James and John, what a pair of knuckleheads, huh? They took the long view and saw an awesome and glorious future up ahead, and decided they deserved a share in that awesome and glorious future. But if they had just been paying any attention, all this seems like the exact opposite of everything Jesus had been trying to tell them all along. Instead they selectively heard he would come into his glory, and they were not shy about asking for a share in it. But they were so far off the mark. Just before this passage in the gospel we read today, Jesus spoke a third time about how he would be rejected by the chief priests and elders, that he would be made to suffer and die, and on the third day he would rise. And seemingly oblivious to what he had just said, James and John figured this was the perfect moment to approach Jesus with their request. “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.” I picture Jesus rolling his eyes and exhaling a heavy sigh. Clearly those who were closest to him did not grasp who he really was and what he had come to accomplish. Instead they were vying for places of honor in the glare of spotlights and popular acclaim. And the rest of the apostles were furious at James and John, not likely because they were outraged for Jesus’ sake, but rather that they had not thought of it themselves first.
It is not surprising that in the gospel of Mark, Jesus’ closest companions happen to also be extremely dense. We read a passage a month ago that after Jesus first predicted he would suffer and die, Peter rebuked him, and Jesus called him “Satan,” because he was thinking not as God does, but as human beings do. It is a recurring theme in the gospel of Mark, that those who knew him best very often didn’t get it. And in a way, it reassures the rest of us who also might not get it, that Jesus isn’t giving up on us just yet. Two weeks ago we heard Jesus explain how Moses permitted divorce because of Israel’s hardness of heart. It was not what God intended then, and despite our hardness of heart even now, God isn’t ready to give up just yet. Last week, Jesus challenged the rich young man to rethink his priorities, and then come follow him. The young man walked away sad, but we have reason to believe the story didn’t end there.
So I stopped to consider the long view like James and John, and imagined I had to have a place in the big picture, where would I take my seat? I admit I’m so far down the food chain, my seat would have to be in the nosebleed section down the hall in another room entirely, most likely in a whole other building, a whole other city, a whole other time zone. I’m also positive some among you would get a better seat than me. But wherever I end up, I know that’s probably the seat I deserve, if I even deserve one. But since we’re dreaming big, of course I’d prefer a much closer seat, something in the same building perhaps, something in the same time zone at least. But definitely not right next to Jesus. I’m sure he wouldn’t approve. And I probably would defer. Besides, it’s likely those seats are already spoken for. But then again, I’m sure the seat I had in mind is already spoken for as well. It would be a different story altogether if I knew and cared about whose seat I was taking. But that’s a whole other story. We don’t have to go there.
All this speculating about a seat of honor at the eternal wedding banquet is predicated on Jesus’ true identity as Messiah and Lord, a truth wholly independent of my ability to grasp or understand it, as well as my own identity as a disciple in light of his expectations concerning my following after him. Three times in the gospel of Mark Jesus spoke to his apostles that he would be rejected, that he would suffer, be put to death, and be raised on the third day. And when James and John approached him with their misguided request, Jesus did not sugarcoat what it would mean for them to follow him, that there would be a cup for them to drink and a baptism for them to embrace. Plus, it wasn’t up to him to grant seats of honor anyway. That was and always has been the Father’s prerogative alone. He was only in sales.
Christian discipleship, that is following after Jesus by embracing his teachings and his way of life, was never intended to be easy. We ponder his image above the altar every time we gather in this place. It isn’t a pleasant picture, his broken body hanging limp on the cross. It is a reminder of humanity’s greatest tragedy, that we put God to death. Yet at the same time it is a reminder of humanity’s greatest triumph, that by taking our flawed and sinful nature God brought about our reconciliation to himself and to one another in Jesus’ supreme act of selfless humility and obedience.
“The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” Jesus did not mean it as a threat to scare or intimidate would-be disciples. But following in his footsteps can never be anything less than voluntary and intentional. Jesus embraced rejection, suffering, death, and rising to new life in obedience to the Father’s will. If we desire a share in his glory, we will have to embrace our share of the cross. “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
In light of what James and John, and the rest of Jesus’ apostles learned from this enlightening episode of Lessons in Christian Discipleship, can we still realistically hope for a place in Jesus’ company? “All things are possible for God,” we heard last week. But a favorable outcome will require our willing effort and participation. “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” The cup and the baptism are metaphors for suffering, that which is often just part of our human condition, consequences of bad choices—ours or other people’s, and a flawed nature not meant to last forever. As Jesus embraced his cross, he invites us to embrace ours. It won’t be any easier for his disciples than for anyone else. The key lies in our willing effort and participation, and how through it God brings about healing and reconciliation. With great anguish Jesus prayed in the garden the night before his passion, “Father, not what I will, but what you will.” It wasn’t easy for Jesus. Nor was it for his closest followers. Nor will it be for us if we decide we want to be his disciples.
In the end, Jesus reminds us that following him is not about honor or glory. So we can stop elbowing our way through the crowd. Did I want a seat up close? Not too close? In the nosebleed section? Down the hall? Somewhere in the back? Maybe in another room? Even another building? But the same city please. And hopefully the same time zone. Just as long as Jesus isn’t too far away. Somewhere within earshot. Somewhere I can still see him. And he can still see me.
Rolo B Castillo © 2018
Mark 10: 37
Mark 8: 33
Mark 10: 5
Mark 10: 21
Mark 10: 39
Mark 10: 43-45
Mark 10: 27
Mark 14: 36