Willow Creek Friends
October 21, 2018
Mark 10:35–45 (NRSV)
The Request of James and John
35 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.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 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?” 39 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; 40 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.”
41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 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. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Humility is something that our culture lacks. It is something that is common among cultures that have a strong sense of individualism. I am not saying that this is a completely bad thing. In fact, it is often a good quality. But where it becomes a problem is when people are dishonest about themselves. We do not know what true humility is. Often, we think of humble people as being self, but in actuality humility is being honest about oneself.
While I was in management one of the most annoying things to do was interview people for the positions that I had to offer. It is not because I dislike people, but because people just could not speak honestly about themselves. My management experience was somewhat specialized, so it was difficult to find the right people. Everyone thought they could work in retail security. The fact is that very few people have the skills. It requires the ability to blend in, meaning you must look average, of course there are exceptions to this but the store I was in was one that required physical surveillance on the floor with everyone else. You would have to watch people without looking like you were watching people. Another thing is you had to have an ability to read people. Body language is the primary form of communication among humans, if you do not believe me try having a conversation while remaining completely still. Most of us cannot speak without shrugging our shoulders, skewing our faces, or moving our hands. It is nearly impossible to use body language. Our body language can even translate over the phone. People know by how you speak if your face has a smile or a frown. The third thing that I have found that people needed in retail security was the ability to control extreme emotional fluctuations. While you are in pursuit your body is on edge, your senses are being pushed and you are coiled tight like a spring. Then when you approach the shoplifter you must release all that tension and enter de-escalation mode, because you must do your best to keep the one you accuse calm enough to not cause harm. The fluctuation between the highs and lows are not something that many people can handle yet everyone I would interview made the claims that they could. I interviewed several great people, many of which I would have loved to have working in the store I was at, just not in the position I was trying to fill. It was not that they did not have skills it was that they were ignorant of the skills they needed in relation to the skills they possessed. I spent most of my two years in management trying to replace or find people to fill positions.
Our culture says we can do anything, but reality would reveal that often we cannot. It is not that we do not have the opportunity, but we may not have the temperament, or we may not have the skills. The problem is we do not always know this, and our ignorance can lead us into trials. There is also the other side of the equation, there are people that do have skills but often do not have the confidence to take the risk. Both situations lack humility because both are dishonest to ourselves.
The reason I bring this up is because today we find a couple of disciples that desire a position among the disciples, they want to be at the right- and left-hand side of Jesus when he comes into the kingdom. I want us to stop and think about this for a moment. James and John were risk takers, if they were among us today most likely we would like them. They had opinions, ambitions, and the gumption to move things forward. They were the sons of Zebedee, and if we were to investigate the recorded family history, we would find that Zebedee was not only a fisherman but the head of a fishing enterprise. He had boats, he had employees, he was an entrepreneur before humanity really knew what that meant. And his sons were very similar to him. When they got an idea, they went after it whole heartedly. When Jesus called them to follow they did not think twice, they dropped what they were doing and left the family business to the hired hands. We know a little bit more about these two brothers, they were also known as the sons of thunder. Have you ever considered what it would take to be known by that name? Maybe they had a short temper. Maybe they informed everyone around them of their opinion about everything. Maybe simply had a loud voice. We are not told exactly why they had this name, but it was important enough that Mark mentioned that Jesus called them this. I would venture to say it was probably a bit of all our imaginations. They were probably loud, opiniated, and forward people. And I say this because they had no problem asking Jesus to give them whatever they asked.
Think about this whole scene for a moment. A couple of weeks ago we discussed a very similar situation. The disciples were walking with Jesus from one place to another, He had just told them what would happen to him, and the disciples did not understand. Instead of asking for clarification they began to argue among themselves about which of them would be greatest. Jesus seemed a bit annoyed that they were arguing and when they stopped he gathered everyone together and said, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” He then brought a child before them and said, “whoever receives such a child in my name receives me.” Then because this teaching was uncomfortable John said, “there was this guy casting out demons in your name and we stopped him because he was not one of us.” And Jesus replied, “Do not stop him…for one who is not against us is for us.”
The disciples did not really understand what Jesus was saying. They had in their mind the way things were supposed to be and Jesus was trying to so them reality. Just shortly after this, the disciples tried to keep the children from coming to Jesus. And when this happened we get a glimpse of Jesus becoming upset with his disciples’ behavior, Mark 10:14 says that Jesus was indignant.
Then last week we considered the discussion between Jesus and the rich man. The one thing this man lacked was that his identity was misplaced. Again, we come back to humility. He thought of himself as greater than he was, even his question revealed that, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The disciples were astounded at this conversation because this great man in their eyes was lacking, and if he could not get into the kingdom who could?
