Sermon for Sunday October 21st
Today’s reading brings us into a scene with the Sons of Thunder! Arguably the best nick name ever to be given by Jesus. James and John according to scholars, have been traditionally known as “impetuous” and maybe a little hot tempered and this is where the nick name comes from. In the gospel of Luke, a couple of messengers are not received into a Samaritan Town, and when Jesus and the Disciples arrive to hear this, James and John offer to command fire down from heaven. Conflict resolution was not something that James and John were skilled in. Furthermore, what made them think that they could actually command fire from the heavens?? I want to know the disciple’s reaction to this as they collectively wonder if they missed “command fire from the heavens training day” with Jesus. Nevertheless, this audacity plays again in this request of theirs.
As we have been following along with Jesus, we are on the road to Jerusalem, and Jesus is setting the stage for what is to transpire when they arrive. Keeping in the theme of Mark, the disciples are misunderstanding what Jesus is trying to tell them. We pick up moments after Jesus has explained his fate when they get to Jerusalem. But James and John come forward with a request: to be placed in the two highest positions alongside their “King” as they think he is to come and rule over all of Israel. Yes, Jesus and the Sons of Thunder, having power over everything.
Let’s pause for a moment here. I’m going to confess that I completely get where James and John are at this moment. Systematically, Jesus has inspired these people to abandon their earthy possessions and ties to family in order to surround themselves completely in the work of God’s Kingdom. This is an extraordinary feat, but possible through faith and discernment. But I could imagine still longing for privilege or priority or maybe just validation in the eyes of Jesus, the would-be King of Jews. I could even see James and John justifying it to themselves as earning these places because of the love, faith and work that they have put in. They were part of the inner circle of sorts: they were among the first disciples called by Jesus, they were given a nickname (the only other nickname given was peter) and they are brought to witness the transfiguration of Christ. They already sort of have a privileged place and don’t forget, apparently, they can command fire from the Heavens. It is not a far leap to throw their resumes into the mix for the right and left-hand man. But as Jesus says to them, they “you do not know what you are asking”. And they don’t. Jesus challenges them and asks if they are able to share his baptism and to drink of the cup, and of course they say yes. But what does it mean to drink the cup that Jesus will drink and share in the baptism that Jesus will be baptized with? Ultimately, we know that it means the death and resurrection of Jesus and through that death and resurrection Jesus is ransomed. Now not ransomed in the way we think of kidnappers demanding payment, but rather we are delivered and absolved because of the sacrifice of Jesus.
The interesting part here is that Jesus doesn’t roundly rebuke them (again), but rather, quite surprisingly, he tells them that they will indeed join Jesus in the cup and baptism, but that the “glory” is reserved for those whom it has been prepared, namely the world in which they and we are called to serve.
Now, many commentaries take the time to call James and John “Self-Seekers” and harp on their ignorance. But for me, their audacity, their tendency to reach for something they don’t quite understand is very indicative of who we are. Humanity reaches, and continues to reach in the face of adversity, in the face of logic and yes, we continuously get it wrong, and we continuously fail, but we stand back up, dust ourselves off and we continue to reach.
First Man has just come out in theaters, and it tells the story of Neil Armstrong. Now, I haven’t seen the movie, but I’m pretty sure I can guess a little bit about what happens. But let’s breakdown exactly what we did. We took 3 men and strapped them to basically a bomb with an exhaust. Then we proceeded to launch them from the planet and hurl them through space, in a metal tube, harnessing the gravity of an entire planet. All so we could hopefully slow down enough, to hopefully land on a giant dead rock with no atmosphere. All of this powered by slide rules, arithmetic and fraction of the computing power of my iPhone. We did that. We did it because we are an audacious people, we are a people that continues to reach forward.
Jesus knows what we are capable of, and that’s just it: where we are capable of greatness, we are also capable of destruction. The disciples are angry with James and John, now who really knows why but scholars speculate that the disciples were thinking the same thing, but James and John beat everyone to the punch. And let us not forget the argument of “who is the greatest among us” from chapter 9. This same destructive quarrel seems to come into play again. The disciple’s minds lean towards what they are used to in this world: having power, having control and recognition. Jesus lays out the counter-intuitive nature that we are called to be: to be the greatest, you must be slave to all. To follow Jesus is ultimately to follow him to the cross and give of our lives for the good of others.
2018 has a strange relationship with “greatness”. We live in an era where you can become wealthy by getting “likes” on a picture. In a world where things like Instagram give unrealistic expectations of what a “great” life someone has or what you need to do to be a “great” parent. But in the same way a post on social media can get young people to register to vote, or also give a voice to the oppressed. We live in a world where art that was once stenciled on wall by a masked graffiti artist is sold for $1.4 Million Dollars, only to be shredded BY THE ARTIST moments after the gavel hit in order to demonstrate the true meaninglessness of art auctions, and now the painting is worth more money! Greatness yet?
Here is the thing, we are not yet ready to be the servant that we are called to be. But our audacious spirit to explore ourselves and our world can get us there. We are not rebuked when we try and fail, because it just means we are working at it. But the important thing is that we try, and we reach and in that God is present to lift us up little by little until we can immerse ourselves in the Kingdom of God. The important thing is to lift each other up, because there is greatness in all of us.