Most of us are now used to the disciples of Jesus not getting things in the Gospels.
Having said that, is this the most outrageous, incredibly stupid disciple moment ever?
James and John’s impudence and lack of understanding seems beyond belief. How could two people who are so close to Jesus miss the boat so completely? Did they forget the encounter with the rich man that occurred just before their request? Or the encounter with the little children? And have they not heard Jesus’ own prediction of what was soon to happen to him? In light of all of this, their request appears truly astounding.
But perhaps we are the ones that are missing something...
James and John say to Jesus, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” In other words, promise to do what we ask before we ask it. Jesus says nope, I can’t make that promise until I hear the request. This reaction can't really be unexpected, as they make their request anyway: to sit at Jesus' left and right hands, in his glory.
This seems like a grab for power. The persons to either side of the ruler are the most trusted and the second in command.
However, before finalizing that opinion, consider the text that comes before this event. There are three verses between the end of last week’s text (the account of the wealthy man) and this week’s passage.
They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. (Mark 10:32)
(What are they afraid of? By going up to Jerusalem, Jesus was provoking a showdown with the temple leaders. They were right to be afraid. Continuing...)
[Jesus] took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”
This is the third time Jesus has said something like this. The first time was back in Chapter 8, just after Peter proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah.
Jesus proclaims he will be killed, and Peter openly rebukes this path, and Jesus in turn rebukes Peter with the powerful “Get behind me Satan.” (Mk. 8:27-33)
The second time Jesus says something like this is in Chapter 9, while passing through Galilee. Jesus says, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” (Mk. 9:31)
This time, the disciples’ are more cautious. The text says that they did not understand what Jesus was saying and were afraid to ask him.
The Gospel of Mark is all about threes: the third time is often the charm. Combined with the fact that they are heading towards Jerusalem, it is not unreasonable to conclude that James and John have figured out some of what is to come. So there request to sit at Jesus’ hands in his glory isn’t just about a heavenly place, like one might suppose, but a request to stand alongside Jesus as he squares off against the temple leaders. There is more than a bit of courageousness to their request.
“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” The students James and John are saying to their teacher: “allow us to take our place standing next to you. We’re ready...you don’t have to protect us.”
Jesus’ response is with a raised eyebrow: “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.”
“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.”
I don't think this is a rebuke. In fact, it appears to me that Jesus is pleased with this answer, approving the enthusiasm and boldness of James and John, even if their request is a bit off.
The other disciples react negatively to James and John for their request, but Jesus does not affirm their anger. Rather, Jesus again reminds them that they are to live by different standards: not as wielding power to put one into submission, but using their power to be a servant...”a slave to all.”
James and John are willing to stand up and take on the power that Jesus calls them to. Perhaps they overestimate their abilities. Perhaps they attempt to bite off more than they can chew. Perhaps they don’t really understand what Jesus is asking of them, and what it means to wield power not in dominance, but as a servant. But their willingness to try and put themselves forward is essential for us today.
Most of you are now familiar with All Saints' yearly ask for a commitment of time, talent and treasure. It is a case we make each year in order to continue our ministry here in the Church, in Littleton, the North Country, New Hampshire, and the world. I believe, as does your elected leadership, that our common ministry is worth your time, talent and treasure, and that we need your support for our future together.
This year, we are asking for something else: something that's a bit scary, because it is beyond what we are used to. We are asking that you commit to inviting people to "Come and See" All Saints' on a Sunday morning.
We are called to share the Good News: that's what it is meant by evangelism. But our fears, either in offending or in being associated with offensive behavior, keeps many of us from doing so. We say "this Evangelism thing is for a different type of Christian. Episcopalians don't do that."
And so we have left it to others to talk about what it means to be a Christian, and that has come at great cost. Many today now believe that being a Christian is about ignoring science and facts, believing impossible things to be true, being bias towards difference and stuck in the past, and blindly following a bunch of rules.
Worse is the evangelism that goes something like this: "I've accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as my personal Savior...and if you do to, you'll be saved."
This is not the Good News, but rather thinly veiled threat of damnation. It counters the very spirit of the Good News.
For a growing number of people, these are the assumed messages that Christians are offering: that you must believe the way we do.
This keeps people from the real Good News: that God loves you. That God cares immensely about every living thing. That our relationship with God and each other is not based on making a wrathful God content, but to fulfill the hopes and dreams that God has for those made in God's own image. That kindness, justice, and forgiveness matters. And that, no matter how you isolated you may feel, that you are never really alone.
This is what Jesus embodied in his ministry, and he went to the cross for it. James and John said that they were able to stand up as well, and eventually, they did so.
What about us? We may not be risking our physical lives, but the vulnerability is nevertheless real. Talking to someone about religion is one of those things that we are often taught not to do, because it is so often a source of conflict and abuse.
But talking about religion is also needed. The world is full of brokenness and estrangement. People feel isolated despise having all of today's technical advancements that are supposed to make us more connected. As people struggle to find community, many are convinced, through assumptions based on media or bad experiences, that a Church community has nothing of substance to offer. We here know that's not true, and the Gospel calls us to say so.
The pledge of people to Come and See is not convincing someone to become a Christian. It might not even lead to someone walking across the church's threshold. It is an commitment only to invite. It is a pledge to offer someone you know an opportunity to see something important in your life. There is no have to, and no veiled threat: only gracious opportunity.
I hope that you will prayerfully consider making a pledge to invite people to Come and See. That might be having one conversation, or perhaps more than a few. There may be many people who come to mind, or you might think there is no one you know of. I am asking you to be open to the possibility that God is calling you to invite someone to All Saints': and that you might find, just as James and John realized, that you are able.