Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 10:35-45

The Request of James and John
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to [Jesus] 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.”

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)

We use a lot of euphemisms to justify our attitudes about what it takes to make it to the top. 

  • It’s a “dog eat dog world” and we’re all in the “rat race.” 
  • “Nice guys finish last,” and we’ve got to “look out for number one!” 
  • After all, “it’s every man for himself” and you’ve got to be “cutthroat,” an “alpha,” to get what you want from life. 
  • Leaders say, “you’re either on the bus, or you’re getting run over by the bus…” and people who are meek are described as “door mats.”  

On all of these paths, people are either commodities or obstacles. 

The end position for successful participants is one of power, lording greatness over others, feeling untouchable. “But it is not so among you,” Jesus says. And he didn’t just say it, he lived and died it so that we could be free from the need to be great over others. We can become great and participate in his glory by being like Jesus, who was a servant, committed to the flourishing of the whole world.

I listened to the podcast Throughline which had an episode on chaos recently. One section of the show included an interview with historian Rutger Bregman about a real-life Lord of the Flies scenario in the 1970’s on an island near Tonga; spoiler alert: it turned out nothing like the novel. Bregman made a larger claim that humanity’s civilizations were built on cooperation, not competition: among nomadic hunter/gatherers, it was actually the friendliest—not the cutthroat—who survived and passed on their friendly ways to the next generation. Eventually, they collectively built civilizations that helped more and more of them survive and transitioned from nomads to communities. This is God’s design for shalom, seen in human history. Bregman makes the argument that if there were tyrants among them, the community stepped in and protected the whole group from being destroyed by the impulses of an individual. Even in general revelation/natural theology we see that “greatness” which tramples on others is a part of sin, not God’s will and design.

This week’s theme is humility. God asked Job where he was while God was creating the universe. Jesus counseled his followers that they shouldn’t seek prominence or positions of honor but should instead seek to be the servants of all. And finally, the author of Hebrews provides an insight into the relationship between Jesus and God. In every instance, humility is key in relation to God.

In Mark’s gospel this week, the disciples continue to try to make sense of all that’s happening around them. Although they have traveled extensively with Jesus as a part of his inside-out, upside-down ministry, they still seem to have trouble wrapping their minds around what might be ahead as they follow their king. They patently reject the notion of suffering and death as an unacceptable and even unrealistic option. After all, kings and rulers reign in glory, are held in honor, and wield great power. They’ve been faithful followers; therefore, shouldn’t they be entitled to bask in some of the glory, too?

Zebedee’s sons James and John definitely want a piece of the messianic action – and some prime real estate on either side of Jesus’ throne in glory. We twenty-first century readers understand that these two disciples have no clue what they’re asking for. Instead of a cup of suffering, they probably had in mind some mighty fine wine. Jesus announces that they will be given what they desire, although it will not turn out to be the glory and honor they expect.

The other disciples are indignant that the Zebedee brothers are vying for the best seats in the kingdom, and tension mounts. Again, Jesus instructs his followers about the real nature of leadership in the reign of God, reminding them that it is the exact opposite of what the world values. 

We should remember this in our dealings with potential leaders inside and outside of the church. Jesus’ example is of one who came to serve, not to be served. Those who seek power for ambition’s sake, rather than as an opportunity to serve people, aren’t working for the kingdom of heaven but for themselves. 

Such behavior, according to the biblical text, is exactly and explicitly anti-Christ because Jesus demonstrates and demands the opposite. Gaining power and authority for one’s own sake is opposite of the way of Jesus.

It’s easy to chastise James and John for their tone-deaf request of Jesus. Mark makes it hard not to. We all know that Mark’s portrait of the disciples does not have them fairing very well. Even Matthew sought to rescue their reputation.

But before we jump on the blame-game bandwagon let’s take a step back for just a moment to see the proverbial log in our own eye, and to take stock of what might be going on with these two followers that could be more than another example of discipleship cluelessness.

After the last twenty months, I am experiencing something different in this story. Something I should have anticipated, right? The world has been turned upside down. And upside-downness results in—or at least it should—new insights.

James and John are not ill-informed or ignorant. They’ve witnessed Jesus’ miracles and listened to his teachings. They are on the other side of three passion predictions. They have been given hint after hint that following Jesus is likely not going to go the way we expected. What didn’t they see? What didn’t they get?

James and John are doing what humans do best—hoping and praying that the world has not and will not change as much as it already has and as much as they know it will. But there is no return to what once was after the heavens were ripped apart. There is no going back to life before the storm.

But we try. And we have been trying. Hoping and praying that the last twenty months are a mere blip in congregational life. A bump along the ecclesial road. 

We are more like James and John than we care to admit. We fall back on what we know—what’s comfortable; how the world always worked. For James and John, that meant glory as hierarchy and power as prestige. For the 21st-century church, it’s the same, along with a denial of the truth and a doubling down on a kind of privilege it never should have exercised in the first place.

But what once was is not working anymore. We know that. Deep in our hearts and souls. And we don’t know how to fix it.

You can’t go through a convergence of politics, protest, and then a pandemic and not have everything you do, everything you have believed in, be called into question. 

We are living in—and all that living means: working, parenting, relationship-ing, caring for parents, trying to care for ourselves, looking for joy, accompanying the suffering, crying out against injustices—the middle of trauma (individual, collective, global); in the midst of merging crises.

We could hear this as depressing, demoralizing. “The sky is falling”—or, at least that’s what pastors keep being told:

  • “The numbers are bad.” So, get out there, recruit more members, show people what they have been missing—oh, and make sure they are younger and more diverse than your current membership. 
  • “Denominationalism is dying.” So, be even more whatever you are, there is safety in default, and that should solve the problem rather than ask how our denominations might be undergoing reformation. 
  • “We are living in a time of rapid cultural changes.” So, figure out how to adapt, innovate!

However, by crisis, I don’t mean “the sky is falling” kind of crisis but have in mind a a different definition—crisis as a decisive and definitive moment. An acute moment for decision and discernment. It is this kind of moment for James and John—for all the disciples, for us. It is no accident that this story gets told when it does—immediately before the healing of Bartimaeus, whose regained sight propels him to follow Jesus on the way. And, just before the crisis moment in Mark’s narrative. Once Jesus enters Jerusalem, the world as we have known it will change forever. There will be no going back to life before an empty tomb.

When we don’t have answers or there don’t seem to be any answers in the immediate future, our human tendency is to “partner with power” rather than “hold hands with humility.” But maybe this is the a moment to remember that when the heavens were ripped apart, the Spirit was let loose into the world, descending down to Jesus.

  • It would be that same Spirit who would be present with Jesus in the wilderness, on the cross, and in that cold, dark, and seemingly hopeless tomb.
  • It would be that same Spirit who would stir the hearts of Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome to go back to that grave and look death in the eye once again.

And it is that same Spirit who is in and among us, with us and beside us, calling us to repentance—to change our perspective, to see what can be, to trust that the kingdom of God has come near and still is.

It is that same Spirit who is inspiring God’s church once again to lead from and preach the gospel we know to be true: our God is here. Believe in the good news and don’t prey on the fear of the “sky is falling” thought of crisis. There is no going back to life before, so let’slive in the now and make it a better place for everyone.