sermon for Sunday, October 21, 2012, Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio
“You do not know what you are asking.”
That was Jesus’ first response to James and John’s audacious requests for the places of highest honour in Jesus’ coming glory.
“You do not know what you are asking.”
One commentator that I read this week suggested that when James and John asked to sit at the right and the left hand of Jesus when he came into his glory, they didn’t know that they might as well be asking for the places occupied by the thieves on the hilltop, on the crosses to the left and to the right of Jesus as he was crucified, as he came into his glory through an inglorious and wretched death.
But if they didn’t, perhaps they should have.
The piece of Mark chapter 10 that we have left out between last Sunday and this is the third and most explicit of the passion predictions that the gospel of Mark contains. Between last Sunday and this, in terms of the story, Jesus has told his disciples for the third time and in more detail than ever why he is going up to Jerusalem, and how he will be received there, and just how ignominious the coming into glory of the Son of Man will be.
‘“We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”’ (NIV)
And in the very next breath, James and John ask for the seats of honour beside him in his glory.
Did they know what they were asking?
I don’t think so. I think that John and James, just like the rest of us, wanted to skip the cross and go straight to the resurrection and the ascended glory of the age to come. When they heard abut the cross (even though, at this point in their journey, they still did not really know that this was for real, that Jesus would really die) – when they heard about the predictions of death, they had the good sense to be afraid and astonished, and to hope and wish that it could all be smoothed over, blinked away.
The main goal, surely, they thought, had to be the glory. They still were seeking a Messiah who would blow the world away, take Jerusalem by storm, so that Rome had nothing on it. Because, frankly, who wants a leader who is at the mercy of others, who bleeds, who dies?
In a way, James and John were right to ask their question, even if it did mean asking to skip the cross. Theologians still wrestle with the questions of whether Jesus really needed to die in order to “ransom God’s people,” whatever that means, at the end of the passage; and if he did need to die, then why? Why couldn’t he, why can’t we, skip straight to the glory?
We know that we follow Christ crucified, that we walk in the way of the cross, but can’t we just talk about the resurrection instead?
Actually, I don’t think that Jesus was angry or upset with James and John for asking their question. He got it. In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus himself prayed with blood, sweat and tears to determine whether or not he could, in fact, skip the cross and head straight for the glory. It’s a pretty natural, normal, reasonable request.
And yet, the symbol most easily, most readily, most instantly representative of Christian faith is the cross. How many of you are wearing or carrying crosses on you today? We know that it is essential to our identity as Christians, as followers of Jesus Christ.
I don’t expect us to get this all sorted out nicely in ten minutes on Sunday morning: why the cross, why we are still waiting for the first to be last, or the last to be first, why, although we have seen the glory of the Lord, at least in glimpses, through the clouds, through the haze of life, we are still, it seems, often walking in the shadow of the cross.
God’s answer to Job – who are you to ask? How would you understand it anyway? – might have to do for some of that today.
But I think that there may be a clue for us in what Jesus tells the rest of the disciples.
“You know,” he says, “the rest of the world competes to lord it over one another, and to exercise power over those weaker than themselves. But it is not to be like that for you. Because you follow me, and I came not to be served by those under me, but to serve, to give my whole life for all of you, who have given up your livelihoods to follow me, and to give my life for many others besides.”
I’m paraphrasing, but still, “It is not to be like that for you.” “I came not to be served but to serve, and to give up my life for the people of God.”
Here’s the thing: I saw a billboard a while back (I wrote about it at the time online – https://rosalindhughes.com/2012/04/22/where-winners-worship/ ), which advertised a certain church as being “Where Winners Worship, and God is praised.”
It got a pretty strong reaction from me. I had to ask, if this is where winners worship, where do the losers belong? Because believe me, despite my winning ways and my winning smile and my killer accent, there are days when I do not feel anything like a winner. There are days when I need a church where losers pray and God listens anyway.
Winners also welcome.
If we want to be the best church, the winningest church, we have to serve those who have lost the most. Not just the most in terms of jobs and homes and income, although that too; but also those who have lost hope, lost faith, lost loving relationships; those who are simply lost.
Racing for the glory, we might find that we’ve left Jesus behind, in the dust, caring for someone who needed a healing word or a loaf of bread.
If we want to succeed as Christians, we have to be prepared to lose our preconceptions and our inhibitions and our souls to serve those whom God sends our way. If we want to be first in line for glory, we need to be tending to those who are last in line for glory, for dignity, for respect in this world, and letting them go ahead of us. If we want glory, we need to dig through the dirt to find it. Just like Jesus did, digging through death to enter new life, and dragging us along behind him.
You know how in baptism we share in Jesus’ death before we are brought out of the water into new and unending life?
We are here, in Jesus’ name, not to be served, but to serve; and if we want glory, we have to accept the cross.
The good news, of course, is that the cross is not the end of the story. There is resurrection.
The good news, for those of us who are worried about our position, about our status as winners or losers, about our standing in the eyes of God – the good news is, it’s really not a competition. God loves us all, really, no exceptions, and we do not need to compete for a better share in that love; it’s all good. We all win.
James and John won, but not by finding an easy path past the cross to glory. They did not end up on those crosses either side of Jesus on the hill, either. And if the life to come is truly lively, it probably is not an eternal tableau in which Jesus sits forever in the same jeweled throne, with the same disciples permanently fixed in the seats either side of him. Whatever James and John were asking for – whether they understood it or not – Jesus understood. And they knew Jesus’ presence with them, leading them, guiding them, loving them, every step of the way.
Whatever our anxieties are about following Jesus, about serving those whom we are sent to serve, about how things will work out for us, Jesus understands that, too. He doesn’t promise that the road will be easy, or straightforward. He doesn’t promise that we will get to skip the cross and go straight to the glory; but he does promise that through the cross comes resurrection. And he is on the road with us, serving and supporting and leading us, all the way.
 The Oxford Bible Commentary, John Barton and John Muddiman (eds) (OUP, 2001), 908