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.” 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.” (Mark 10:35-37)
Thomas Merton stood on the corner of Fourth and Walnut Street in Louisville, and he had a vision, in which he realized, he says, that he loved people; all of the people; that they were his people, and he was theirs.
It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes; yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. … I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.*
James and John had it partly right, when they asked to be with Jesus in his glory. Of course, they had it partly wrong, as well, and Jesus set them straight.
What we miss in the telling of this story this Sunday is that the twins are responding directly to Jesus’ latest warning to his disciples that their journey to Jerusalem, to the seat of God’s glory, by tradition; that their journey to Jerusalem will end in ignominy, and insult, and death.
They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed him were afraid. He 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.”
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” (Mark 10:32-35)
And you have heard the rest.
If we read them with a cynical eye, we might think that James and John are looking for some kind of trade-off: Ok, we’ll follow you through all of this unpleasantness in Jerusalem, IF you will guarantee us our reward on the other side.
It could be simple naivete: Ok, so it’s going to get unpleasant in Jerusalem, but then after three days, when you rise again, then comes the glory, right? and we kick out the Romans and take our places in the palace, at your left and right hand.
What they have failed to notice, apparently, despite all of their days and weeks and months on the road with Jesus, is that he is already shining with the glory of God. They were on the mountaintop, when he was transfigured into dazzling light, with Moses and Elijah at his left and right hand, by the way – and still they are waiting for the glory. Waiting in the presence of Jesus Christ for the glory of God. Do you see the irony?
They are sitting in the presence of the living Lord, Jesus Christ, waiting to enter into the glory of God.
You may find it strange if I say that we are living in an age of glory. We are not blind to the problems and pitfalls of the present day: the spitting and insults, the death and destruction, the unpleasantness, the condemnation that comes from the religious people and the Gentiles. We know the way of the cross. We have seen its suffering, even if we have escaped its baptism ourselves.
Still, we live in the presence of the living Lord, Jesus Christ, who died, and who lives, and who is seated at the right hand of God (which presumably answers the question of who is sitting at his own left hand, if we choose to take the seating arrangements literally). We live in the presence of Christ, in the knowledge of the kingdom of God that has drawn near, that does break in with all of its glory – if we have eyes to see it.
As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. … member[s] of a race in which God Himself became incarnate.*
Last month, at the end of the community meal, some of the volunteers gathered to celebrate the completion of a twelve-month cycle since the meal was relaunched last September. It was a bit of a weary gathering, after all of the cooking and serving and especially the washing up, and there was a certain amount of grumbling about who had stayed to help and to celebrate, and who had ditched before the clean-up was over. We probably sounded a bit like those disciples, gathered around Jesus and still grumpy with James and John and the long road to Jerusalem left to travel.
But there was a celebration. There was cake, and conversation, and there was prayer in the falling darkness, light in the deepening shadows.
There were also two little boys, who have become regulars at the meal. The youngest is so proud to write his own name on his name tag each time! They sit with their family and eat as many seconds as they think they can get away with. The boys had heard on the grapevine that the volunteers were staying on afterwards, and that there would be cake, so they trailed around after the other guests had left, looking for something to do to be of help, some service they could offer so that they might be counted among the volunteers. They found an empty coffee cup to bring to the washing up window.
Of course, we gave them cake. They sat in the narthex eating it as we gathered in the chapel. They were in no hurry to leave that night. And as the candles were lit, and the hymn of light was lifted into the evening, the youngest crept into the chapel, and slid into a chair, and one of our volunteers slid along the row and held out her hymn book so that he could follow along, and he did, and it was a glorious way to end the day, joined together in service to one another, and in celebration and in prayer offered through Christ, with cake.
There is the glory that is to come. There is the kingdom that is to come; and there is the here and now, life lived in the presence of the living Lord Jesus Christ, and it is glorious, and there is no waiting for it, no line, no exceptions.
We live our little lives full face in the glory of God, whether we recognize it or not.
Thomas Merton, caught up by glory on the corner of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville:
At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God … This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. … It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely … I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.*
James and John got their question wrong only because they forgot that they were already sitting at the right and left hand of Jesus in his glory, Jesus Christ who is the glory of God.
May you see your own glory, given to you by the love of God, in whose glorious image you are made.
* Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Crown Publishing Group, 2009), 153-6