I say this with more experience and confidence than I wish I had, but there is nothing greater than seeing the people of Christ Church after recovering from surgery. Three times this year I’ve gotten to experience this, and three times this year I’ve gotten to experience the wonderful way in which the people of this church love to serve. And even as we all learn to navigate a temporary set up while I’m healing from my leg break and surgery, it is so very good to be back. In our time together, one of the things you may have picked up on a habit that I have; often times when something goes awry, I will immediately follow it with, “It’s fine. Everything is fine.” It doesn’t matter if I drop a pen or there’s a small disaster that requires creative problem solving – “It’s fine. Everything’s fine.” It’s almost like a mantra to remind me that while, no, everything likely is not fine in the moment, it will be; it is both true and untrue in the moment, but affirms the reality that everything will, in fact, be fine. Everything will be fine.
In our gospel passage today, James and John have a similar verbal habit when they quickly answer Jesus’ question about their willingness to be disciples with, “We are able.” We are able is both true and untrue in the moment, but affirms the reality that everything will be fine and soon these disciples will be able. These two disciples attempt to grasp what they hope to be true, that they are able, by confidently affirming that they already are able. Backing up a bit from our text today, just before our lectionary passage picks up in our gospel lesson today, Jesus foretells for the third time of his death and coming passion. Jesus doesn’t hold back when he pulls the disciples aside and tells them that he will be condemned to death, that he will be mocked and spit upon, flogged, and eventually be killed. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, or the sons of thunder as Jesus nicknamed them earlier in Mark’s gospel, live up to their reputation. These two rush to Jesus’ side and in light of Jesus’ prediction of his crucifixion and resurrection ask Jesus to grant them seats of honor, one on Jesus’ right and one on Jesus’ left.
Jesus tries to warn them that they don’t know the full extent of what they are asking – can they drink the same cup and live in the same baptism as the Christ? Without hesitation the brothers’ respond with enthusiasm, “We are able.” In light of their insistence that “everything is fine, we are able,” Jesus affirms that they will drink the cup and be baptized with the baptism, but that the places of honor are not his to grant. The other disciples get wind of James and John’s request and get angry and jealous that the brothers beat them to calling shotgun. It isn’t hard to imagine an exasperated Jesus gathering up the twelve, giving a heavy sigh, and reminding them that the way that greatness works in this world is not what the kingdom of heaven is about. To become great you need not sit beside the Messiah, but you must become a servant to all; this, Jesus gently reminds them yet again, is the whole point.
The disciples struggle, and perhaps we can relate to the disciples because they are examples of what it might mean to follow Jesus, but the disciples struggle to stand in the reality that Jesus is presenting to them: this is not a world wherein which Jesus’ message of radical love, compassion, and service is easily accepted. Arguing over greatness is not what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and when we begin to let that worldly narrative of success or greatness slip into our hearts we forget that what Jesus was really about what about being a servant to all.
The disciples struggle because they, like so many of us, resist the idea of brokenness. If the narrative of the disciples responding to Jesus predicting his death with arguments about greatness sound familiar, it because just a few weeks ago, we heard a similar exchange between Jesus and the disciples. For the second time, in response to Jesus’ describing his death and resurrection the disciples resist the idea of the Messiah being broken, beaten, and dying a horrific death and they fill the space not with compassion and service but with arguments about who is the greatest or who will sit in glory. It is a poor attempt to try to distract themselves from what they fear; it is a poor attempt to try to claim that they are able rather than admitting that they cannot do it alone. And while I feel personally connected with the disciple’s resistance to brokenness given the past few weeks, if I’m honest, I also deeply resonate with their feeble attempt to be able.
Jesus tells them that they must drink the cup and be baptized with the same baptism. This cup isn’t just the cup from which we drink at the communion station, it is the cup of gall given to Jesus on the cross. The baptism with which those who follow Jesus must be baptized isn’t merely the cool water poured over our heads in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, it is the baptism of death and dying on the cross and the unrelenting hope of the resurrection three days later. While the disciples argue about greatness, Jesus reminds them that this life will never be easy. Jesus, softly redirects them when James and John respond that they are able to the truth that no one can truly be able to take this on, not alone.
Even for the best of us is not in our nature, to live a life of service to all. Service to those we love, service to those who are injured or ill, certainly, but service to ALL? This will not be easy and without God’s help not a single one of us are able.
Earlier this week I read an article which found its locus in the concept of trying to be Christian, put forth by Maya Angelou; that no one of us are accomplished Christians, we’re all just doing our best trying to be Christian and live into a life in which we serve all. She says, “I’m always amazed . . . when [people] walk up to me and say, ‘I’m a Christian.’ I always think, ‘Already? You’ve already got it? My goodness, you’re fast.’”
This Christian life is not one of greatness; this Christian life is not one of fast and easy results. To be a disciple of Christ is not to argue about who gets the seat of honor, but it is to live a life of service, it is to live a life guided by the crucified and resurrected Messiah. We cannot live our lives of faith with the assumption that we are already able. We must begin and continually remind ourselves that we are only able with God’s help; we must continually remind ourselves that the kingdom of God is unlike this world, and that success and greatness for followers of Christ do not follow the same rules that our society hands us.
Today, we welcome into the household of God, Richy. We will pray prayers over him that we need to hear to remind and center ourselves, because the truth is, as he grows he will only be able, just as we all are, with God’s help.
In baptism, the grace of the Holy Spirit is poured out like water; it is a beautiful, amazing thing. And baptism is also an initiation into the Christian life; it is a commitment to drink from the same cup and to be baptized with the same baptism. It will not be easy; but with that same cup comes deep compassion and with that baptism, immeasurable and everlasting hope. And with our baptismal promises comes the commitment that only together, with God’s help, are we able.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY on Proper 24B, October 21, 2018 on Mark 10:35-45.