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October 21, 2012
In his book, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, Peter Gomes writes of an occasion when he attended worship in the parish church of Windsor Great Park, a service also attended by Queen Elizabeth II and Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. Gomes was invited to the Queen Mother’s residence following the service. During their conversation, she remarked about that morning’s sermon: “I do like a bit of good news on Sunday, don’t you?”
Don’t we all? Don’t we come here to be reminded again that we are safe in the care of a compassionate God who knows and loves each of us with an ardor and a consistency beyond description? To be encouraged again in our discipleship, to be strengthened on our journey, a journey which carries us ever onward toward the day when we will meet Jesus in his glory, the day when every tear will be dried, when the lion will lie down with the lamb, and war and sorrow shall be no more?
I certainly come for that. I like — I depend on the good news of the grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit. So I’m determined to find that good news here in this passage that seems on first glance to have more to do with rank ambition, misunderstanding, resentment and paradox than with encouragement and reassurance.
In the passage preceding the verses we’ve read today, Jesus takes the Twelve disciples apart from the crowd and provides them with a graphic description of what awaits him in Jerusalem: he will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, condemned to death, mocked, spit upon, flogged and killed, rising again after three days.
This is the third time in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus has foretold his coming Passion. Each time, the disciples respond with an astonishing, really an impressive, lack of comprehension. They don’t seem to hear what Jesus is saying about his fate, their fates, the nature of leadership, or the nature of the Kingdom Jesus proclaims and embodies. Time after time, the disciples miss the message.
This third time, James and John miss it pretty spectacularly. They come to Jesus. Not to talk about this troubling statement he keeps making. Not to ask if there’s some way they can help Jesus either avoid or endure this betrayal, condemnation and death. Instead, they submit an open-ended request. “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” That’s a bold statement. Of course, they’re members of the inmost section of the inner circle, the disciples who, along with Peter, get named most often in the Gospels. Just a few episodes earlier in Mark’s account, they were the ones picked for a special field trip up the mountain where they saw Jesus transfigured into splendor as he stood next to Moses and Elijah. So it’s not entirely surprising that they’re looking for more special treatment.
Jesus asks for details, and it turns out they’ve been doing some career planning. One scholar describes the brothers as “the kind who tend to be a step or two ahead of others. Futurists. Intuitionists. Co-chairs of the long-range planning committee.” (Avram, p. 101) And their vision of the future is bright: “Allow one of us to sit on your right and the other on your left when you enter your glory.”
Here’s what we want Jesus. We think your ultimate destination is a desirable one, and we’d like to be your close companions in that place just as we have been in this one. We’re convinced you’re headed for a position of power, and we feel eminently qualified to share that power.
Allow us to sit beside you when you enter your glory.
When you enter your glory. James and John, in essence, want to take the Upper Deck to Glory Land, avoiding the confusing exits and difficult stops between here and there. If Jesus feels compelled to slog his way through the muckiness of betrayal, suffering and death, they’ll respect his choice, but they’ve got their eyes on the prize. They’ll meet up with Jesus when he’s finished with all that unpleasantness. And really it’s an excellent plan. They’ll arrive at his glory well-rested, in good health, equipped to occupy those premier positions. Ready to serve the kingdom with energy, intelligence, imagination and love.
Jesus doesn’t criticize their ambition. He doesn’t deny his own coming glory, and he seems to acknowledge that the people he knows here will be with him there. He does mention that he isn’t in charge of the seating chart for the messianic banquet. But, the problem isn’t where James and John want to end up. The problem is that they don’t seem to have heard clearly – or at all — that the route to glory – the kind of glory Jesus will bring – is precisely through the muck and the mire, the suffering and sorrow. The only vehicle available to carry James and John to the desirable destination they aspire to is the same vehicle that will carry Jesus there — a compassion born of bottomless love, the sort of selfless compassion which will make them vulnerable to the cruelties and tyrannies of a world which rewards coercion over compassion.
Can you drink the cup? Can you receive the baptism?
These are powerful symbols. There are references to “the cup” throughout the Bible – a cup which can hold destiny, blessing, judgment, sorrow. The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup (Ps. 16:5); my cup overflows (Ps. 23:5c); For thus the Lord, the God of Israel said to me: Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath (Jer. 25:15). In Gethsemane, Jesus prays, Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want but what you want.
Our vocabulary of baptism speaks of dying – we die to sin, we die to ourselves, we die to this world – all so we can be raised again in Christ, but first we die. Paul writes to the Romans, Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death; and to the Colossians: when you were buried with [Christ] in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. There is no short-cut to glory, no painless, casual secret passage to the messianic banquet – for Jesus or for us.
Can you drink the cup? Can you receive the baptism?
These symbols bring us into the presence of Christ at those moments of his life when he is simultaneously most vulnerable and most powerful. In each case, his power is found in his vulnerability, in his openness to the hurts and hopes of the world, his obedience to the will of Abba, Father — the God who creates in love and redeems in compassion. In his response to James and John, Jesus affirms the cup he drinks and the baptism he receives as the means of fellowship with him and as the way to follow him. (Smart, Interpretation, p. 193)
Of course, James and John weren’t the only followers hoping to find themselves with Jesus in glory. We’re not surprised when Mark tells us that the other ten were less than delighted to learn of the brothers’ secret request. Jesus completely disregards such intra-disciple squabbling and points them instead toward a larger point about power and leadership. His teaching here follows a pattern found in all three of Mark’s episodes where Jesus tells of his coming betrayal, death and resurrection. Following each prediction, Jesus describes discipleship in paradoxical terms. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. Whoever wants to be first must be last of all. Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant; and whoever wants to be first among you will be the slave of all.
In each of these pronouncements, Jesus disrupts expectations, upends familiar systems and structures, rejects the way the world works in favor of the way the Kingdom comes. The path to glory is a lowly one, traveled in service to others rather than in control over them.
The writer and mystic Evelyn Underhill says of this sort of servanthood: [God’s] call is very simple, but so very exacting. The response is equally clear. ‘Send me’ doesn’t exactly mean, ‘I’m going that way anyhow. Is there anything I can do for you?’ It means the delicate balance between freedom and surrender, that self-oblivious zest which is the salt of the Christian: will and grace acting together on ever higher levels of cooperation. (Avram, p. 18)
Jesus asks James and John if they can drink the cup, receive the baptism. Can they travel to Jesus’ glory by the lowly, loving way that Jesus himself follows?
He asks each of us the same question. Can we drink the cup of humble service? Receive the baptism of opening our hearts, our minds, our hands and our wealth to the needs of God’s beloved children? Can we give away our lives in self-oblivious zest? The cup, the baptism, the service – these have different details for each of us, according to our gifts and circumstances. But while the details may differ, the heart remains the same – we lose our lives in the world that we may find our life in Jesus Christ, we trade competition for cooperation, we surrender ambition to interdependence and relationship.
Can we drink the cup? Can we receive the baptism?
With the help of our Lord Jesus Christ, we can.