22 PENTECOST, PROPER XXIV - B - 18 MARK 10. 35-45
Maybe they felt assured of their inheritance after Peter raised the question last week, “what about us?” and received the promise of Jesus of eternal life. However, Christ did not say that they had already obtained their reward, but only that those who had and will sacrifice all for his sake and the sake of the gospel would realize it now, and in the age to come.
No wonder the others became angry with them. Had James and John not heard what Jesus had said about the first being last and the last first? Obviously the answer is no. So, Christ puts it to them in another way “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be servant of all.”
What is simply amazing to me about this scene where James and John’s ambitious request comes forward is that it follows immediately after Jesus’ third prediction of his passion, which he gives in great detail. In each case, his disciples turn a deaf ear.
This time Jesus instructs them that the kingdom of God comes not through earthly power but through sacrificial love. Jesus sees himself as the central character in Isaiah’s prophecy contained in our first lesson. He is God’s anointed one, the messianic figure who suffers and dies for the sins of Israel and the world.
The disciples still don’t get it. They are having a hard time turning loose of their earthly ideas about God’s promised one and about what the coming kingdom of God will be like. James and John see Jesus’ messianic journey to Jerusalem as a march to glory - a glory in which they wish to sit on either side of him when he reigns as king.
But they don’t know what they are asking. The cross looms in the distance and Jesus knows his destiny as well as theirs. The cross is God’s way of standing worldly power and authority on its head. Isaiah would agree that the kingdom of God turns the world’s ideas of power and glory upside down and inside out.
There is no hint the disciples understand. Jesus uses the opportunity to teach all of them a lesson on humility and the on-going definition of discipleship. The meaning of which is not privilege but service. Jesus exemplifies service - giving his life as a ransom for many.
James and John’s quest for temporal power and glory are unbefitting a disciple and shows an earthly misunderstanding of the kingdom of God. Their quest also shows how slowly “the training of the twelve” had proceeded, or better yet, how slowly it was sinking in.
Contrast their request and Jesus’ response with last week’s gospel. You may recall a young man ran up to Jesus and wanted to know what he had to do to inherit the kingdom but was not prepared for the response Jesus gave. He considered the sacrifice too great, turned, and went his own way.
James and John want Jesus to do something for them and appear to be quite confident in their response to Jesus’ question. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They say “yes,” And Jesus tells them “you will.” But they don’t understand this either.
Jesus’ response shows the life of persecution and martyrdom they would lead after Pentecost. Christ calls his crucifixion a “cup” and his death a “baptism.” The cross is a cup because he drank it willingly (Heb. 12.2). His death is a baptism, for he was completely immersed in it, yet it cleansed the world (Rom. 6. 3-6).
Jesus shows clearly by his response that to obtain power and preeminence cups of bitterness must be drunk and baptisms must be undergone, and instead of lordship over men, there must be self-devotion to the service of others.
James and John may have said “yes” at the time, but we know that they were woefully unprepared to stand with Jesus in the garden when the time came for Christ to be arrested. They all ran everyman for himself. The reason James and John misunderstood Jesus is exactly the same reason why many subsequent thinkers down to our own day, are desperate to find a way of having Jesus without the cross as well; Easter without Good Friday.
History tells us that all of the disciples save one met a martyr’s death. For over three centuries following the Ascension of Jesus, those who called themselves Christians were persecuted by both Rome and the Jews. They drank the cup of bitterness and were baptized as He was baptized.
As modern day disciples, we may or may not be called on to witness to the death, but being a Christian is not an easy way. I fear there are more enemies of God than friends of God in the world we live in today. Neither is our own society Christian friendly. All of which makes it difficult to live the new life to which we have been called.
That is to say to follow Jesus means we will drink our own cups of bitterness and be immersed again and again in challenges to our faith. Life’s situations confront us, sometimes they are due to outside influences, other times because of personal decisions we make in response to them that test both our faith and our allegiance to Him who died and rose again.
James and John did not know what they were asking for. When Jesus sits in his glory, with one on his right hand and one on his left, it will be on the cross. The cross runs crosscurrent to the world and its values. The cross calls into question all human pride and glory. To follow Jesus is to walk in the way of the cross.
One of the underlying themes of Mark’s gospel is that of following Jesus. When we look at the picture he is drawing, we may, like the disciples, still misunderstand what God is up to. But the fact remains that Jesus went up to Jerusalem, turned the world’s values and power systems on their heads, and gave his life as a ransom for many.
If we want to receive what he has to offer, we have no choice but to follow and be prepared to live and to give witness to His example of sacrificial love. AMEN+