Summary: Following Christ to Jerusalem and sharing in Christ’s glory means we too must go the way of the cross, drinking from Christ’s cup and sharing in his baptism.
Those of you who have been around the United Methodist Church for any amount of time are at least somewhat familiar with our appointive system; the method by which we send and receive pastors to our churches. I think if you were to ask any of us pastors, we would agree that, in our opinion, the United Methodist Church has the best system for deciding what pastor goes to what church, when, why, and so on. But even within the best of systems, there are flaws. For those of us in “the system,” we come to know pastors who have spent their entire careers calculating their next move; how they will get moved up to a bigger church, which of course, means a bigger salary and I suppose more prestige. As March rolls around every year, I imagine there are many ministers on their knees, praying that the Bishop and Cabinet will move them to a better appointment. Ministers are human creatures just like everyone else, and we can easily fall prey to thinking about Christian ministry in worldly ways.
How often have we done the same thing in our lives? Of course, you are not praying the same prayer of many United Methodist ministers, 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! Here in our Gospel lesson for this morning, we find James and John asking Jesus for personal blessing; asking Jesus to give them 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.” Such attitudes can disrupt the group’s unity and purpose, making the journey together terribly difficult. Yet, we can so easily and so often fall into this selfish trap. As Christians, we are part of a body, and when we journey with others in such a way, we must think of the collective whole, not just our individual selves.
How quickly we get focused on ourselves and forget the message that Jesus brings to us about God’s Kingdom! Despite the fact that just before this incident with James and John, Jesus has gone through the same discussion of greatness with the twelve, he has to remind them yet again! The two brothers were asking Jesus to fit into their plans, and they had no concern in that moment for Jesus’ own plans. They had lost sight of their greater purpose! Looking back on their journey with Christ, the disciples had given up everything to follow this person, