Scritpure readings: Mark 10:32-45, Job 38:1-7 (34-41)
“But Mommy, I want you to do whatever I want you do.” Lucas actually said these words to me earlier this week. I’d been explaining that I had to finish the dishes before getting him something he wanted. And in that refreshing way of young children, he voiced his frustration with the limits of his power.
Lucas turned five this week. Observing him, I’ve been learning that five is not an easy age. Five-year-olds are no longer babies. They’ve mastered lots of basic skills; they can tend to many of their basic needs. But they are not yet big kids, not really. They haven’t mastered the self-control necessary for getting along with other people. In this transitional and transformational time, one way Lucas deals with insecurity is by grasping for power over people and things in his life.
“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” When James and John sidle up to Jesus with these words on the road to Jerusalem, don’t they sound a bit like a precocious five-year-old trying to get a parent to pre-approve something they knows would normally be refused?[i] And at first glance, we might well accuse the Sons of Zebedee of childish behavior. This story seems like another of Mark’s examples of how the disciples just don’t get it. In Mark’s gospel, those who are closest to Jesus are always the least able to recognize or understand his mission as Messiah.
Speaking of that mission, Jesus has just made a third prediction of the events which will take place when they reach Jerusalem—the events of his passion, death, and resurrection. But the disturbing words are hardly out his mouth when the Sons of Zebedee make their audacious request. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” One commentator notes, “[Those] who sat at the right hand and at the left hand of the kings of the ancient near East were their chief advisers. It was equivalent to being Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense.”[ii] In making this request, we have to wonder, have James and John heard anything Jesus has just said? Given the straight-forward detail of Jesus’ words, if they are still operating from the dream that Jesus as Messiah will take Jerusalem from the Romans by force, they are extremely thickheaded.
But it’s likely this story is here before us with a deeper purpose than just making fun of the obtuse disciples. John Calvin saw in this narrative a “bright mirror of human vanity” which “shows that proper and holy zeal is often accompanied by ambition, or some other vice of the flesh, so that they who follow Christ have a different object in view from what they ought to have.” [iii] Thus it turns out, that when we laugh at these disciples who seem so dense, we are really laughing at ourselves. So I wonder, what “different object” is obscuring the disciples’ view of Jesus’ mission? The text tells us, “Those who followed were afraid;” could it be, in their ridiculous grasp for power, they are fueled less by “holy zeal” than they are by fear?
It certainly doesn’t take much looking around in our world where terrorism is daily news, where the economy is stagnant, where culture seems to be changing so quickly, we can scarcely imagine or predict a future, to see human beings in the clutches of fear grasping for greater power and control. We need look no further than the mainline church, of which ours is a part, historically influential in society but now facing the uncertainties of a pluralistic world after Christendom. In what ways have we sought to secure our institutions rather than risk the way of the cross?
Like my newly five-year-old, like anyone going through transition and transformation, James and John are caught between their holy longing to grow up into Christ’s stature, on the one hand, and the insecurity of a threatening future, on the other. What they—and what we—truly want so often is not greatness, but security.
Now, Jesus could have responded to James and John’s request with God’s first words to Job: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” But while God’s poetic speech to Job puts Job’s complaints into cosmic perspective, maybe the disciples simply aren’t ready for the big picture. So Jesus responds with sensitivity and ironic humor. “You do not know what you are asking,” he says, aware of their mistaken assumptions. But instead of pulling the rug out from under them, he asks them a serious question: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”
“We are able,” the two immediately answer, in their minds, a pledge of allegiance to the sovereign governor they hope he will become. We who know the rest of the story, how the “baptism” Jesus is referring to is death on a cross, and the “cup” he will drink is the fullness of human suffering, we who know that Jesus comes into “glory” in Mark when he is lifted up on a cross and crucified, with criminals on his left and his right, might want to laugh at the dark irony.
But Jesus doesn’t laugh. Instead he says to them, “You will drink the cup that I drink, and you will be baptized with the same baptism.”
Now, these words have often been read, in the history of Christian martyrdom, as a sort of comeuppance for their arrogance or as an ominous warning: “Be careful what you wish for, James and John, for you just might get your wish and be crucified.” But let us remember that Jesus is a gentle Lord who cares for James and John, a Master who sympathizes with us in our weakness. And if that’s true, we might hear something different in his words—not a threat, but a promise.[iv]
Maybe Jesus is actually saying something like this: “Yes, you will drink my cup and be baptized with my baptism, because you will not always be driven by your fears and your need for security. There road will not be smooth or easy, but you, my disciples, will grow into people who act out of love and not fear. You will come into the fullness of your calling, you will take up your cross and follow me, and you will be faithful to the end. I believe in you!”[v]
What an extraordinary promise that is, my friends, one I know to be true. We see it, not only with martyrs like James and John, or maybe Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Oscar Romero, but also with folks closer to home, folks in our own congregation, whose lives seem less dramatic, maybe, but are just as faithful. The lives of all of those disciples are testimony to the truth, that as we continue on the way with Jesus, we will grow into people for whom even death holds no fear. And when death holds no fear, there is no holding us back from acting in the loving power and freedom of God.
But it is also true that the way of Jesus does not avoid but takes us right through the places we fear most. It turns out that we find our surest security, not in grasping—for higher positions, bigger salaries, or stronger defenses—but in letting go. We become those for whom death holds no fear by dying—as Marcus Borg puts it, “dying to self as the center of its own concern” and “dying to the world as the center of security and identity.”[vi]
I believe that’s the substance of what Jesus tells us when he says, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Letting go of egocentric longings to be special, letting go of proving it to yourselves or others that you have it all together, letting go of any object which keeps you from focusing on the love of God in Jesus Christ and the neighbors with whom you are called to share it, letting go, and getting low, low enough to serve the least of these: This is how we grow into the greatness of true disciples, this is how we grow into the full stature of human beings created in the image of God.
Now, friends, let’s be clear on one more thing: dying to the world and dying to the self does not mean killing the self. Letting go and getting low does not mean thinking and acting as if we have no worth. To take up our cross is not to become doormats for the tramping feet of the world, but to stand, like Jesus, with and for all the stuck and suffering people who have not yet experienced God’s grace. We give ourselves as God’s children who have great worth.
That is the way Jesus Christ gives himself, a king’s ransom to free us from all the powers which seek to dominate and control, to free us for the true life of mutual self-giving. For in Jesus Christ, we have a God who, having created the vast universe, giving life to the tiny ant and the enormous blue whale, gets down so low as to be baptized among human beings as one of us, drinking the fullest measure of our cup of suffering, that in and through the fully human and fully divine One, we might truly become children of God, freed from every kind of fear to receive and share God’s life and love.
“You will drink the cup that I drink, and you will be baptized with my baptism,” Jesus promises us, and it is good news. Find your security in that baptism, and in this cup.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
[i] Charles L. Campbell, “Homiletical Perspective on Mark 10:35-45,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009: 189.
[iii] John Calvin, quoted from Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists by James J. Thompson in Feasting on the Word, 188.
[iv] Charles L. Campbell as above, 193.
[v] Charles L. Campbell as above, 193.
[vi] Marcus Borg, quoted from Jesus: A New Vision by http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/october-21-2012.html