Series: “Discipleship Camp”
October 18, 2015
This is our fourth week in Discipleship Camp. As Jesus moves from his success in Galilee to his sacrifice on the cross, he has a number of conversations with his disciples along the way. What does it mean to follow him? What does it mean to be his disciple? Today we have one more conversation in chapter 10 of the Gospel of Mark:
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.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 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?” 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; 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.”
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 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. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Well, let’s give them a little bit of credit. James and John have walked with Jesus from the beginning. They left their fishing nets and their father at Sea of Galilee, and they have gone wherever Jesus has gone.
James and John have seen it all. They saw him cast out the demon at their synagogue at Capernaum, and they went next door to watch him cure a woman’s headache. He scared them when he touched a leper and made him well. They were in the boat when he shouted away a terrible storm. They heard him preach about the kingdom and saw him raise a little girl from the dead. They watched him turn as bright as the sun and heard God say, “This is my Son.”
Now they come forward from the others and lay on him the title, “Teacher.” James and John are his students - his disciples – and he is their Teacher. His words and his works have instructed them. They believe God is real, that God is present in him. They call him “Teacher.”
And they already know what he is going to teach them in very chapter of this Gospel. He’s going to say, “Ask whatever you wish, believe that you are receiving it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24). They believe in the power of asking God for whatever you wish . . . but that’s when the conversation quickly takes a bad turn.
Jesus the Teacher says, in effect, you don’t know what you’re talking about. They request something that seems to be above his pay grade to approve. He gets kind of snarly with them. It sounds like he is annoyed. And whatever they ask ignites the anger of the other ten disciples, who are furious with James and John.
So what’s the problem? My friend Mark Davis says it this way: James and John want to “ride shotgun” with Jesus. Have you heard that phrase? When you see a vehicle that somebody else is driving, and you want a good seat next to the driver, you call out “shotgun.” That allows you to sit right up front. You can watch everything that is happening and you can be ahead of the guys who are behind you.
Of course, James and John “call shotgun” before the other ten can speak up. Most of the Bible scholars say that’s why the other disciples get so upset. They are slow on the uptake, and James and John step in to scramble ahead. The two brothers must figure they have put in their time. They have seen the hidden secrets. They are part of the inner circle, along with Simon Peter - - and we all know what a blowhard he can be.
“So put us right up front, Lord, close by your side. Lift us to the top of the heap. Empower us to get ahead of everybody else. Grant us to sit by you when you come into your glory.”
And the Lord says, “You don’t have a clue what you are saying.”
We can question their motives. These were humble fishermen from the north country. When Jesus walked by the sea and said, “Follow me,” they were ready to go. Mark says they left their father Zebedee standing in the boat, and off they went. They didn’t know where they were going, but we can assume they were glad to go somewhere else. Moving on up . . .
When Jesus was up north, he was really successful. Everything he did was wonderful. They wanted to be part of that. He took on the powers of evil, and he won every battle. James and John were on the winning team. They were glad to be part of his “glory” – the Greek word is “doxa,” as in “doxology.” It’s a big, powerful, extraordinary word. They could be famous, just like Jesus. Some of his power could rub off on them.
The lure of power, privilege, and status is still an attraction for those who would follow Jesus. I see the preachers who build big glass churches and talk about God as if they were best of friends. They learn to speak in dulcet tones and write uplifting books, all so they might expand their reach. The cable channels ask their advice on the latest issues of the day, and then pay an appropriate consultant fee. Oh, Lord, give us some of your glory!
Stop by on a Monday and see the Christian junk mail that crosses my desk. You, too, can have a bigger ministry, a better website, a wider reach, a deeper impact. You can be so good that the Lord will grant you a good seat on his right or his left. Let’s have some of that glory!
And Jesus says, “You don’t even know what you are asking.”
Of course they don’t. Immediately before they make this bold request, Jesus says, “I’m going to Jerusalem and I’m going to die.” And Mark describes their response as “amazed” and “afraid” (10:32-34). These are the same words Mark uses to describe the people who find the tomb of Jesus is empty on Easter: they are "amazed" and "afraid."
Just as they were disturbed to hear on Easter that Jesus was once again on the loose, James and John were disturbed to hear that he was first going to die. So maybe their desire for status and power is an expression of their fear. After all, if we sense our importance is slipping away, if we fear that we are out of control, one response is to grab hold, and do whatever we can to advance ourselves.
This happens. You know it happens. I remember Christmas message of Pope France gave last year to the inner circle of the Vatican. They were expecting to hear, as they always have, how wonderful it is to be the leaders of the Roman church. And the Pope said, “Like any body, we are exposed to sickness, malfunction and infirmity. I would like to mention some of these illnesses and temptations that weaken our service to the Lord.”
