This morning, we have a couple of my favorite New Testament characters:
John and James, the sons of Zebedee.
Early in the Gospels, we learn that John and James are respectfully the second and third disciples called out from their boats, away from their father, their fishing careers, and their lives as they knew it to be “fishers of men”. These men were followers since the beginning and had literally sacrificed EVERYTHING (besides their physical lives) for the sake of following Jesus.
During this Time after Pentecost, we hear scriptures of Jesus being VERY patient with the disciples and he is patient with us (thanks be to God!). Jesus patiently is attempting to teach his disciples (and us) not only how to be followers of Christ but how to lead the church, or “the faithful”, into their future without Christ physically present to lead.
Jesus was well aware of how his public ministry and time among the disciples would end.
Previously, we heard the disciples following behind Jesus bickering among themselves…
Disciple #1: “I am the best.”
Disciple #2: “No! I am the best.”
Disciple #3: “No, No! REALLY I am the best.”
We all have the ambition, desire, and drive to be the best at something…
as I said that morning, EVEN if it is being the best at being the crankiest.
We all have ambition and desire to be the best at SOMETHING.
It is that ambition that leads us to be leaders.
Ambition is similar to power, money/resources, and leadership.
These are tools neutral by nature, but the one who wills these determines if their use is for “good” or “evil” purposes.
How do we will our ambition and drive?
How do we will our leadership for the sake of those who we are leading?
Jesus attempts to teach the disciples (and us) this lesson, when John and James come to Jesus with their own ambitions of holding the top two seats of honor and power when Jesus comes into his own glory. This ambition consumes them as they seek it in an unhealthy manner: manipulation.
As previous followers sought to manipulate Jesus to continue performing miracles for their own sake, John and James came to Christ saying “before we ask you, we want you to promise that you, Jesus, will do exactly what we want you to do for us”.
Jesus is too savvy for their trick and asks, “what is it that you want? what are you seeking?”.
John and James reply, “we want to be in the two positions with the most honor. We want to be one at your right hand and the other at your left hand”.
Jesus questions “are you able to drink of the cup that I will drink? Are you able to be baptized as I am baptized?”.
Clearly, John and James imagine that they are able without realizing that the cup is Jesus’ own arrest, passion, sacrifice and death upon the cross. John and James, as Jesus says, will be martyred following in Jesus’ footsteps. It might not necessarily be willingly and joyfully, but they will drink of that same cup.
But, Jesus also informs John and James that the seats are not his to assign but are for those who these seats of honor have been prepared. (We do not know who these are prepared).
The Biblical culture was a honor-shame based society, whose hierarchy was determined by who held more “honor”; therefore, you never desired your social worth to decrease especially into ‘shame’. One desired to move up the social ladder, or literally “up” the table seeking to be at the right hand and the left hand of your host (or guest of honor). This increase in honor could be achieved by doing favors for those who had more honor and therefore could bestow more honor upon you.
Jesus, as a patient Rabbi rooted in Scripture, informs the disciples that they are thinking about the seats of honor wrongly and reminds them again of the Great Reversal.
Last Sunday, we heard that the last shall be first. That doesn’t make sense.
Before last Sunday, we heard that in order to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven,
we must become like the little ones (i.e., the lowest on the social ladder/table).
This Sunday, Jesus reinforces this lesson. It is the lesson that we are called to seek justice, to act with compassion and mercy, to love and to serve not those who can help increase our honor BUT rather those who can do NOTHING for us; therefore, it is those who cannot repay, the least of these, and the little ones we are called to serve. Jesus proclaims this stating he came not to be served but to serve.
We, followers of Jesus, do not seek positions of power, authority, and leadership to ‘rule’ it over the others but rather to walk with them and become servants to them.
Martin Luther’s writing entitled “The Freedom of a Christian” is one of his most infamous and our Gospel this morning essentially summarizes it.
Luther writes that baptized Christians have been freed from the bonds of sin, from the “law”, from the obligations required for salvation because of God’s grace. Grace is something we do not deserve, we cannot earn, but is freely given and it frees us. Therefore, we are ‘perfectly free lords’.
Luther also writes that the water of baptism (our baptismal promises) with the grace received and experienced, we are freed (and called) to be servants serving all people.
Luther had several seemingly paradoxical pairs, which expresses the gray in our lives and world. We, as Christians, have the ambition and freedom to be leaders BUT we are called to lead by giving of ourselves and becoming servants serving all people (esp. those in the most need).
This is not an easy lesson to learn or task to perform, but the disciples did not “get” it either.
I do not know if I am comforted or discouraged that we, humans, continue to struggle with it.
My prayer (and hope) is that we embrace our baptismal promises, we can accept our freedom, and channel our ambitions not for honor and prestige BUT rather to empty ourselves in service to all people but especially those in the most need. May the Holy Spirit work through us for this purpose. Amen.