The 84th Commencement Service of Near East School of Theology took place on Saturday, June 18. The speaker was Preacher Najla Kassab, Director of Christian Education and of the Women's Desk for National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon.
by Preacher Najla Kassab
And James and John, the sons of Zeb'edee, came forward to him, and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." And he said to them, "What do you want me to do for you?" And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" And they said to him, "We are able." And Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared." And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. And Jesus called them to him and said to them, "You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must beslave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (RSV)
In the Final exam of the graduating class of Nurses, the students were surprised with a question in the Exam. The question stated, ”What is the full name of the person who cleans your room at the Nursing school". For the first glance the students thought it was a joke and many people thought that the professor is funny, till one of the students called out, “Teacher is the last question graded? Is it part of the Exam?" And the professor replied “Yes sure. Your future will not only rely on the information that you gained at the Nursing school but how you deal with people".
If this is true with the Nursing career what about serving the church. Your success is related to how you deal with people more than information.
Well do not understand me wrong especially after the many hours that you put in reading writing and studying, doing assignments and delving in these deep theological discussions and knowledge. I remember as a student at NEST when we decided as group of students to read the book “ The courage to be” by Paul Tillich . A book that was not assigned by professors but we chose to read it and sat in the coffee shop to discuss it. I remember that I read that book several times . We felt proud we were enhancing our knowledge, terminology and understanding. We were competing on who grasped the book well.
Do not understand me wrong, we come from a background that values knowledge and stresses the value of critical thinking and analyzing. We are proud of the academic level that you encountered at NEST but still your success will be related to how you deal with people. It is about people not information.
On the 5th of June last month a University in Lebanon announced to its Graduating students that if Your parents have a special position in society as a Mayor; Judge….please let us know to Provide you with VIP cards. (I looked to see if pastors were listed but they were not) My daughter who was part of the graduating class shared with me the reactions that the students expressed on social Media, about who is a VIP parent, is it the parent who worked hard to give their children education or is it only those who have gained status. Is this discrimination between students? Shall the protocol in the country be obeyed, or this is against equality that we talk about in Universities since the parents were attending as parents not as representatives of any institution. The whole country was involved, even the media was divided between those who thought that this was a wise decision and those who were against. In our prayer meeting in the Synod offices we were divided on this matter. Who is the real VIP, who deserves a VIP seat?
In the story in Mark 10 James and John came to Jesus with a request to grant one to sit on the right side and the other on the left side of Jesus in his glory. Despite the fact that their request could be seen differently by different people, some could see it as an organizational matter and others as an ambitious step by them, still no matter what the reasons were, no matter whether they asked for this for themselves or if their mother asked for it as in Mathew 20:21, their request relates to their understanding of who will be on the right and left side of Jesus. It seems that they were interested in having a VIP seat. Jesus tried to correct their perceptions. It seems that they were thinking of a VIP seat. Jesus posed a question to them allowing them to rethink what they were asking for:
You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" (verse 38)
If we reflect closely on the events of this story, we find that:
First: The request of the disciples happened on the road to Jerusalem, where Jesus was heading towards the cross. Jesus was hinting to his disciples what will happen to him,
“The Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him to the Gentiles; and they will mock him and spit upon him, and scourge him and kill him and after three days he will rise.” (33-34 )
The request of James and John was at a time of unrest and those who followed Jesus were afraid. That led the disciples to be confused about what Jesus was saying on the road, because things were mixed up to them. They believed that Jesus will be crowned king and therefore did not understand the meaning of glory that Jesus talked about. Had James and John understood what Jesus was saying they wouldn’t have asked for such a position. Who among us wants to sit on the left and right of a person going to the cross? The disciples were distracted on the way of ministry. Imagine, Jesus' mind was on the pain to come and the disciples' minds were on their personal status. I many times question myself whether we are in the same line of thought as Jesus. WE Many times think that we know…..
Second It is interesting to note Jesus' answer to them. He did not rebuke them but as usual, answered their question by another question. " Can you drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the same baptism? And the answer was we can (38-39). Jesus used here two Metaphors from the Jewish life: the metaphor of the cup and the baptism. When the king gave his guests the cup it was considered as a symbol of passing his experience to them. As if Jesus was asking them if they are ready to receive his experience and hold the cup from him. Or even to be immersed and baptized in pain with him and face hatred and death. So Jesus said to them, you do not know what you are asking for. To sit on the right and left of Jesus is to accept to hold the cup and be immersed in pain. And just at the end of the story we recognize that the journey of holding the cup started when the other disciples became angry with James and John for their personal request for VIP seat.
Jesus clarifies that to have VIP seat is to carry on with the experience that Jesus went through and even to serve and not be served. "Whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." v.44, 45
This is the model of VIP seat that Jesus was explaining to his disciples. Jesus shook the disciples' concept of power as gaining status; Power that is “Christ-like” has nothing to do with gaining status, but it is even the opposite. According to Jesus paradigm of power, to have power is to lose status. It is not only that you do not control people but even to serve the people and give your life for them. And when people are given a special position and status it is to be used for serving others.
Martin Luther King Jr. in his famous sermon "Drum Major Instinct" claims that in each and every one of us there is the instinct to lead the procession to be the drummer, who leads the group. Martin Luther stresses that we should not move fast to condemn James and John because in each and every one of us is an instinct of a drummer; a drummer who wants to lead and control. It is easy sometimes to point to others and forget our tendency to check our personal interests and intentions as individuals and communities.i
Martin Luther king calms our confusion about VIP seats to defend the fact that the problem is not in the VIP seat but rather when you are given a status a position how do you use it. Do you perceive yourself as a person who will serve or will be served? Do you yourself as gaining power or status, or rather as a person who uses your status, to give power for the powerless; to strengthen all those who are struggling, and to put in the right biblical words to carry the cup and be immersed in pain.
A few days ago as we had a retreat for the elders and pastors of the Synod, a pastor who serves in Aleppo talked about things that he did not learn at NEST. He said that they did not teach us how to provide cooking fuel to the people, how to know all about digging wells and providing drinking water to the people, how to climb a pick-up and distribute food. Sometimes ministry just opens new doors for using your talents, It is just the love of serving people that changes you; shapes you; and even surprises you.
I remember when I was at NEST I made an issue as a student as to why our work as women at NEST was to clean the tables after lunch when men had to sit on the front desk. Imagine that I was against limiting women to tables and food, and here I am now directing a Conference center that is so much related to feeding people and tables. I say this to explain when you love ministry you are changed, and many times you look at yourself and find you have changed.
Friends today you get your VIP seat. You are a Graduate from a known and Prestigious Seminary and you gain Status, and nothing is wrong with that. It is how you will use your status to serve the people that will decide if you will sit on the right side and the left side of Jesus.
You might get distracted on the way with different paradigms of power and status. Stay focused on Jesus' paradigm. Be a model for the world and do not succumb easily to worldly values . Be a light and trust that God will use you to change the world. The world needs you as serving leaders. Stay balanced between keeping up with your academic knowledge growth and spending time with people. And if you have to choose between the two choose the people.
For the women Graduating today. I say stay patient God has not finished with the church. Focusing on serving people will help you not to be distracted till the kingdom in Heaven be on earth.
Remember your success will be related to serving people.
One more question before you graduate, and it is graded. Do you know the full name of the person who cleaned your room at NEST?
To God be the Glory forever. Congratulations. Mabrouk.
i Martin Luther king JR and the Global freedom struggle “sermon the Drum Major instinct, 1968