After all of this we come to today’s passage. After hearing all these teachings of becoming a servant of all, welcoming the children, selling all we have to give to the poor. After all this, James and John decide to come to Jesus and say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” I think this might give us a glimpse as to where the name came from. They are bold like a clap of thunder. I like James and John, but I think they might have been the cause of many of the arguments among the disciples.
Jesus’s answer is surprising. I must admit that I am not like Jesus in many ways. If James and John asked this of me I probably would have become indignant again. I would have raised my voice and asked if they had listened to a single word I spoke. After all the things that had happened they are still stuck on this idea of who is the greatest. And they want Jesus to admit that they are. But Jesus is not like me. Jesus instead says, “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?”
I want us to stop right here for a moment and consider what Jesus is speaking about. We have symbolic language: a cup and baptism. Usually when we see these things they are about the religious rites. The cup is the representative of the blood Jesus would soon spill on the cross, while baptism would be that ritual of cleansing. But this is one of those instances where Jesus speaks beyond those symbols and directs us to the reality. The cup and baptism are more than rituals in this case they have nothing to do with rituals, what Jesus is referring to is the life and trials that he will face. He is asking them if they will be willing to suffer like he will suffer. He is asking them if they will be immersed and saturated in the ministry and lifestyle that he has been saturated in. Jesus is not talking about ceremony, but life and the Brothers of thunder boldly say that they are able to drink and plunge.
Imagine Jesus’s face when they respond. He has already said that they do not know what they ask. You can almost read between the lines, you can almost see the smirk on Jesus’s face as he responds to them. You can almost see the raised eyebrows, the shrugging of the shoulders and every other form of body language, because he is aware, yet they are ignorant. They do not know what they ask. They are asking upon themselves to be immersed in the same trials that Jesus would face. They are asking to be beaten and tortured in similar ways as Jesus would face. Jesus had already told them what he was about to face, the told them straight up that he would be crucified. He told them that the kingdom that they are thinking of is not going to be a reality, but something beyond their human understanding. Yet in their ignorance they say, “yep we got this. You just say we are the greatest among them all and we will do whatever you ask.”
Jesus responds 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.” But would they suffer and be immersed in this life? Tradition states, James the son of Zebedee, was the first apostle to be martyred. He was seen by the political powers as being one of the leaders among the disciples so in their quest to stop the conversions to this new expression of faith they struck down one son of thunder with a sword. They killed James because the growth of the movement was immense. Thousands were added daily scripture tells us. For this to happen the disciples, which included James and John, would have been so immersed in the work of the kingdom that they could do nothing else. We are told this in the Book of Acts. They were so immersed they had to appoint decans to assist in the ministry, because it was beyond their ability to oversee.
That is what we know about James. History and tradition also say a great deal about John. John is accredited with writing five books within the New Testament: The Gospel of John, the epistles of first, second and third John, as well as Revelation. John is the only apostle believed to have lived to and die of old age, but this does not mean he did not drink of the cup of Jesus. It is believed that John under the persecution of Rome was banished to an island. The reason that he was sent to the island, according to tradition, is because he did not die when the emperor attempted to have him executed by boiling him in oil. Tradition states that he was unharmed and continued to preach the gospel as he entered the boiling oil.
To face persecution and death for your faith is to be baptized in that faith. To suffer is to drink of the cup of Jesus. James and John may not have known what they asked, they may have been ignorant of the reality of the kingdom, but they boldly lived it out when they were given the opportunity. These sons of thunder became the voices of compassion and love to encourage the infant church for centuries.
They boldly asked in ignorance. This is what struck me as I studied this week. I considered how often I have thrown humility aside and boldly proclaimed my prominence among men only to have my ignorance shine brightly. We often do not know what we ask. But will we drink the cup? Will we be baptized with the baptism that Jesus is baptized with? Are we willing to become the last and the servant of all with the hopes of encouraging just one child to grab hold life in the Kingdom of God? Are we willing to boldly proclaim our faith and sell all we have to give to the poor with absolutely no guarantee that any of our efforts will provide any tangible return? Will we face the trials and be so immersed in the gospel of Christ that even boiling oil could not stop our proclamation?
We ask many things of our Lord. We ask for healing but are we willing to live the life required of us if that healing is provided and are willing to drink of that cup if it is not? We ask for success, but are we willing to grab hold of success in the economy of God even if it spells failure in the economies of men? We ask for wisdom, but are we willing to walk according to the leading the spirit provides through its holy wisdom? We often ask in ignorance only to find that the answers to our prayers are right here already. We already have everything we need to do everything God is asking us to do, but we keep asking out of ignorance because we are unwilling to accept the reality that we are the hands and the feet of Christ. We each are the ones that Christ is calling to serve out in our community. Are we willing to drink the cup?