This morning’s scripture from Mark is one that speaks to our age and to our circumstances certainly as much as it spoke to the age in which it was written. Two of the disciples, John and James, defined as the Sons of Zebedee vie for a prestigious position of respect and authority when Christ comes into his glory one at the right hand and the other, at the left hand of Christ. Once again, Christ must correct the misconception of the kingdom of God and what this kingdom will be like. Once again, Christ is faced with the sadness that his message given repeatedly to his disciples isn’t getting through; these men who ought to be catching on by now have missed the point yet again. Christ’s frustration with them is apparent and he turns to them to question them about the discussion challenging them to give thought to what they are truly asking, knowing full well, they are not up to the hardships of discipleship. In fact, all twelve of the disciples have missed the point; if it weren’t so sad, it would actually be a bit comical.
Biblical commentator Charles Campbell notes: “On one level this text seems to be yet another example of the disciples – and not just James and John – as the fumbling, bumbling Keystone Kops who simply cannot get anything right. Jesus has just predicated his passion for the third time. But James and John immediately request the places of honor when Jesus enters his glory…” One on the right; one on the left, we’re told. We know that Christ comes into his glory when he is crucified. We know the cross is a necessary means by which redemption, healing and life becomes possible and so, shouldn’t the disciple be aware of this also? Shouldn’t they know too?
Christ has told them not once, but three times in this gospel alone that “the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes and they will condemn him to death.” Mark’s gospel has Christ telling the disciples directly he will be turned over to the Gentiles and will suffer the humiliation of being mocked, spit upon and then killed, killed on that cross with a criminal crucified with him on his right hand and criminal crucified on his left hand the very same positions James and John request thought not with the same intent. What are James and John asking for? Do they even know what it will take for Christ to come “into his glory”? Do they understand? No, they don’t, but maybe, well, maybe we don’t either. We think we do but how comfortable are we to walk in the way of Christ? How comfortable are we to bear the crosses given to us, to give our own lives for some one else and help shoulder their burdens too? How comfortable are we to be servant to all as Christ was made servant, slave for us, for our lives? Perhaps that was John and James’ error in judgment. They had Jesus’ ear, his attention, a position among his chosen twelve; they wanted the accolades that go with choosing a winner. Christ was plainly telling them his way was not what they imagined it should be. His life wouldn’t end on a throne. His mission wouldn’t lead to hidden material treasure. His plan and purpose wouldn’t bring victory over a nation’s oppressors. His way wouldn’t lead to crowns but rather to thorns. Christ was leading by example: his way was to teach his disciples, all who were determined to follow him; all who followed him then and all who choose to follow him now to servant-hood, to selfless giving…to the cross, to death and only then, only, only then would there be new life.
John and James really can’t be faulted for their assumptions or their presumptions. Preacher Caroline Westerhoff explains it with these words,
“In our day, as in the day of the twelve, what counts is being up front, applauded, recognized, cheered, leading the league, head of the class, beating out all competitors by a mile. So what the price of stress? So what the damage to relationships? So what our loss of integrity? Back to our promises; Continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? Ok, but what do they really have to do with anything that matters?”
But, it must matter. Christ was willing to die for those promises and for our lives. Christ, who was willing to lay it all on the line for those willing to follow him. Christ was willing to deal with the ignorance, the foolishness of his disciples who just couldn’t get the point, and he is still willing today…we still don’t get it. We don’t want to called servants. We want to be leaders, to get ahead and be top of the heap. Canon Westerhoff responds to our inclinations this way: “We hurry on past Jesus’ words about suffering and serving, not because they are obvious or naïve but because they indict and offend us. They startle us and whirl us around. We are afraid they just might be true. So we go back to fighting among ourselves for position, spinning futilely on our merry-go-rounds, unwilling to make them stop, unable to get off.” I hate to admit it but I think she might be right. And she may also be right…Christ can quickly put us in our places.
Back in seminary, at the end of my first year, I went to the annual gathering in which graduating students and others were presented with various merit and grade awards. Kathy, one of the students was called up to receive a $100.00 prize award for being the top grade point average achiever in the school that year. The gathered group of students and professors gave her a rousing show of support, standing and clapping vigorously. At that very moment, I made a commitment to myself to be that award winning, top achieving student in the coming year and I was, three years running. But the year I graduated, I needed a church appointment in Maine, full time with a parsonage. There were none. I was top a student three years running but I couldn’t get a job and as one fellow student/minister said, “Grades don’t mean much when you don’t have any experience Ricki.” She was right, of course. I had focused on the wrong priority. I hadn’t taken my learning into the field. While attending school, I should have served a church.
It really is all about serving as Christ served us. We take membership vows that remind us to live out our ministry through the United Methodist church we join by offering our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service and our witness, essentially, our lives. That fourth promise…service…may seem a bit unglamorous but Christ believed it was essential and he hoped that his life, his teachings, his own intentional servant role among his disciples would guide them to accept their role and purpose to be servants to one another. With Christ’s help and by God’s grace, we’ll get it yet…just as John and James did….just as the other disciples caught on. They finally figured it out. With God’s help, we will too. Some of you already have. Amen.