This is what I preached last Sunday, Oct. 21, at St. Timothy Lutheran Church. The gospel text was Mark 10:35-45.
We need to go back a few verses to get the full impact of James’ and John’s request. Jesus said to the disciples, ”… 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; 34they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again” (vv. 33-34). This is Jesus’ third announcement of his approaching crucifixion, which ends at v. 34. Then we get to this Sunday’s gospel, beginning with verse 35 and the sons of Zebedee’s desire.
We could call the first scene in today’s gospel “Be careful what you wish for.” James and John are among the inner circle of the disciples, along with Peter. They have had experiences with Jesus that the other 9 have not. James and John witnessed the glory of Jesus’ transfiguration, revealing glimpses of Jesus’ ultimate glory.
James and John want to position themselves for the upcoming regime change. When Jesus comes to power, they’ll have power. That’s the way the world worked. It wasn’t a matter of what you knew but who you knew. Jesus calls them “sons of thunder,” so apt for these two hot-headed, zealous disciples, who earlier asked Jesus to rain down heavenly fire on a Samaritan village that refused hospitality to Jesus. Here they approach Jesus with more of a demand than a request. “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Those of us who are parents have heard such requests and how do we respond? “It depends.”
But given what Jesus has just revealed about his approaching suffering and death, wouldn’t we be tempted to react with something like, “You’ve got to be kidding! Did you even hear what I just said? I am talking about suffering and all you can think about is future glory? Don’t you get it yet?”
Thankfully, Jesus is not us, and his response was, “What is it you want me to do for you?” Still not answering their request, Jesus asks, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”
James and John truly did not know what they were asking for. It was a matter of “Be careful what you wish for.” The cup and baptism they were quick to say they would participate in are none other than the suffering of following the way of Jesus, that leads to the cross and death. And in the scenario of the crucifixion, who were on Jesus’ right and left? Two criminals who were crucified. James and John certainly weren’t thinking in those terms.
The two brothers didn’t get it all wrong though. They believed Jesus would prevail in the end. Though they didn’t really understand what resurrection meant, they trusted him. Given what they’d seen, heard and experienced, they couldn’t conceive of a meaningful future without their Teacher. As imperfect as they may have been, their personal hopes and dreams were rooted in Jesus.
James and John were ambitious for the reign of God. They expected and wanted Jesus to be glorified. They expected and wanted the world’s wrongs to be righted. They were not complacent but actively longed for Jesus’ kingdom to arrive in all its glory and remake the world.
Jesus doesn’t criticize or correct the brothers’ desires but rather redirects them. He offers them a radically different definition of greatness. James and John got some things right, but they got a key thing wrong. What they fail to understand is that service is not a means to an end of glory. Service is the end. Service is abundance. Service is power. Service is glory.
James suffered a martyr’s death at the hands of Herod Agrippa according to the Book of Acts. John outlived his brother but likely died for his faith as well.
When the rest of the disciples heard what James and John did, they are outraged. Theirs is not righteous indignation. Are they angry because they wanted these positions for themselves? Are they just as bad as James and John? The bottom line is seeking power is divisive for a community.
During Jesus’ life and passion, the disciples didn’t get it. One of the inner circle, Peter, denied he even knew Jesus while the others deserted him.
Ultimately, after the resurrection and ascension, the disciples got their act together and it wasn’t their own doing. After the power of the Holy Spirit was poured out on them, they became bold, powerful witnesses for their Lord.
If God could take these uneducated, lower class, rarely got it, disciples and turn them into a powerful force of change, can you imagine what he could possibly do with us?
All who follow the crucified Lord, the way of the cross die. Many early followers of Jesus gave their lives for their faith. They drank the cup and were baptized in suffering. However, only Jesus’ death could redeem and ransom us. We may not physically die for the faith, but if we are Christians, we will die in other ways. We may have to die to the deathlike grip that prosperity has on us. We may have to die to our preoccupation with pleasure and the self-centered life proclaimed in advertising.
Jesus gift of new life begins to realign our allegiances. With James and John and disciples of every time and place, we see the ways of the world leading to a dead end. Our old loyalties to family, friends and nation now get broadened into loyalty to God, together with all who bear God’s image.
Jesus ransoms us from the future we think we want, from the glory we misunderstand, from the life we’ve been urged to strive after but really isn’t abundant life, from viewing competitors and companions and fellow children of God as threats.
In our day that embraces superheroes—Superman, Supergirl, the Flash and many others; we see God in the image of the superhero. Why should we bother getting involved in the world’s sorrows ourselves if God can wave his magic wand and fix everything while we wine and dine at God’s heavenly banquet? Why should we creatively respond to longings for justice, why call each other out to engage in the slow, risky work of renewing creation, when “glory” is about grabbing the fanciest seats in the heavenly throne room? Why contemplate a Jesus who glories in serving his guests-washing their feet—when we can contemplate a combination of Superman and Santa Claus instead?
Jesus has turned the paradigm of service upside down. “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 Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (vv. 43-45). Salvation is about being last, not first; salvation is putting others before ourselves in love; bearing each others’ burdens and infirmities; salvation is our life together in Christ made real in our service to our neighbor. Salvation is about relationship: relationship with God, relationship with each other and our relationship with our community. The real problem we have is when we look at Jesus’ power, look away from the cross and hustle up to him with a self-serving request.
In a few moments, we will eat and drink together of the body and blood of our Savior, reminding us of our relationship with God and one another. This is our family meal that nourishes us, enabling us to be and do all that our Lord desires.
The future promise of God’s glory is realized in us, the living body of Christ. We are a cruciform people, meaning we are formed by the cross of Christ. Jesus spoke of the way of the cross as the way of discipleship, a way of living into the promise of salvation. God keeps coming to us in love, even when we misunderstand it, even and especially when we have a hard time believing it.
Justin Lind-Ayers, Currents in Theology and Mission, 45:4 (October 2018)
David Lose, davidlose.net
Chris Repp, crossings.org
Debie Thomas, journeywithjesus.net