Open the Gates of Holiness

Open the Gates of Holiness

Twenty-Ninth Sunday of the Year. fr Richard Ounsworth explains the basis of Christian mission.

Today is World Mission Day. There are many in our world today who are profoundly suspicious of Christian missions, seeing them as a form of colonialism: imposing Christian ideals of service and humility ties up all too neatly with the subjugation, oppression and enslavement of peoples which is, as much today as in past centuries, all too common.

We can only overcome this suspicion if we begin by insisting that, whether in central Africa, the jungles of Latin America, the shanty towns of south east Asia or the English suburbs, if people are to receive the Christian Gospel with the rejoicing it deserves, they need be told first the good news that we are called and destined to share in the glory of Christ, seated at the right hand of the Father. We need to be told what our second reading tells us today: let us with confidence draw near the throne of grace.

But am I not contradicting today’s Gospel? Doesn’t Jesus tell James and John that they are wrong to want glory rather than servitude? I suggest that it is not so.

A common reading of this Gospel is that James and John have heard all three of Jesus’s predictions of his own passion and yet still they fail to understand. They still see Jesus in nationalistic terms, as a military leader who will overthrow the Romans; they seek earthly glory, not heavenly. This is a story of their failure to grasp that Jesus is the Suffering Messiah.

But I am not sure that’s the really the point, at least not the first point. It is not they but the other ten disciples who are rebuked, and that’s for getting angry with the sons of Zebedee. Yes, they have heard all three passion predictions … but they (unlike most of the other disciples) have also seen the transfiguration. They have beheld Jesus in the glory of his divinity, the transformation of his human flesh into a clear image of the glory of God.

We know the reaction of Peter to this extraordinary revelation: ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here… let me make three tents… but he did not know what he was saying, for they were terrified’. But today’s passage from the next chapter of Mark’s Gospel tells us James and John’s reaction: they have seen Jesus in his glory, and they want what he’s having.

I think they are right to want it. The Word of God humbled himself, stooped down to us in mercy, shared in our weakness and neediness, just for this: that we might be wrapped in light as in a robe, transferred from the kingdom of darkness into his marvellous light. How dare we long for this? We should ask rather, how dare we not? When Jesus Christ our great High Priest has, through his flesh and blood, opened for us the way into the heavenly court, then let us indeed approach with full confidence.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that James and John don’t have a lesson to learn about how we enter into glory. After all, it is at the moment of Christ’s death that the veil is torn in two and the blood and water are poured out: the blood that fills the chalice we must drink, the water in which we must be baptised, so that we too can make our journey to the glory of heaven.

This is what gives us our lesson in the meaning of service and Lordship. It is when Christ completes his journey into our humanity by making a perfect offering of his life that he shows himself to be Lord of Glory. By the service of his perfect sacrifice on the cross, the true servant gives us the power to be ourselves, to have what is ours and to be what we are. In his death, Jesus shows that true service doesn’t deprive people of anything–not the servant, not the served–but sets them free. Jesus’s life and death of perfect service are simply a life and death of perfect humanity, and in them we are all perfected, transfigured and glorified. And I think it’s OK for us to want that.

Readings: Isaiah 53:10-11|Hebrews 4:14-16|Mark 10:35-45

fr Richard Joseph Ounsworth is resident at Holy Cross Priory, Leicester, teaches scripture for Blackfriars, Oxford, and is the Editor of Torch.