This week Peter gets a bit of a break. Understand Peter is often the voice of the Apostles. When he “gets it” in Scripture, all the Apostles are deemed to have gotten it; when he “fails to get it,” all are presumed to have missed the teaching as well. But this week, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, get to prove how hard Jesus’ teachings were to understand on the other side of the Resurrection. Both men approach Jesus and ask for a favor. They wish to sit at the right hand and left hand of Jesus when He comes into His glory. James and John are thinking in terms of worldly kings and worldly courts. In essence, though they probably would disagree with us, James and John wish to relieve the people of Judea from the self-serving rule of the Romans and to replace it with their own self-serving rule. “But these are the Apostles, James and John, they know the heart and mind of Jesus. Surely they would not rule self-servingly, right? you might be tempted to argue. But in asking to sit at the hand of power, both are simply offering themselves in place of others. They would be the generals and councillors of the new kingdom, second only to the Rabbi! It’s no wonder they other Apostles get mad. Now they, too, will have to serve these brothers if Jesus grants the request.
Jesus, of course, knows what they are asking and what He must do. He states that He is not in charge of who sits where; it is His job to drink the cup of suffering and be plunged into that fear of separation from God. He will suffer hardship and trial as He comes into His glory. Do they want to share in that to enter into His glory. At this point, the brothers do not understand Jesus’ question, but they assert that they will drink the cup and be baptized like Him. Jesus takes their enthusiasm, and the desire of the other Apostles who have heard the request, and tries to use that enthusiasm to teach them what God means by great. Just as the messiah was chosen to draw others to God through loving, faithful service of others, so, too, are His disciples. Jesus’ disciples are meant to be His ambassadors on earth, modeling the very behavior their Lord exhibited when He strolled the earth. Certainly, Jesus’ teaching is unexpected. As we have discussed countless times, the culture was looking for the conquering hero. Jesus was, ultimately, a conqueror, but His manner of victory confounds all.
In serving those whom He came to ransom, Jesus instructs them and us, He best demonstrates the Father’s love for all. When we could not pay the ransom asked by Jesus in 8:37 some two chapters earlier, God Himself provides the ransom through the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension of His only Son.
In one sense, the readings for this day are a big “duh” for those of us gathered here. We understand “ransom” far better than many of our contemporaries just by virtue of our work in human trafficking. We have seen the results of such servanthood through Angel Food, Community Meal, Winnie’s Place, the Prison Ministries, and whatever one or ones you feel called to serve. Many of us have been asked why we do what we do, so we know the impact that loving service can make on those in the world around us. Heck, some of us are asked in our places of work, in the hospitals, and in other “secular” locations how we face the uncertainties we do with joy, peace, calm, or whatever name those around us give “it.”
One question demanded by Christ in this passage, however, is the personal pursuit of glory in the lives of His disciples. So many of us pursue honor and glory as we engage in the world, and yet we proclaim to all who would listen to us that “we really are Christians.” Can a Christian, can a disciple of Christ, be at all concerned with honor and glory knowing that our Lord has drunk from the cup of wrath for our sake and undergone such humiliation for our sake? Put differently, knowing that our Lord suffered and died for us, should we be at all concerned with what the world judges as success? I am not, of course, just talking about those whose seeming goal is to find the next great position in the church. We all know those members of the clergy who seem to be angling for a purple shirt, a better title, a larger staff to cater to their whims. I am told that St. Alban’s has suffered through an individual in its past, so you know firsthand how the angling and plotting interferes with pastoring. But what of us in the pews? How many of us play by different rules during the week than those espoused by the Lord? How many of us angle for promotions? How many of us serve the almighty dollar? How many of us think our beloved status is best reflected by the car or truck that we drive, the house that we live in, or the clothes that we wear. I suppose, being Episcopalians, I should add the brand of the liquor which we drink. Far too easily, it seems, we allow the standards of the world to encroach upon the mission and attitude of the church and His disciples. Far too often, we allow ourselves to be seduced by the charms of the world and to forget our true calling.
Thankfully and mercifully, we have as our pattern of life a Savior who turned greatness on its head. He achieved honor and power not through inheritance or through a conquering army but through selfless and life-giving love of others. True, the world still acts as if it is not yet subject to Him. But we, His disciples, know better. We know that He who Ascended will return and that at that day every knee shall bend and every head shall bow and every voice will proclaim Him as Lord. We know that our ransom has been paid by the only One who could ever hope to pay it. And we know that at that day when He returns to complete what He has begun in us, He will call us forth not as slaves but as brothers and sisters, heirs in the kingdom of His Father. Then and only then, will we understand that the trappings of this life are garbage as St. Paul instructs us. Then, and only then, we will understand the greatness and honor and glory to which He and our Father calls us, the honor and glory and greatness which is not fleeting, but eternal!