How many of you have a cross that you like to wear? Maybe it’s cross earrings or the more common cross necklace. Maybe some of you even have a cross tattoo somewhere. Perhaps if you’re not into tattoos or jewelry you have a cross, or maybe many crosses, that hang somewhere in your house. As I was writing my sermon this week, I counted seven crosses displayed in my office. All of them were gifts. Some are handmade, some are needlepoint, some were bought, but all of them are beautiful. So were the crosses that I used to wear around my neck every day. The only reason I don’t still wear a cross around my neck is because the chains are broken.
In his commentary, John’s Wisdom, theologian Ben Witherington makes the statement, “Our own culture has successfully trivialized the cross by turning it into a mere article of jewelry without pausing to think that the true modern equivalent of wearing a cross would be wearing a little golden electric chair around one’s neck.” In ancient times, the cross was nothing but a symbol of violence, heartache, shame, and suffering. And in the beginning of this morning’s passage, Jesus has just once again predicted the death that lies in his not-too-distant future. He doesn’t say it explicitly in this passage, but we know he is speaking of his death on the cross; a death that would be painful and brutal, torturous and dark. And then James and John jump in, they clearly have not really heard Jesus’ words, or at least not understood them. They are trying to make something beautiful and wonderful out of what lies ahead, and they want to know if they can be a part of it. Much like many of us today, James and John are desperate to find a way of having Jesus without having all the ugliness of the cross as well. But we must remember that “when Jesus ‘sits in his glory,’ with one at his right and another at his left, it will be on the cross.”
We have to recapture the scandal of the cross. We have to understand what it really means to follow Christ, to “drink the cup” that Christ drinks and to “receive the baptism” he receives. Following Christ is not always easy; it’s not always straightforward and beautiful, it doesn’t always equate to prestige or power or greatness. Jesus teaches James and John, and us, that in God’s kingdom, rewards look different, and greatness is not about gaining power and prestige. So what is greatness?
In the Kingdom of God, greatness is not about moving on up and getting our reward, it’s about transformation! As Jesus tells the disciples, the greatest at the banquet is the slave who does the serving, not the one sitting at the head of the table, getting all the attention and telling others what to do. The great servants whom human history honors are those who have so dedicated their lives to others that they have forgotten themselves into immortality.
Let’s think about this for a moment. A 2011 poll asked teenagers to identify the person they admire the most as a role model, other than their parents. (The study intentionally excluded parents as role models because previous studies have shown that teens have high regard for their parents—or else they feel pressured to list their parents as role models.) Here's the list of the top role models for teenagers: 37 percent answered that their top role model was a relative (other than parents). Eleven percent pointed to a teacher or a coach, nine percent—a friend. Six percent said a religious leader they know personally, and another six percent said an actor or a musician. Five percent listed an athlete, four percent a political figure, and another four percent mentioned a high-profile faith leader. The final one percent covered a wide range of figures from business leaders to authors to scientists.
This survey shows what I think many of us know to be true. There are certainly prominent leaders and “stars” that we admire, but for most of us, the people we love and respect the most, the people with the most meaning and impact in our lives, are not the ones with the trendiest clothes and the most expensive cars, not the ones with the most money and the most power. The people we lift up as “great” are the ones who visit us when we are sick, perhaps bringing some warm chicken soup. It’s the people who hold our hands and pray with us when we are facing trials and tribulations. Greatness in our personal lives is not measured by the world’s standards. Jesus turns our world upside down! In the face of Jesus’ proclamations, we have to surrender all our ingrained ideas of honor and dishonor, of power and weakness. “You know that the ones who are considered the rulers by the Gentiles show off their authority over them and their high-ranking officials order them around. But that’s not the way it will be with you. Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. Whoever wants to be first among you will be the slave of all.”
And here’s the thing about servants and slaves. They never get any of the honor, the glory, the recognition. It’s something we all do, isn’t it? We don’t want to be the “lowly” servant. We wonder, “what’s in it for me?” We all want recognition for our hard work. The Oak Ridge High School Wildcat band has a history of awarding to one senior each year the “John Philip Sousa Band Award.” The recipient of this award is the senior receiving the most votes from their fellow band members. To a great extent in high school, and in college too, band was my life. I worked really hard to do well in band. I took private lessons; I practiced my trombone every day. I worked really hard to be a good section leader in my junior and senior years. I put in extra time during lunch and after school to help with odd jobs around the band room. So by the time my senior year came around, I had my eye on that “John Philip Sousa Band Award.” I wanted that award. I wanted the recognition, the honor, I wanted all my hard work to be celebrated.
We all want to be celebrated when we do great. We want to be honored. And I think we have a tendency to do the same thing when it comes to our relationship with God, just like James and John. Maybe we are not asking to sit on the right and left of the throne of the Lord, but how often do our conversations with God involve asking for personal blessings, rather than seeking blessings for the community and the world? I think if we are honest with ourselves, we would recognize that much of the time, our prayers are about getting something for ourselves; even if it’s just a good feeling for doing our Christian duty and praying. And the truth is Jesus’ very disciples had this same struggle!
James and John have lost sight of the scandal of the cross. It may as well be a beautiful wall-hanging in their humble abode. Rather than thinking about humble service, they want positions of prestige and power. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you…Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Just as we so often do, James and John began focusing on personal desires and promotion, rather than on the best interest of the “whole,” rather than on the ideals of God’s kingdom. As much as we don’t want to admit it, we can so easily and so often fall into this selfish trap. As Christians, we are part of a body, and when we journey together as Christ’s disciples, we must think of the collective whole, not just our individual selves.
“You want to be great?” Jesus asks. “Fine.” he says, “Be the servant of all. Drink from my cup; share in my baptism.” And here’s the deal, it’s not all glitter and gold. It requires an escape from our selfish desires, a childlike trust in God, a losing of ourselves in a cause much greater than ourselves, so that the center of life is not us, but Jesus the Savior himself. The high cost of the Kingdom will be its acceptance in our lives as the one thing we seek first, above honor and glory and riches! And this is our purpose; to follow God in Christ Jesus above all else, even when that way leads to suffering, because this is true meaning of the cross; it is the center of authentic Christianity, a Christianity which engages the struggles of this world head-on.
You see, God created humankind to have a purpose; to care for one another and the earth. This purpose, this calling, this mission has evolved into various means by which we work to provide for our families and for ourselves. But if we think of work as only a means to an end and a way to glory, we are missing the point. We can casually pray “thy kingdom come” without thinking that we ourselves may be the obstacles to its coming because our focus is wrong. Our greatest vocation is our work in service to God and to others! And it is through this service that we discover true greatness, that we receive our “just rewards!”
Suppose our lives were measured only by the amount of real service we have offered to other people? How great would our lives really be? Jesus is here telling us that this is precisely how are lives are measured. Journeying with Christ to the cross requires drinking from the cup from which Jesus drank and being baptized with the same baptism. There is nothing glorious about this; we will expose our nerves to the hurts of others, we will load their burdens onto our shoulders, and we will allow our hearts to be torn with anguish over the sufferings of others. This is not easy, Christ is calling us to go all the way with him, to go all the way for the sake of the Gospel, and to do this, we have to be transformed. If we are seeking power and prestige, Jesus says stop and humble ourselves. If we are striving after rewards, Christ calls us to seek first God’s Kingdom and his righteousness. If we are living only for ourselves, our Lord tells us to serve God by serving others. This is the way of the cross, the journey we must take with Christ. This is Christ’s cup; this is Christ’s baptism. This is greatness in the Kingdom, and if we want to receive what Christ has to offer, we have no choice but to follow!