The following sermon was preached by Micah Sievenpiper, LSTC student, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Thursday, October 25, 2012.
There's something profoundly refreshing about just how bold James and John are in this text; it borders on the absurd—Jesus flat-out tells them that they have no clue what they're talking about, and it doesn't even faze them; they simply proclaim their faith and faithfulness all the more boldly.
They don't spend their time sitting around in a conference room, crafting mission statements and ten-year plans; they don't get bogged down in meetings, carefully weighing a balanced budget, taking great pains to practice fiscal responsibility and good stewardship models. They don't take time discerning how this works into their schedule, or wonder if it's good self-care. They don't really think ahead, or stop to consider the implications of what they're saying and doing—they just do it. They know what they want, so they walk up to Jesus, and ask for it. It's a bold move; I can respect that. Granted, as Jesus notes immediately, they really don't know what they're saying, but still...
Or maybe that's not quite true; sure, they don't have the whole thing figured out, but they've got a good idea. They're not entirely sure what to make of Jesus, but I can't find fault them for that—I'm right there with them. We tend to think that the disciples in Mark's gospel as completely clueless, but Jesus has been speaking in needlessly obtuse riddles. It makes sense they'd get confused. He's constantly telling people not to talk about him, despite the strange and miraculous things that happen wherever he goes— for example, not too long ago, just a few chapters back, when they were walking up a mountain, he started glowing. I think we can all admit that's a bit odd, at the very least.
They're not certain what's going on with Jesus...but they do know this much: they desire, above all else, to be close to him. To follow Him at any cost. To be right in the middle of everything, wherever Jesus goes—even unto death. They know that there is something about this Jesus that is different. Unique. Holy.
Perhaps it might have done them some good to spend time in the conference room, pausing to think before asking Jesus for permission to bask in his reflected glory, sitting at his right hand and his left. Being less brash, taking a step back to consider what some of the consequences might be, could have caused less drama between the disciples, but then again, that just wouldn't be the Sons of Zebedee.
"Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?" Jesus challenges, "Or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" If they were more like Moses, they would have balked, declaring themselves unfit for such a task. Were they more like Sarah or Abraham, they might have laughed...but James and John, bless their hearts, just look at each other and say "Of course we can." Bold. Bolder still is Jesus' response; he assures them that they will keep their word. They bite off way more than they can chew—and then they proceed to chew it.
They're on the cusp of something big, and they've signed up to be front and center. Jesus has just foretold his death for the third time, and they want to be right there with him, sharing his cup and his baptism. James and John don't know what this entails, but we do. These are not easy or pleasant tasks; the Cup from which Jesus will drink ends with the Son of God hanging lifeless upon a cross; his baptism leads to a shroud cast over him, as he is laid in a tomb. It hardly seems like the sort of Glory you go out of your way to sit beside.
...yet these are the very things which bring life. Listen to that—do you hear it, slowly, steadily flowing? The constant sound of death transformed into new life, flowing into our midst and out into the world; the baptism Jesus bore, drowning us to sin in a flood of Grace, and daily raising new life in Christ. Or look, there—a simple table, sparsely decorated... yet it is routinely set with a feast worthy of the greatest banquet halls, where we are given to drink a cup that overflows with life, the blood of Christ poured out for the life of the world.
These are simple things, too plain for the grandeur of God—and that is exactly what we experience in them. Jesus takes these things and breathes life into them, recasting honor as humility; greatness as service.
Of course the other ten are going to get indignant at the brazen demand of the Sons of Zebedee; to them, it seems arrogant and greedy. But James and John seem to have a better idea of what was going on than they get credit for. Jesus has been talking in riddles for long enough that they're starting to figure it out. This is how they respond to Jesus' prediction of his own death; with the desire to follow him, closely, intimately, regardless of the consequences. To share in the glory of Jesus; to love as Jesus loves, to serve as Jesus serves.
The prophet Isaiah paints a magnificent portrait of bold humility. It's a familiar image; a lamb, silently bearing the transgressions of humanity. A single life, ransoming —freeing—the multitudes from the bondage of sin and death, ushering in peace and life. The servant of God faces the tomb, even though there was no violence in his actions, nor deceit in his mouth. It's the same humble service Jesus lives out, transforming the cup from which he drinks, and the baptism with which he is baptized into treasures that give life—not death. He knows that he will die, "giving his life as a ransom for many," and it is through this most humble act of service that humanity receives gifts of life ever flowing from the font and the table.
Eight days ago, Dean Shelley preached from this pulpit, and talked about a man who lived a life of humble service. Saint Francis followed in the steps of James and John —he wanted the light of God shining in the darkness of his life. We heard how he gave up his claim on worldly riches for a life of bold humility, and his story is filled with examples of generosity and service; of charity and fidelity.
His life was such an inspiration that people flocked to Assisi, eager to live simply. The richness of this communal life of prayer and service led to a rapidly growing community, and the founding of the Franciscan Order...and just as James and John's yearning to be ever closer to Jesus caused dissent among the Twelve, the rapid growth of the order caused its own problems. Francis founded the order, but he was far from the only friar, and many that came after him did not always share his views. His leadership was eventually rejected; cast aside. Forced to yield to younger friars that appeared more interested in power than in service to Christ, Francis withdrew to Mount la Verna, frustrated.
Fasting on the mountain, alone, he sobbed a prayer of heartbreak. "How, O Lord, can you love such people, when they do you so much to harm?" he begged to know. With the boldness of the Sons of Zebedee, he demanded that Christ show him just how he managed to love humanity so selflessly; so tenderly...Jesus answered the prayer of Saint Francis; for the rest of his days, he would bear the stigmata, the wounds of Christ, the scars left by the long road to the cross. Francis asked Jesus how he loved humanity, and Jesus shared with him the marks of his death—the marks that bring life to the world. So, too, are we assured that James and John experience the same ineffable grace God brings into the world—the same grace we encounter at the font, and the table.
"The cup that I drink, you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized." Jesus has gone before us, bearing the sins of the world, and with an inescapable love, transforms the paths of death into avenues of life.