great”, maybe in business or politics – or both. Money was pretty tight then, as well, and part of my “greatness” would be my ability to give more to the Lord – once the “greatness was achieved. Why, if I could make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year I would surely be generous to the Lord. I would have plenty of money to give to the Church. And if I were “great”, people would listen to me. People would follow me, and I would steer them onto the right and righteous path. They would only need to know that I am “great”.

I was as clueless then as the disciples were. I had no idea that when it comes to standards and measures of “greatness”, there are actually two – and one has nothing to do with the other. In fact, they are polar opposites and are in direct conflict with one another. “Greatness” in this life is achieved and acquired primarily if predominantly for self; “greatness” in the Kingdom that is to come is bestowed exclusively by those whom we serve. In Mark 10:43, the Greek term for “servant” is literally translated, “menial table server”. What this means is that what is considered the lowest and most menial in this world is considered “greatest” in the world which is to come. It means a total and complete emptying of self for the sake of others. It means that if we want to “get mine”, as is the mantra of extreme selfishness, we must be willing to see to it that others “get theirs” first.

As “menial table servers”, our value to the Kingdom of Heaven in this life is in direct proportion to our willingness to serve. And if we are unwilling to serve, we cannot call ourselves “disciples of Christ”. We may be disciples of Ted Turner or Lee Iaccoa or any other number of “great” entrepreneurs of our time, but we are not disciples of Christ. It means our salvation was in vain; that is to say, for no useful purpose of the Kingdom, if we only concern ourselves with “what’s in it for me”.

It is a good and necessary thing for us to analyze the nature of our commitment to the cause of Christ – or whether there is any commitment at all. It is a foolish and vain thing to declare our own salvation or to call ourselves “saved” if the only thing we intend to gain from it is our own satisfaction and personal spiritual comfort. Jesus is very clear: if our faith does not cause some discomfort to us on at least some fundamental level, there is no faith at all because faith is not and cannot be self-serving. That’s just greed.

The Kingdom of Heaven is apparently filled with “menial table servers”, according to the words of Jesus, “table servers” who understood their primary purpose in this life as seeing to the well-being, care, and comfort of others. It may sound to some like a “works-righteousness” proposition, but how can faith be separated from our works when our works are done not to earn points for ourselves but are done instead as “an outward sign of an inward grace”? How can works to serve the One who came to serve be anything less than an expression of complete abandon of self and total trust in His Divine Providence?

The nature of our own commitment to Christ must be one of “radical discipleship”, as was expressed earlier. Because Jesus was nothing if not “radical” Himself. How else to describe the Passion of the Christ for no reason other than Love?

In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. Amen.

No comments: