If ever there was a moment when the disciples didn’t get it, this is it. Jesus has just gone through yet another explanation about his death and all that that entails and he’s as graphic as he ever gets in describing his death. It’s as if all of that goes right over the disciples heads and James and John respond by saying, “yeah, yeah, whatever, once that’s over can we sit on the top seats in the kingdom.”
If I was Jesus I’d have been a teeny tiny bit fed up of them by that point; and that’s when Jesus asks them if they can share the same cup and baptism as him. I think they respond by smiling and nodding their heads, but very obviously having no idea at all what Jesus is talking about, as far away from understanding the consequences of following Jesus as they ever were.
And what are those consequences? I think that Jesus is simply affirming here what the world does to those who put their trust in love and follow it through in every aspect of their lives. This is the crux that the disciples don’t get. They’re fixated on the rewards for their actions, but that’s not what is significant, it’s the ability to trust love and live it out in the world that is the right response to the call of Jesus, and the disciples miss the point completely. The kind of power they seek is the very power that will have Jesus crucified.
Before the church even gets off the ground, in the earliest days of the Jesus movement, the disciples are doing what so many have been doing to Jesus ever since: casting him as a battle ready soldier, rather than a shepherd. Far too many people have too often turned Jesus into an all-powerful saviour, almost a warrior Christ. As the song goes, “From victory unto victory his army shall he lead, till every foe is vanquished, and Christ is Lord indeed.” There are strong parallels in this warrior Christ with throne and sovereignty, and the status and situation of a medieval monarch, yet all the while Jesus is saying to those with ears to listen: “this is my throne, the cross; and this is my kingdom, the tomb.” “Look at the way Rome acts,” says Jesus. “Look at how those who have power in the world tyrannise the people. This is not how it is to be.” Yet many people have repeatedly fallen into this trap through the ages.
This passage is the great corrective for us all: be servant, be last, be the feet washers. This is Jesus announcing his mission, the only place in Mark where he does so: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Everything focuses on this revelation by Jesus. Here is his understanding of his ministry. The language is the very opposite of what James and John use. This is about downward mobility rather than upward mobility. This is the direction the gospel always takes us, away from James and John and towards the servant on the cross.
What is the abiding image from this scene? Not two disciples resplendent on mighty chairs alongside the glorified Jesus, but two wretched thieves who hang with Jesus, one on the left and the other on the right. James and John may not have realised what they were asking, but they were asking the right person. Like them, perhaps we don’t get it even if we ask the right question. Perhaps, like them, we need it spelled out, not in words and theology, but in event and action. Ultimately, in the suffering that leads to a cross and a tomb that leads to life: it makes it a whole lot clearer, only James and John will have to wait for that to happen before they learn this lesson.
I wonder if perhaps we might sometimes allow ourselves to slip towards letting thoughtlessness overtake what Jesus demands? Or can we serve, because that’s what we do? Can we try to be like Jesus? Can we try to put others first, perhaps making a big impact without even knowing? We have the power of God within us, the Holy spirit, to encourage us along this way.
You may have seen in the news last week that the Roman Catholic Church has made Oscar Romero a saint. Oscar Romero was Archbishop of San Salvador, who was assassinated in his cathedral while celebrating mass, for speaking out against the forces of evil in El Salvador. Oscar Romero, and so many others, have literally died because of their faithfulness. Most of us will never face that situation. I suggest that we’re still called to die metaphorically, in the sense of dying to selfishness and to the world, the two great rival centres to God.
The water of our baptism, and the cup of wine as at the Last Supper can remind us about what it means to hear Jesus’ words to James and John as words directed to us. Can we drink the cup of suffering which Jesus will drink? Have we not been baptised with the baptism that Jesus baptised with? Can we face the suffering and dying that Jesus will face? Are we prepared to be part of the death and renewal of which Jesus was part? The cup of suffering, Jesus’s blood poured out for us, is a dying to self that we may refocus on the life of God.
No longer thinking of ourselves, relishing the pride, the honour, the worth we imagine others bestow upon us that gives us a
place in this world. Dying to this and centring instead on God. No longer thinking of what the world wants. All we think is secure and gives us security, all we imagine that shapes a place and path for ourselves, a name for ourselves, and place for ourselves; dying to this and centring instead on God.
Let it be so for now.
Dying to self and its own concerns. Dying to the world and the identity it offers. Dying to self-absorption. Dying to conventional wisdom. Dying to seeking our own gain. Dying to a preoccupation with security. Dying to self. Dying to the world. Let it be so for now.
Sitting in honour on the right hand and left hand side of Jesus, on thrones of grace in the light of heaven is what the disciples mean, but not what Jesus means. Sitting in honour on the right hand and left hand side of Jesus are the positions of those crucified with Jesus.
So, I end with some words by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, another twentieth century Christian martyr,
By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered,
and confidently waiting, come what may,
we know that God is with us night and morning,
and never fails to meet us each new day.
Yet are our hearts by their old foe tormented,
still evil days bring burdens hard to bear;
O give our frightened souls the sure salvation
for which, O Lord, you taught us to prepare.
And when the cup you give is filled to brimming
with bitter suffering, hard to understand,
we take it gladly, trusting though with trembling,
out of so good and so beloved a hand.
Yet when again in this same world, you give us
the joy we had, the brightness of your sun,
we shall remember all the days we lived through,
and our whole life shall then be yours alone.