In Matthew’s gospel, it is the mother of James and John who makes the request of Jesus that her sons be seated at his left and his right when he comes into his glory. It’s the kind of thing you can imagine a mother doing, advocating for her sons.
But even in Matthew, as it does here in Mark, this request comes right after the third time that Jesus lets his disciples in on what lies ahead–”See,” Jesus says, right before this morning’s passage, “See we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”
So when James and John come forward and ask to speak with Jesus–you know, just you and us, Jesus- and say to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you,” we may be a little shocked at their boldness. And then when we hear what they want–”Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” it’s tempting to say, “Are you kidding? Did you just hear what he said (for the third time), what ‘glory’ awaits him?!”
To give James and John the benefit of the doubt, maybe they do get it, and are so scared and yet still trusting, that they’re looking for any security they can find. But my guess is that most of us react like the other disciples did, who, when they heard what the brothers had asked, were angry. Who do they think they are?
John Pilch, author of the series, The Cultural World of Jesus, explains the situation this way–
The group that Jesus gathered around himself is technically called a faction. Members of such a group each have a direct, important, and relatively strong relationship with the leader but very little knowledge of or relationship with each other.
In today’s story, James and John, two blood relatives, do something very normal and customary in this culture within factions. They jockey for a higher position of honor in the group and care nothing about the others. When Jesus receives his full measure of honor, these two brothers want a share in it by gaining the most prestigious positions next to him. In this culture, everything is always about honor.
(John Pilch, the Cultural World of Jesus, Year B, p. 151)
So, James and John are just acting out of what their culture has taught them about what is
important. Surely when Jesus “comes into his glory,” it will be the glory that their culture imagines–on a throne raised up, with his most trusted advisors sitting on his left and his right, and from there he will rule over the earth, just like Caesar.
But Jesus knows better. “You do not know what you are asking,” he says to them. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They answer without even thinking, it seems. “We are able.” That’s where the old hymn comes from–”Are ye able, said the Master, to be crucified with me? Yes, we are able, our spirits are free…” Really? I’d like to think I could answer, “I am able,” but I’m not so sure. “You do not know what you are asking,”Jesus says. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”
Mark’s community, some 30 years after Jesus’ death, knows that cup which Jesus drank was the cup assigned to him by God, to be poured out for the life of others. James and John say they are willing to drink that same cup. Mark’s community knows that to be baptized with Jesus is to be submerged in a death like his, as well as to be raised in a resurrection like his. That’s what many of them had already experienced. They might want to urge James and John to think twice before answering so glibly.
While he was Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, William Willimon lamented to a group of students that they attracted so few students in their services at Duke Chapel.
“Go easy on yourself,” said one of the students. “Duke is a very selective school with very bright students,” she said. (I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, bright but not all that humble.’) “I think most of them are smart enough to figure out,” she continued, “That if they gave their
lives to Christ, he would only make their lives more difficult. I think it’s amazing you get as many students to come to Jesus as you do.” (William Willimon, Day 1.org, 2009)
“Do you know what you are asking?” Jesus asked James and John. “Are you able to drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” “I think it’s amazing you get as many students to come to Jesus as you do.”
Really, when you think about it, isn’t it amazing that so many of us are here? Do we really know what we could be in for?
The late Dorothy Sayers wrote, “I believe it is a great mistake to present Christianity as something charming and popular with no offense….We cannot blink at the fact that gentle Jesus meek and mild was so stiff in his opinions and so inflammatory in his language that he was thrown out of church [well, the synagogue], stoned, hunted from place to place, and finally gibbeted as a firebrand and a public danger. Whatever his peace was, it was not the peace of an amiable indifference.” (inward/outward, Church of the Savior, 10/16/12)
Do we really know where the journey with Jesus may take us? “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you,” James and John said. That’s what a lot of us are seeking when we come to church. I’d like more convenient times; I’d like faster service; I’d like better or different or (fill in the blank) music; I’d like more comfortable seating; I’d like a more entertaining speaker; I’d like some return on my investment.
“You do not know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Are you able to drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” We may look around and say, “We need more members, or we’re going to die.” Just what are we inviting those potential new members to? ” “I think it’s amazing you get as many students [or as many people] to come to Jesus as you do.”