With that, he began his diagnosis: excessive industriousness, the sickness of mental and spiritual hardening, the ailment of rivalry and vainglory, deifying leaders, spiritual Alzheimers, indifference to others, and (my favorite) Funereal Face. When he was done, a couple of people clapped, probably out of habit. The rest, I think, were “amazed” and “afraid.” I mean, who does the Pope think he is, calling church leaders on the carpet for their arrogance?
Self-importance seeps into our life in all kinds of ways. It’s in our culture. It’s in the air we breathe. A friend in New York told me about going to a “recital” of vocal students in his town. They didn’t sing very well, he said, but they had worked on their stage presence. These were ten year olds, who had memorized the moves of “The Voice,” “Dancing with the Stars,” “America’s Got Talent,” and all the rest. It was glory, glory, glory, with all the requisite red sequin shimmy. The message was clear: these kids weren’t only aiming for the stars; they were aiming to be stars.
What is the appeal of glory? Is it the hunger to be better than the people around us? Do we want external affirmation because of some internal deficit? Do we believe that if we get a bit of glory, we can be exempt from any suffering?
Jesus is pretty clear with James and John: you will suffer, just like me, just like anybody else. You will drink the cup that I drink, his blood shed for us. You will be baptized as he was baptized, with the sign of the cross. Nobody gets a pass on such things, especially if they are following Jesus.
Here is the secret, the great open secret: as we follow Jesus, and claim him as our Teacher and Lord, the get-ahead values of the world are not going to matter. The abundant life of God is not about more money, a bigger job, or more prestige and power. It’s not about getting a fast new car so you can zoom by the ordinary people and get ahead. No, it’s about finding our life’s purpose by serving others and setting them free from whatever enslaves them.
Here, at the end of this passage, Jesus talks about the purpose of his self-giving death on the cross. It’s the only time he says it in the Gospel of Mark. He gives his life as a “ransom” payment. He comes to set people free from the powers of evil that want to kidnap us, from the powers of destruction that hold us hostage. He gives his life to liberate people from the Devil and from themselves. Jesus is a Servant, and that is his service.
And for those who are invited to follow him – and those who choose to follow him – our greatest purpose comes in serving others. We follow Christ by setting others free from the ignorance and the suffering and the sickness that enslaves them. The truly Christian life is never about us and our own advancement. It’s about loving God so much that we then love our neighbors, and do what is best for their well-being.
One of the people who reflects on this is the late Dutch priest, Henri Nouwen. He wrote a book called “The Selfless Way of Christ: Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life.” Here’s what he says:
“The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which the world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross… It is not a leadership of power and control, but a leadership of powerless and humility in which the suffering servant of God, Jesus Christ, is made manifest.”
For Father Nouwen, downward mobility was not merely an idea. It was a life-giving practice of faith. After a career of teaching at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard, he sensed the calling to become a chaplain at Daybreak, a community of adults with mental and developmental disabilities in Toronto. He struggled with his Ivy League ideas as he worked with people who were unable to spell their own names, but their joyful spirits reflected the joy of Jesus Christ.
He tells about an invitation to give three lectures at an institute in Washington, D.C. His community at Daybreak believed he should take along a resident for the event. After all, Jesus sent out his disciples two by two. So, they said, “take Bill Van Buren. He can be your assistant.” Henri was sensitive to Bill and his rather profound needs, but he wondered how this was going to work.
They flew down to Washington, checked into the hotel, and then went to the hall where Henri would speak. As the host introduced Father Nouwen in glowing and effusive terms, Henri wondered how Bill Van Buren would be able to assist. When Henri stood to the applause, his first speech in a leather folder, Bill stood up with him, and stood behind Henri at the podium.
Then something extraordinary happened. As Henri finished page one of his speech, Bill stepped up, lifted the page, and put it face down on a side table. Henri went on to page two, and then Bill took the page when he was finished and put it face down on page one. He was the assistant! Henri relaxed and the speech went on.
When he was done, people applauded, and Bill said, “Can I say something too?” Henri froze and thought, “What’s he going to say?” Bill stepped up and said, “I am very glad to be with you. Thank you very much.”
There was more applause, and as they returned to their speech, he turned to the priest and said, “How did you like my speech?” Henri said, “Bill, it was very good.” Bill beamed and said, “We did it together, didn’t we!” Yes they did.
All of us are in this together. When it comes to living the love of God, none of us need to get ahead, and all of us are called to serve. Jesus says, “I came to serve; not to be served, but to serve.”
Anybody who would follow him will do the same.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.
 The Washington Post, 22 December 2014.
 Henri Nouwen, The Selfless Way of Christ: Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life, Orbis Press, 2011
 Henri Nouwen tells the story in his book, In theName of Jesus (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1989) 95-101.