James is direct: “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice” (Jas 3:16). A church that sets itself up as a community of power fails to participate in God’s wisdom.
Such a church will be without the fruits of peace, of friendship, and of mercy. Mercy in this passage has a specific meaning. It’s not just in contrast to justice. Mercy is the movement of the heart toward compassion, toward care for one’s brother and sister in Christ.
A church that is without mercy, compassion and solidarity does bear fruit. Rotten fruit. In such a jealous, ambitious community, there will be war. There will be violence. There will be sensual delight and desire.
The disciples, in the Gospel of Mark, want to establish a church based in selfish ambition. In Mark 8, Jesus had taught his disciples what it means to be a messiah, a great ruler and king — to give oneself away in love, even unto death. And he begins to teach them again: “‘The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death he will rise’” (Mk 9:31).
Often, in the Gospel of Mark, the disciples misunderstand. They don’t just misinterpret because they’re naïve or incapable of understanding. They can’t understand because they are sinners, suffering from selfish ambition. So, despite Jesus’ teaching about what it means to “rule,” they talk among themselves about who was the greatest! Who is as powerful as the king, Jesus!
We can imagine the conversation. Peter argues, “Well, I was the first one to profess Jesus as Messiah.” Andrew answers back, perhaps under his breath, “And then you were called Satan.” A community of power, of war, of desire and of sensual delight.
Jesus will have no part in this argument. He picks up a child in his arms, puts the child in the center of the room and proclaims: “‘Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me …” (Mk 9:37).
What a bitter passage for us to read right now in the American Church. With the release of the Pennsylvania report, there has been painful evidence that the child was not received. In the fighting back and forth between prelates, we see a war unfolding in the Church. In the sexual abuse of seminarians, we see the effects of a sensual delight turned into a function of power. We see disorder and every foul practice.
The Church must be renewed. Some of this renewal will involve changes in structures of governance, and happily so. But the renewal we most need is to place the little one, the child, the one without power, at our center.
Think about Christmas. On this feast, we celebrate that the ruler of the stars now gazes up at the stars with wonder. The Word, the very meaning of the universe, became flesh. He nurses upon the breast, grows hungry and cries.
This is the child who must be at the center of the Church. We don’t consecrate bishops, ordain priests or baptize Christians to create a hierarchy of order. A church full of ambition is a church without fruit. We baptize, we ordain and we consecrate so that we can order men and women alike to the wondrous mercy revealed in the Word made flesh.
As long as ecclesial politics is at the center of our imagination, rather than the crucified Lord, we will continue to bear the most bitter of fruit.
Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is managing director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.