Robin Meyers, author and pastor of Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City, writes in his book, The Underground Church, “We have almost entirely forgotten who we and what we are–a strange, peculiar, and dangerous people.” (P. xiv.) Second Congregational Church–Strange? Peculiar? Dangerous? Or are we just hoping for the best seats?
Jesus called the disciples together after this little conversation and said to them,
You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Humanity came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
Not to be served, but to serve. “There is no smaller package in the world,” wrote the late
William Sloane Coffin, “than a person who is all wrapped up in him or herself.” It is important to take the time to “Know thyself,” as both Socrates and Jesus said. It is important to take the time to discern what our unique strengths and gifts are and to nurture and develop them. That is what Positive Psychology calls “self-concordant goals”–figure out what your strengths are and what your passions are, and then live as much as possible in the place where they overlap. It’s the same with an institution like the church–we should assess what our strengths and assets are, as well as where the passions of our members lie, and then live out of that intersection.
But we must remember, both as individuals and as an institution, that we are given those gifts and strengths, even those passions, for a purpose–to serve. To serve the God of Love and Light, to serve our neighbors, both here and around the world. It ought to require something of us. It ought to demand sacrifice.
During last Sunday’s CROP Walk, one of the young women from the Interact Club developed a blister on her foot. She finally took off her shoes, boots actually, and walked barefoot. As she was walking and chatting with Bruce, he was telling her about some of the people for whom we were walking, who would be receiving some of the funds we were raising. “Then,” the young woman said, “I’m actually walking barefoot in solidarity with them. Maybe next year,” she said, thinking about it further, “we should all walk barefoot.”
So many young people get it. They don’t trust a church that doesn’t ask anything of them, that doesn’t challenge them to dare something risky for an important cause, that doesn’t stand up to injustice, that is no different from any other social club. As that Duke student said, “I think most of them are smart enough to figure out that if they gave their lives to Christ, he would only make their lives more difficult.”
As Robin Meyers says, many people say they are “spiritual but not religious” because they do not trust the church as an institution.” (Ibid., p. 2) They do not trust an institution that claims to follow a single, homeless man that doesn’t house the homeless and feed the hungry, they do not trust an institution that claims to follow a man that was willing to give his life for others that doesn’t ask anything meaningful from them; let alone an institution that too often has betrayed the trust of the innocent and vulnerable, that has excluded and condemned, rather than reached out and been radically hospitable.
People thought Jesus was crazy, anddangerous. That’s the last thing most of us want others to think of us. We, like James and John, have learned the lessons of our culture well. But James and John, along with the other early followers of Jesus, did learn that Jesus was actually teaching them very different lessons, of a very different culture, the culture of the reign of God, very different from the culture of the Empire. And so they were, indeed, “strange, peculiar, and dangerous,” so filled with the presence of this rabbi and the God he taught them about, that they were fearless, and there’s nothing more dangerous than someone’s who’s fearless.
So why should anyone join us? If it’s so strange, so peculiar, so dangerous, what’s the “good news”? We’ve got a number of good answers out on the board in 7 words or thereabouts. But, being a little more word-y, I might say that for all its sacrifice, its risk, its challenge, it’s the way to find out who you really are, who you were meant to be. It’s being part of a community of folks who are also searching for their true selves and who find that together they become much more than their individual parts. The way of Jesus gives us a rhythm to our weeks and year, a certain structure to our lives in the midst of an often chaotic and crazy calendar where the days run into each other and we never seem to be able to do or be enough. We are reminded here that we are “enough.” We connect in this community with people of all different ages and stages, and we can be open about and even celebrate all those ages and stages. We celebrate the birth of a baby, a teenager’s accomplishment, two people committing their lives to each other, an honor bestowed upon one of our members by the wider community. We can even “celebrate” death, al-though that celebration often includes tears and sorrow shared together. But we know that even death is but one stage–and not the last– on our journey with God.
So, if we’re perfectly honest, it is amazing that so many of us are here, given who it is we say we are following and the places he led his followers. Robin Meyers, again, issues the invitation to the “underground church,” one which “reclaims the subversive way of Jesus.” It’s the church “where there is no acceptable alternative to hope, no substitute for joy, and no excuse not to offer the same unconditional love to others that has been so freely lavished on us.”
May we be part of that church and follow the subversive way of Jesus. Amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark