TEXTS: Mark 9:30-37 and James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Those of you who are of Wesleyan heritage may be familiar with something called the “Covenant Prayer.” In Methodist congregations—or, at least, in many of them—it is recited every time the Sacrament of Communion is celebrated. It goes like this:
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
(as used in the Book of Offices of the British Methodist Church, 1936)
The Covenant Prayer was adapted by John Wesley from a similar prayer of the English Puritans, and—like so much of what Wesley did and wrote—it exhibits his radical, no-holds-barred attitude towards Christian discipleship.
For Wesley, as for so many of our ancestors in the faith, there could be no compromise with anything that might compete with Christ for our allegiance. And in this prayer, he is seeking to bring under control the most insidious enemy of all—the enemy within:
“I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee …” and so on.
It’s really pretty awesome, isn’t it? And like every truly powerful liturgical prayer, it not only cries out to God, but also resonates with our human spirits, calling us once again to turn to Christ and allow him to be Lord of our lives.
The earliest and simplest Christian confession of faith was simply this: “Jesus is Lord!”
Personally, I think that’s still the best one. If you can say, “Jesus is Lord”—and mean it … Well, it seems to me that very little else needs to be spelled out about your faith. Of course, “Jesus is Lord” remains the most challenging confession to live up to.
In the church’s first couple of centuries, the most radical implication of that confession—“Jesus is Lord’’—was that Caesar was not Lord. Now, the early Christians lived under an authoritarian regime that demanded absolute allegiance to the emperor; and so, declaring that Jesus was one’s Lord … well, that amounted to treason. It was an affront to the claims of the emperor.
For us, of course, the emphasis falls differently. We Canadians have one of the best governments on earth—one of the least corrupt, one of the most humane. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than most.
Even so, anyone who jumped up and down, shouting, “Justin Trudeau is Lord” would be considered a raving lunatic!
For us, the most radical implication of confessing “Jesus is Lord” is that we are giving him control of our lives. To confess Jesus as Lord is to relinquish your claims of autonomy.
You are no longer the one who determines how your life will be lived; Jesus is!
You are no longer the one who sets the standards by which your life will be measured; Jesus is!
Let’s face it: we live in a society where individualism and personal choice are the true gods of the vast majority of people.
However, if we confess Jesus as Lord, we will be naming individualism and personal choice as idols! We will refuse to bow down to them and worship them.
In the ninth chapter of Mark, Jesus’ disciples show themselves to be just as susceptible as we are to letting their desires and ambitions get the better of them.
Jesus has just told them how much he shall have to endure for the sake of his calling and identity: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him …” (Mark 9:31).
But they don’t get it. Earlier in Mark—after Peter identified him as the Messiah—Jesus began teaching his disciples about what that meant. Just as in chapter nine, he told them he would undergo great suffering. He said the religious authorities would reject him. He said he was going to be killed. And then he said: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).
Clearly, Jesus is not thinking that the path of Messiahship is a way of acclamation and triumph. He is clearly not thinking that he is about to be recognized as the greatest, as the number one Lord of the Universe.
No. He is facing betrayal and rejection and death—and he knows it.
The disciples, however, just can’t wrap their heads around that. And—as if to prove just how completely they have missed the point—on the way to Capernaum, they begin trying to one-up each other.
They all want to stake their claim as the greatest, the primary disciple. Each of them has his résumé out, ready to prove that he has stood out from the pack as an exemplary disciple.
I can imagine Jesus shaking his head in dismay when he realizes what they’re arguing about. Certainly, he knows that—if what they really want is to be the greatest—then they are not going to be marching alongside him when he is led to the cross.
So, Jesus takes them to task: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all (Mark 9:35).”
Whoever wants to be the greatest needs to forget about winning a gold medal … and instead, find satisfaction in cleaning up the stadium after everyone else has gone home.
Then he places a small child in front of them and says, “If you’d fawn over a gold-medalist and ignore this child, then you haven’t got a clue about greatness.
“But, if you welcome a little child like this one as though he were the greatest—and if you’d consider it an honour to be pictured in the paper hugging this unknown kid … well, then you’re on the right track. When that comes naturally to you, then you really will be welcoming me and the One who sent me.”
“Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt … Let me be … exalted for thee or brought low for thee.”
The apostle James, in his letter, is even more forthright about this. He flatly states that selfish ambition is a hindrance to true greatness.
He says it is the cause of all the quarrels and wars that tear people apart and destroy their lives. He says that whenever we try to get “one up” on others—try to get to the front of the pack—we prove that our motives do not come from God, but from the devil himself.
As James put it, “Where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind” (James 3:16).
That’s not to say that ambition in itself is inherently evil. In First Corinthians 9:24, the apostle Paul invokes the image of the Olympic Games when he exhorts us to strive towards the goal.
He says: “Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize?”
And then his advice is: “Run in such a way that you may win it.”
Don’t throw the race. Run to win. Directed properly, ambition can be a good thing. The problem is that ambition can become a destructive thing: “I will achieve my goals no matter what—no matter who I have to destroy in the process.”
Ambition easily becomes something that does not merely aspire to worthy goals. No. Ambition wants to define its own goals. And unbridled ambition refuses to submit to the wisdom of God—or of anyone else—in pursuit of those goals.
Now, I don’t begrudge the gold-medal winners anything. They’ve exercised extreme discipline and achieved extraordinary things. Good on them!
But if they typify the sort of greatness to which most of us aspire, then I think we’re in big trouble.
Standing on the podium—arms upraised, basking in the adulation of the crowd—is not supposed to be the measure of greatness for the Christian.
Perhaps a better model of greatness would be the late-night taxi driver, who—after being abused and spat on by six drunken customers in a row—is still able to treat the next one with respect and a welcoming smile.
No one will hang a medal on him for that, and you won’t see him standing next to the prime minister in a newspaper photograph. Even so, I think that such a person has far more to teach us about greatness than all the celebrities and record holders put together.
Whenever we come to the Communion table, we remember our greatest hero: the one who was betrayed and despised and rejected and dishonoured and killed for our sakes.
We remember that, in Jesus, we have encountered the love that sets us free. And—embraced by Christ’s brokenness—we remember ourselves as his body upon the earth: still being broken, still offering ourselves for the life of the world.
Embraced by Christ’s brokenness, we acknowledge once again that—if we stray too far from the Lord’s side—our pretensions to greatness will reassert themselves—along with our propensity for walking over others. Forgetting who we belong to, we will imagine ourselves to be captains of our own destiny.
Friends, those tendencies are the greatest obstacles to our discipleship.
As the apostle James exhorts us, let us submit ourselves to God; let us allow God’s will to have its way with us. Let us draw near to God, and—once again—let us offer ourselves completely to Christ, who has offered himself completely to us.
“I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt … I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.”