I was talking this week with a friend of mine who preached this passage last Sunday. She summed it up like this: your friend tells you he’s going to die, and you say, “That’s a bummer—can I have your car?” This is not great. The other disciples are indignant—who do you think you are? Do you think you’re better than us? We’re indignant too, but I, at least, like to think I’m indignant for more honorable reasons. “Don’t you care about Jesus’ feelings?” Maybe we think, “I would never be so bold. I would never think so much of myself. I would never be so tactless.”
The later tradition, long after the resurrection, seems to have been embarrassed for James and John. Matthew’s version of this story has their mother ask Jesus for this favor. In Luke, we have some of these sayings that surround this story, but not the request itself. A few weeks ago, Beverly told us that one of the first rules of exegesis is that the harder reading is usually right. Here’s another one—the version of a story that makes big names look bad is also usually right. This is, more than likely, the ugly truth about these Faces of Faith. And just as he will say to Bartimaeus, before he takes away his blindness, Jesus asks—“What do you want me to do for you?”
We’re picking up this story as Jesus and his disciples are on the road to Jerusalem, where he will enter a popular hero and be crucified within the week. Jesus has just predicted his death for the third and final time, and, as they always do, the disciples have skated on past, not really sure of what to say. Sometimes they rebuke him, sometimes, it seems, they ignore him. Death is really not what they expect of their Messiah.
Imagine this: you’ve given up your life to follow someone who claims to be the chosen one of God. All the religious leaders in your life think he’s crazy, at best, and at worst, something akin to a cult leader. Your community, maybe your family, is fractured because of the decision you’ve made to follow this teacher who reinterprets your entire religious outlook. This is not safe, conservative behavior. The disciples are either crazy or a little bit afraid of what they’re doing. They’re doing it because of who it is that they follow. They’re compelled. They’re drawn. But, he continues to refuse to be the Messiah they expect. What kind of chosen-by-God savior resolutely begins a journey to a religious festival knowing he’s going to be executed for blasphemy and suspicion of insurrection?
It’s not clear how much of this the disciples have internalized, but I think it is clear that part of what they expect from their position as “one of the twelve” is glory. “When you come into your glory, we want to be part of it.” They know they’re in a special position. They’ve been chosen for something. They’ve been sent out, given power to drive out demons, to heal diseases. We would all like to think that in this position we would be humble. We would never grasp at this glory. But the truth is probably a little less saintly.
Around this time in history different groups of people expected different kinds of Messiahs. We don’t know exactly what the disciples thought Jesus would do, we often hear that they expected a military Messiah, and that’s possible. There were political zealots in Jesus’ circle of friends, who probably had great expectations for corporate deliverance. Their Messiah would free them from Roman rule. He would fight battles like Deborah and rebuild like Nehemiah and rule like David. I don’t know what James and John expected, but they definitely knew glory was coming. Rule was coming. And they wanted in.
There is a turn of phrase in verse 42 that you might have missed—“those whom they recognize as their rulers.” I translated this, “You know that those who are thought to rule the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones tyrannize them.” There’s an element of irony, but there is also a whisper of resistance and hope. Those who are thought to rule over the Gentiles are not the One who really rules over all the earth. This Messiah is not going to come for Rome with a military force. But he is going to come for Rome.
Philippians says that he became like a servant and therefore God gave him the name above every name. Jesus Christ is Lord means Pontius Pilate is not lord, the governor is not lord, Caesar is not lord. It means President Trump is not lord and neither is whomever else you choose to vote for next week. No world leader we might fear or admire, no corporate giant or bank, no boss or shareholder or partner is lord. The person who sent the bombs this week is not lord. The person who killed worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue yesterday is not lord. Jesus Christ is Lord means that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. God has given him cosmic authority because of his sacrifice. The Son of Humanity came not to be served but to serve. Glory was coming. Rule was coming. But Christ’s glory comes from a new and different kind of fight. He came not to be served, but to serve.
Jesus was born to a woman who was whispered about for the rest of her life. He was poor. He spent most of his life as a skilled laborer, living among the regular people. He had regular friends. He called regular fishermen and tax collectors to follow him. He healed a regular woman from twelve years of bleeding and isolation. He raised regular people from the dead. He made regular people angry. He called regular people to repentance. He could have come in power and glory to rule the earth in tyranny, just as the rulers of the Gentiles do, and he could have done this justly, because the earth and all that is in it belongs to him.
But, in Jesus Christ God has elected to be present to us as one of us. That alone is an impossibly great condescension. But he was not born as a king. He was not born to the imperial household, or even to Herod. He chose to be born among the lowest and the least. Reformed theologian Karl Barth calls this deep, concrete identification with us “no cheap pity.” Christ has come as one of us, to cry over a friend’s death, to be misunderstood by his family, to be rejected by those he has always loved, to beg for deliverance from impending death and hear God’s “no”. Christ has come as one of us to be betrayed by a friend, denied, and abandoned by his friends, to suffer more horribly than any of us ever will, to die exposed and disgraced.
Our epistle reading from Hebrews speaks of Jesus as our high priest. There’s a reason that we don’t use the word “priest” for our clergy in the Presbyterian church. (Happy Reformation Sunday!) A priest is a representative who communicates with God on behalf of the people. When God came as one of us he became his own representative, and at the same time he became our representative. Hebrews says a priest is able to deal gently with the people because he himself is subject to weakness. This is the great love of God, that he chose to subject himself to our weakness, to cry our tears, to feel the sting of our betrayal, to die our death. That is costly pity, but it is real. It’s holy, and not trite.
Christ’s merciful death on the cross is God experiencing our death, it is God submitting to our violence, it is God suffering from our sin, it is God offering propitiation as our great high priest. This is a mystery with many facets, but it is God becoming human that makes the atonement possible, that makes it merciful, that makes his suffering redemptive. James and John cannot suffer for their own redemption. You and I cannot experience redemptive suffering. Christ’s suffering is redemptive, because, in taking on humanity, God made it possible for us to participate in his resurrection. The Son of Humanity came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
More often than not, we are James and John. We seek glory, certain that we can pay for it with our own blood, sweat, and tears, certain that we deserve it. But we can never deserve it. Jesus is the only one, the representative, the true human, the true God, the one who gave us life and gave his life for us, the one who was born to us so that we could be born of his Spirit. The places on either side of Jesus in his glory went to the criminals on the crosses. Jesus’ glory is in his saving love, poured out for us on the cross.
Since Jesus Christ experienced our pain, he is worthy of our trust. And like James and John, we are baptized with his baptism and drink the cup of his blood. These are proclamations and participations in the death and resurrection of Christ our Lord, who has loved us so abundantly that we can be part of his body, we can put our faith and trust in his love, we can put our hope in his saving death and our joy in the promise of resurrection. As you take the body and blood of Christ today, recall his love for you, given in real, concrete, true presence.
BENEDICTION: Friends, go in peace, to love and serve the Lord who loved and served you, and “may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.”