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The Measure of Success

10/21/2018 Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost The text is Mark 10:35-45.

Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

What does success look like to you?  Winning the championship over all the other teams in your sports league?  Checking off every item on your to-do list?  Getting that new job or promotion you were hoping for?  Putting the kitchen in order after making a homemade meal from scratch?  Having enough money to buy that big house, big boat, big car, big everything?  What success looks like to you and what it looks like to me may be very different – at least as different as what success looked like to Jesus and to his original 12 disciples.

Now, historically speaking, the church has usually painted a pretty picture of the twelve and all, except Judas of course, have been considered saints. Pious people have named churches after them, and referred to the first disciples as the rocks upon which Christ has built his church. Yet anybody who hears Mark’s stories about the disciples should get a very different picture of who they were, what they wanted and what they envisioned as success.

These 12 men walked the road with Jesus. They listened as he taught. They watched as he did signs and wonders. They followed where he led. But, according to Mark, they never really get it.  And nothing points that out more clearly than today’s gospel.

In today’s gospel, we have James and John scurrying up to Jesus while the others aren’t looking. They pull Jesus aside and make a bold request.  “Teacher,” they say, “we want you to do whatever we ask.” Now, this request alone is a shameless one for they really have no right to ask for a blank check from Jesus, any more than any of us have that right.  Yet Jesus, in his eternal patience, doesn’t chastise them.  He asks them, “What do you want?”  They reply, “On the day when you enter your glory, when you ascend to the throne as King of kings and Lord of lords, we want to sit at your right and at your left.”

What they want is their vision of success.  They want the prime seats – the seats of power and prestige, as if they and they alone were true followers and were top dogs among the 12.  When the other ten disciples hear about the Zebedee brothers’ request, they get angry with James and John. They get upset, not because they thought it was wrong to ask this of Jesus, but because James and John asked for it first.

All of us want something of Jesus.  And in the world in which we live, what the brothers did isn’t odd.  We live in a world that encourages us to take the initiative, climb the ladder, and push to the front of the line. “Blessed are the aggressive,” says our culture, “for they will get what they want.” If that means pulling the boss aside and making a private pitch, then that is what must be done. For we seek privilege and protected status. These are measures of success. 

So, “Teacher, give us what we want – and give it to us now!”  That’s the mantra that we live by.  And with this Jesus replies, “You don’t know what you’re asking.” In one sense, Jesus’ reply misses the mark as we know perfectly well what we are asking. We want God to meet our unlimited needs and help us get ahead. Yet in a deeper sense, any request for cheap success makes it clear that we do not know what kind of God we have in Jesus – a God who measures success not in being served but in serving others.

“Look,” Jesus says to his disciples, “we are going up to Jerusalem. And it’s uphill all the way. The road is hard and difficult. We will face painful twists and turns. There will be suffering, humiliation, and death. There is no easy road to glory. Are you able to drink this cup? Are you able to bear this kind of baptism?”

James and John smugly and unwittingly reply, “Sure, no problem,” simply because they do not know what it means to follow Christ.  They still do not understand that Jesus did not come into this world sit on a throne with dull-minded disciples on his right and his left. He came to give his life to pay off our ransom to the powers and principalities, to set people free from all that can damage, hurt, and destroy.  (excerpts adapted from William G. Carter, No Box Seats in the Kingdom: Sermons For The Sundays After Pentecost (Last Third) (SermonStudio).

For us, that means that success can no longer be measured by what we can accumulate, who we can step over on the way to the top, and what accolades we can gather along the way. If we want to be successful as a community of faith and as individuals, we can’t live for ourselves anymore. We have to rethink what it means to be followers of Jesus as we give our lives in service.  And in a culture that measures success by what we get instead of what we give, this is a tall order. 
But Jesus continues to ask each of us who seeks what we can get from God, “Are you able to drink my cup? Are you able to share my baptism? Are you able to walk with me, giving yourself to others in a life of service?” If we dare say yes, we must remember that the road of discipleship is uphill all the way, and it leads to the foot of the cross. Whoever would follow Jesus must follow him there. He never promised anything else.

That makes success something very different, very different for the disciples who wanted to sit on Jesus’ right and on his left and very different for us today.  For success is not found in prestige and power and all the things of this world, but in following the lead of Jesus as we journey through a life of faith and service. 

May we all join this procession to the cross and as you do so, may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.




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