I made a mistake last Sunday. I mentioned that the disciples had been arguing about who was the favorite and asking Christ to favor them, but last week the disciples seemed to “get it”. Well, I thought we had already had this text. The asking Christ to place them in positions of favor is our text today. But, that is ok. It reminds us that discipleship is not always a linear progression or growth… sometimes we take a few steps back.
We are in the year of (the gospel of) Mark. Mark is the “simple” gospel, there is not much added detail. In (the gospels of) Matthew and Luke, the added details theologize, or add a theological significance to, the narrative. But, Mark is extremely intentional in structure and loves to “sandwich” narratives in order to pound the desired message into our heads. We are in such a sandwich.
This sandwich begins with the healing of a blind man. Then, we have three instances where Jesus foretells of his arrest, passion, crucifixion, death, and resurrection. It is always met with misunderstanding and then he offers a teaching. First, the disciples argue about who among them is the greatest, who would replace Jesus. The teaching is that the “least” with be the “greatest”. Second, the disciples ask how can we inherit eternal life [if the rich man cannot]. The teaching is that for humans, it is impossible; but for God anything is possible. This is grace! Then our text today, which is followed by Jesus healing another blind man. Perhaps, this is Mark suggesting the disciples were “blind” and are gaining “sight”.
Jesus and the disciples are on their way to Jerusalem. Jesus is literally on the way to his arrest, passion, crucifixion, and death (and resurrection) when he is approached by John and James. Although Jesus has foretold his fate to the disciples three times, John and James are expecting Christ to be crowned in Jerusalem as the king and an earthly reign of power to begin. They are expecting a banquet, a party. They assume that Jesus will need (political) advisors to be seated at his left and his right. They want to be in these positions of power, of favor, and of honor… why not?
Yet, Jesus is saying “you don’t understand”.
This concept of expectations reminds me of a recent story. As many of you know, my grandmother was quite ill before her passing and therefore it was not a surprise. Her family tradition is to be buried in brand new pajamas for their “eternal” rest. My uncle, who is not religious nor has embraced family traditions asked my mother if we would be burying her in a leisure suit. [I know, we also thought leisure suits had gone out of style years ago.] My mother explained the family tradition and that she had already purchased brand new, blue pajamas to match the coffin my grandmother had chosen. He responded, “Well, she cannot go walking in the garden in pajamas”. Now, my grandmother passed in the morning after several mornings of asking the caretaker to fix my grandfather a breakfast plate. He passed shortly before my first birthday, but for those of you who have walked with someone in the process of dying and death know this is not abnormal. So, my sister replied to my uncle, “I think grandpa got tired of waiting for breakfast and took her out to eat”. To which, he replied “there is no food in heaven”.
We, like the disciples, have expectations for what discipleship and the kingdom/paradise will be. My uncle envisions gardens. My sister envisions a large table of food, specifically biscuits and gravy, that she can indulge herself without gaining a pound.
John and James envision an earthly kingdom, which probably mirrored their image of the heavenly kingdom. Upon their request, Jesus asks if they can drink from the same cup as him. He asks if they can be baptized in a baptism like his own. They respond “we are able”. I image, John and James are thinking ‘we can share a cup of wine with you and we can/have been baptized with water’. But, they do not have the 2,000 years since Christ’s death and resurrection to understand his references.
Jesus’ teaching, again, is that the “greatest” will be the “least”, the servant of all. A notion not strange to the Lutheran tradition, as Martin Luther wrote we are freed from the bondage of sin in order to be free to be the servant of all.
This is counter-cultural. Jesus is counter-cultural for his time as well as our own. He is not counter-cultural, however, to simply be counter-cultural or “cool”. He is counter-cultural for the sake of the gospel. And we are called, in our discipleship, to be counter-cultural for the sake of the gospel.
And in (the gospel of) Mark, there is only one time that individuals are included at the right and left of Christ. It is when Christ is on the cross, crucified between two criminals. Although you may argue it is coincidence, I think it was intentional. Christ has the “unexpected”, the sinners at his right and his left.
Although the kingdom/paradise and discipleship may not be what we expect, it is a journey and one that we do not make alone.
Text- Mark 10: 35-45
*I do not preach from a manuscript, so I is not word-for-word what was preached.