James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but 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.’
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What will we make of this familiar encounter in Mark’s gospel?
James and John, come to Jesus with a request. And you know there is going to be trouble when they try to get him to agree with them before they even say what it is that they want . They want a shortcut. Their message goes something like this. Hi Jesus, you know how we’ve been helping you out in your ministry? Well, how about a little favour in return – “give us whatever we ask for.” They want the best seats in the new kingdom. When Jesus conquers the Romans, they want to be at his left hand and his right hand – his NUMBER 1 and NUMBER 2 men. They want the power and the glory and the influence that they think they deserve for being his faithful followers all this time; And they want to make sure it's them and not Peter, Matthew or Judas that get the top seats. So here they are up front and getting in first. Maybe we don’t like their approach – after all they are a bit direct.
But the other disciples are showing their true colours as well.
In verse 41, “And when the ten heard it, they began to be angry with James and John.” They were jealous and probably upset that they hadn’t had the good idea to ask Jesus about sitting next to him in glory. Maybe they had been secretly thinking: ‘if we just keep our heads down and work hard, I’ll bet Jesus will give us whatever we want.’ But now James and John have stepped in and made their request, trying to elbow their way into first place. We learn from Matthew’s account of this story that they even had their Mum there as well, pleading for ‘My Boys’ and all of a sudden, the hearts of the other ten disciples are revealed: they wanted the same thing as James and John, but they were too proud to say so.
But as the disciples usually do, they have it all wrong, even though Jesus continually tells them as plain as day, what the plan is for him suffering, death, and the cross. Jesus tells them ‘you do not know what you are asking’. They think Jesus coming into his glory will be one thing, when it actually will be something quite different.
What about us? Are we the direct James and John type, telling God straight ‘this is what I want?’ Or maybe we go for the indirect route? Go to church, say our prayers and keep our heads down, hoping that God is noticing and will answer all our requests. Human nature is not always nice and like the disciples, it is sadly true that we too have the ability to be just as self-seeking.
So how does Jesus respond to his two bold disciples?
He could have said “Because you asked for so much, I am not going to give you anything.” Or, “You’ve pushed me too far this time. You are no longer my disciples.” He could have told them they were incredibly immature and selfish. No, instead Jesus asks the question; “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?
In reply James and John engage their mouth’s before their brain.
“Oh yes! We are able!” But of course they still don't understand what Jesus means.
Jesus has in his mind his suffering and death. He has in his mind, the cross. “Drink the cup” reminds us of Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane, where he prays that this cup would pass, and he would pray ‘but not my will but yours be done, O Father.’ That cup of suffering will be a bitter cup. Jesus talking about the cup and baptism are all veiled references to his death. The disciples couldn’t understand what he was talking about at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight both they and we come to understand in time.
Jesus was saying, “I’m not going to be king. I’m not going to be wealthy. I’m not planning to be popular. I’m not who you think I am. I am going to give my life, on a Roman cross, for the sins of the world.”
And in verse 45, Jesus shares his mission statement: It is central to Mark’s gospel. It is the message he is at pains to get across.
“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Here we have Jesus’ closest friends behaving like power-hungry men who are trying to use Jesus to get what they really want. And how does Jesus respond?
Does he say, “This is the deal. You put in three years of blood, sweat and tears, and I’ll make sure you get a good position in my administration.” No Jesus responds: ‘You don't know what you are asking.’ Very soon the Roman soldiers would bow down before Jesus, not in worship but in mockery. They dress will dress him in a fine robe of purple, not in honour but for a sadistic show. They will place a mock scepter in his hand, and then they will beat him with it. They will not sit him on a jeweled throne of high honour; rather he will be hung, on a cross, in shame. Not wearing a golden crown, but one of thorns.
Jesus is trying to explain that life in His kingdom is different. In the world, the greatest have servants. In his kingdom, they are the servants. Jesus knows our human frailty where we can so easily be concerned about our own little kingdoms, our own little thrones. Where we want to be our own masters, set our own rules, re-defining sin as what someone else does, and not what we do.
Sadly, much of our world is ruled by people who lord their authority over others. But imagine a world where people use their authority to serve like Jesus. Imagine what it would be like if everyone who attended Church was eager to serve their neighbour. And what if that service was self-forgetful, where we didn’t keep track, of how well we were doing in our serving others?
Imagine if we brought this attitude into our jobs and our families and our neighborhoods? That is the Kingdom we pray for week after week as we say the Lord’s prayer, ‘Thy kingdom come here on earth’, then there will be a community of people who are soaked in the love of God, active in loving and serving each other.
When Toyohiko Kagawa, who lived in Japan, met Christianity he was captured by its call to serve. He prayed, 'O God, make me like Christ.' To become like Christ he went to live in the slums of Tokyo to care for others. He chose to live in a shed that was about two meters square. On the very first night he was asked to share his room and bed with a man with a contagious itch, the first test of his aim to serve. He welcomed the poor man. Then a beggar asked for his shirt and he gave it. The next day the beggar came back for Kagawa's coat and trousers. Kagawa gave them and was left wearing a ragged kimono. At first the slum dwellers laughed at him but they soon came to admire him. Kagawa wrote:
God dwells in the lowliest of men. He sits on the dust heap among the prison convicts. He stands with the juvenile delinquents. He is there with the beggars. He is among the sick; he stands with the unemployed. Therefore let him who would meet God visit the prison cell before going to the temple. Before he goes to church let him visit the hospital. Before he reads the Bible let him visit the beggar.
We need a revolution – not a stand against authority but a willingness to serve and to be served. If this was how every Christian lived we would take the world by storm, it would be overwhelmed by love.
And so we pray Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven and may it start with me. Amen
20th Sunday after Trinity