The Sons of Zebedee

Proper 29,   October 18, 2015

Mark 10:35-45

Good old James and John!  Of all the clueless things the disciples say and do, they really take the prize for the most awkward, inappropriate remark.  Here we have Jesus, on the road to Jerusalem where suffering and death are waiting for him, trying to teach his disciples about the dark mystery of what is to come, explaining – for the third time in three chapters – about his passion. And they respond only by blathering on about Jesus coming into his glory (by which they presumably mean when he gets to be king), and how they want to get the places of honour.  They even ask the question like little children – instead of just asking for what they want, they start out with “Jesus, promise you’ll give us what we ask for.”  Matthew was so embarrassed by these two that he changes the story in his gospel, so that it’s their pushy mother who does the asking.

And yet – maybe they are not that outrageously different from many Christians. After all, one of the traditional answers to the question, “Why do you go to church?” has been, “So that I can get into heaven”.  It is an answer that the church itself has promoted over the centuries – be a good Christian and you will get to heaven. Now behind this way of talking about the Christian life is, I suppose, something healthy: the experience that many of us have that our faith has somehow saved us, lifted our lives from whatever hell of pointlessness or hopelessness or wrong direction that threatened us.  All well and good.  But the moment we begin to think that the point of being a Christian is to get into heaven, then it becomes a bit troubling.  Because at that point, our Christian faith becomes all about us, and about how we can get ahead; how we can become Jesus’s special friends, closer to him than our neighbour down the street who doesn’t go to church and so maybe won’t get into heaven at all.  I’m not sure that kind of thinking is really that different than James and John’s – just get me the good seats in heaven. It seems to miss the point of what Jesus is trying to tell us in a similar way.

Now I don’t suppose many of us would talk about our faith in these terms, as a way to get into heaven.  But it is a traditional kind of language, it breathes through many of the beloved old evangelical hymns that we sing at the nursing home, for example. A big concern of our 19th century ancestors seems to have been getting into heaven, living this life patiently and obediently so as to claim our just reward in the life to come.  And while we may not think of our faith journey in quite these terms anymore, I suspect it still colours our unconscious assumptions about church.  Unconscious assumptions like that the church, or our faith life in general, is really just about us, about meeting our needs.  Whereas the message that Jesus preaches, it seems to me, is very different: don’t worry about yourself, about getting into heaven, about turning yourself into a good person so God will love you. You can trust God for that; it is okay.  And when you trust God, you are set free from worrying about yourself; you are free to care for other people. The Christian life is not about you – it is about serving others.

Or it may be we have misunderstood James and John.  It may be, as one commentator I read points out, that in their heart of hearts they are not so much selfish as simply afraid.  Who wouldn’t be afraid, with Jesus starting in again with this crazy talk about suffering and death. It is not what they signed up for, and they are simply trying to bring Jesus back on track, to get him to think happy thoughts about coming into his glory – and they are looking for reassurance that they will be part of the good part, not these dark and scary things Jesus keeps talking about.  It makes them a bit more sympathetic, doesn’t it – still wrong-headed and confused, but at least not so childishly selfish.

And again, they are a lot like us.  Because lets face it, what did we sign up for: probably not for suffering and death.  We signed up for the Christian faith, presumably, because it promised life, a stable, meaningful, blessed life. Of course we did. And so for us – as for James and John and the other disciples – Jesus’s talk about suffering and death will always be troubling and deeply disturbing. It is meant to be.

There is a bitter irony that runs through this passage, almost like a dark joke at James and John’s expense.  Their very request – to sit at Jesus’s left and right when he comes into his glory – looks very different when we remember that Jesus is about to come into his glory – the dark and strange glory of his death on the cross – and there will be on his left and right two condemned criminals. We can almost imagine Jesus’s sad inner smile as he tells them: ‘You do not know what you are asking. . .  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.’

And that same irony runs through Jesus’s words: Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’  The cup that he drinks is of course that cup which he prayed in the garden might pass from him, the cup of suffering on the cross.  And the baptism with which he is baptized is the baptism in his own blood.  I wonder what James and John were thinking when they eagerly and innocently said that they could handle this cup and this baptism too. As Jesus well knows, they will drink this cup, they too will face persecution and martyrdom for their faith. The irony of this whole passage is like a joke on James and John, a dark joke that would be cruel, except that it is carried in Jesus’s infinite compassion.

In some ways, we too are victims of the same dark joke.  Because the cup that Jesus had to drink, the baptism with which he was baptised, also mark our lives as Christians. We got here through baptism, by passing through the font.  It was a baptism into life and blessing – that is certainly what our parents had in mind when they brought us to be baptised – but it was at the same time a sharing in the death of Christ, a drowning of the old Adam with all his selfish need to be served, a washing clean of distinctions of race and class and gender that brought us into a new society of mutual service.  And this cup which we share week after week, the cup of salvation, that promises joy and belonging and union with Christ – it is at the same time a partaking in the passion of Christ, a sharing of the blood that he shed, that calls us to die to ourselves and live for others. The same dark irony that hangs over James and John hangs over us as well: we come to Jesus seeking life and joy and blessing, and we receive that – but only through the dark paradox of his suffering and death, under the dark sign of the cross. How do we unravel that mystery?

It is not that suffering and death are good in themselves, are somehow to be sought to ennoble or purify us. Jesus does not call us to masochism, to self-hatred and self-destruction.  He did not go to the cross because the cross was a good thing – it was and remains what it is: an evil instrument of torture and execution, a symbol of man’s inhumanity to man.  He went to the cross for a purpose, to serve others; he went in solidarity with all who have been condemned to suffering, he went to redeem them.  ‘For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’  And we too, as we undergo the baptism and share in the cup that symbolize his sacrifice and passion, are called not to suffering for suffering’s sake.  We are called to be part of his kingdom, that new order of mutual service and caring.  We are called to die to ourselves, to our own selfish nature – and that can occasionally be a painful process – in order to care for others.  We are called to trust God, radically and completely, with our own needs, so that we can be set free to look after the needs of others.

This Tuesday evening we will be gathering around the regularly scheduled Parish Council meeting to begin a new step in our ongoing task of discerning our vocation as a church.  It is centred around Parish Council, but I envision this as a wider process that I hope will involved many more of you than just the Council – it is a task that involves the whole parish, and all of you are invited. The challenge as I see it is the challenge that is facing the whole church – the challenge of learning to be more missional, of learning to be a church oriented towards the needs of the whole community, rather than our own needs.  It’s about the world, as the bishop keeps reminding us.  It seems to me that this larger task is very much of a piece with the challenge which James and John faced, as they would slowly be brought from a concern for themselves, to a sharing in the self-giving service of Jesus.  How do we, as a church, learn to worry less about our own survival, our buildings, our finances, our numbers? How do we learn to entrust our own needs more fully to God?  How do we free up more of our energy and passion and vision to concentrate on the needs of others, to be more of a serving church, to be a more efficient instrument of Christ’s mission to his people in this place?  These are the questions we will be wrestling with.  They are not easy questions. They never are, because they involve entering more fully and more practically into the hard paradox that lies at the centre of our faith: that it is in dying to ourselves that we find truly blessed fullness of life.  Amen