Oct. 17, 2021 Twenty-first Sunday After Pentecost
The text is Mark 10: 35-45.
35 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.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 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?” 39 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; 40 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.”
41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 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. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Everybody wants a seat next to the king! All twelve of the disciples figured that, since they had given up their former lives and travelled with Jesus for so long, that they were entitled to receive a portion of the “glory” they perceived Jesus was going to attain. And it seems like the ten of them were unhappy that James and John had gotten to Jesus before they did.
So, before we specifically condemn James and John, let’s keep in mind that they all angled for what they thought were going to be “the best seats”. Hey, Jesus, when you’re victorious over the Romans who are occupying our country, and you become the new king, how about if you reward those of us who stayed with you as you traipsed all over Israel? Now, while this selfishness is bad enough on its own, don’t forget the request was made immediately after Jesus told the disciples they were headed to Jerusalem where he was to be arrested, tortured, and executed by the very authorities they anticipated Jesus would overthrow. And to make matters worse, this is the third time he has told the disciples about his upcoming crucifixion. And, in spite of all this they bicker among themselves about which of them will have the highest positions of power and authority within Jesus’ kingly court; a reign that will not happen on this earth.
To what can we attribute this, their denial of what has been proclaimed to them over and over? Well, we can look at this in a couple of different ways. They simply haven’t been listening to Jesus when he speaks to them? Not likely, since they seem to incessantly ask him to clarify his parables for them. They are so caught up in the emotion of all they’ve witnessed that anything other than a glorious result couldn’t possibly be the outcome of their mission? What with miracles and healing being the main attraction for the crowds gathering around Jesus? Maybe, but only if the disciples haven’t noticed that Jesus spent all his time with the lowly and didn’t much care to associate with the ruling class. Wouldn’t this soon-to-be king surround himself with others already in power, rather than constantly be at odds with them? Which therefor leaves us with two other possibilities; either they truly didn’t understand what Jesus was really all about, or they did and were simply unable to accept what they perceived as a defeat of his mission and ministry.
And, if they did, on some level grasp what it is that Jesus has come to do, they don’t imagine themselves as being part of it. They haven’t yet really come to fully know what being a disciple of Christ really means, and what this requires of his followers.
This is another example of Jesus turning things upside-down; “first will be last, last will be first”, “you must approach the kingdom with the innocence of a child”, and now; “those who wish to great must first be servants.”
Those wishing to follow Christ must be willing to drink the cup he must drink; that is, be prepared to fully embrace all that his mission entails, even if that leads all the way to their own cross. And this certainly doesn’t include glorification as a victorious ruler; but rather Jesus’ followers must be willing to live as servants to all. And, only through this commitment to servanthood will Christ-followers be freed to live truly abundant lives; released from captivity and oppression. Not necessarily from the persecution of the world’s tyrants, but freed from the sinfulness that humanity bears the weight of. Freed to live in the restored domain of the reign of God. Once it’s understood that Jesus’ glory is that of the suffering servant, willing to “drink the cup” he must, his followers who wish to share in his greatness have no choice but to sip from this same chalice.
Again, perhaps we should give the disciples the benefit of the doubt, for they have not yet come to learn what we know. They are on the way to Jerusalem and haven’t yet come to behold the risen Christ; we are witnesses to the resurrection; we know what our servant-king has accomplished for the sake of the world. Through Christ’s rising the reign of God has broken through into the world. We who have come to follow this Jesus accept that we must also drink the cup he drank. We must be willing to follow Jesus wherever our faith and trust leads us. While it is unlikely that any of us will have to face the kind of persecution that the disciples and many of his early followers endured, our willingness to accept Jesus’ cup does require us to live lives that mimic his. And here is where this notion of servanthood becomes clearer for us. Jesus was willing to serve God’s people to the point of sacrificing his very life for the sins of humanity. Much less is required from us; the servanthood we’re commanded to calls us rather to do for others what they are unable to do for themselves. Just as God’s people are unable to achieve forgiveness without Christ. There are the big things that are expected of us as Christ-followers; the feeding, clothing, and sheltering that God’s people provide for those in need.
But, perhaps being a servant produces even greater results when serving others consists of more modest acts. Often, it’s only a matter of becoming aware that the opportunity to serve exists. Well, in the current environment the needs of everyone are certainly evident. Our neighbors have been forced to become more isolated than ever before, people are worried about themselves and the health of their families, loneliness and fear abound. Simply checking in with someone we haven’t seen in a while may be doing them an immensely great service, while from us it only requires picking up the phone. There are as many examples of stooping to serve as there are people in the world, for everyone has some need that we may be able to fill. We just have to be open to hearing or seeing it.
And there is another upside to our servanthood. Studies show that being kind, that serving others actually makes us happy; kind acts of service increase the levels of serotonin and dopamine in our brains, the neurotransmitters which give feelings of well-being. It seems that Jesus’ command for us to be servants to others has a physiological upside as well. While our acts of servanthood relieve that which troubles others, our willingness to serve results in easing our own isolation, fear, or worry. And this knowledge should make the drinking of the cup that Jesus drank that much easier to do. Jesus did so willingly; we are commanded to do the same. “For whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave to all”, Jesus told the disciples. The rewards of servanthood are immeasurably greater than the effort needed to serve. Both for the one being served, and the servant.
Will you pray with me? Good, and gracious, and Holy God, Jesus calls us to drink the cup he drank, following him as true disciples. Help us to serve even when we fear this may come at a cost to us. Remind us that Jesus was willing to go all the way to the cross, and that often we are simply called to offer small acts of service for the great relief of others. And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One whose cup we are commanded to drink, and whose life we are called to emulate. Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.