One of my favorite lines in theater (and I really don’t pretend to know that many) is from Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” set in 1809. The characters are discussing a new thing, algorithms, and how one day there would be machines that could ingest them and spew forth calculations that you could see on a screen. Valentine, who is discoursing on this, exclaims with joy: “The future is disorder. A door like this has cracked open five or six times since we got up on our hind legs. It’s the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.”
Jesus must have been like Valentine—exuberant in seeing what was possible: a world where the accepted, supposedly ontologically-anchored verities of life were to be upended and turned upside-down: the powerful over the weak, the rich over the poor, the healthy over the sick, the nation over the refugee, men over women. This, he said, shall not be the case among you. The first shall be last, and the last first. There shall no longer be any lording it over anyone, no pulling rank; no preeminence of position. The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve. And to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10).
This was not a matter of ideology; it was an insight into the fact that sin may rule the world, but that this was not the will of the Father. Rather than a reign of sin, Jesus imagined a reign of grace, what he called the “kingdom.” Rather than feeling freed by this vision, though, we are told that the disciples were afraid. Of course, they feared for his life. But at a deeper level, they were afraid to embrace where Jesus’s new way of seeing things would lead.
This vision of Jesus was fueled by the power of the Resurrection, the creative love of God which had wrought the universe in the first place—a universe that had been rent awry by the mystery of the Fall, the result of which was a disordering of everything that God had originally intended. As Genesis would have it, the power disorders in our world are the result of Adam’s sin, not something the Creator originally intended. Jesus gave his life to “ransom” people from the various imprisonments of sin’s reign, to free people from the disordered ways of life, the distortions of power, that humans had built on the foundations of sin (Mark 10).
Sadly, our own Christian tradition has sometimes lost sight of this fundamental insight. This is why it is so difficult for some of us to hear, as we did today from Rome, an unimaginative reiteration of recent church teaching prohibiting the ordination of women. Perhaps it is a fear like that of the disciples—a fear of the end of what we think to be ontologically-anchored forever. Of course, such Roman pronouncements could be part of a long-range strategy regarding other matters, such as the re-introduction of women deacons. We might hope so. But would it not be better if, on some matters, the officers of the church were to keep a reverent silence, and assume a posture of not-knowing what God has in store? I know that there are many real pressures on them from very conservative people to do otherwise.
But still. Would it not be better if we all could assume the humility to which Jesus calls his disciples, and that we help move one another toward his dream of the kingdom—where what we think we know to be true turns out to be wrong? The Gospel leads us to this kind of humble questioning about many things. Why, then, are we afraid to go there?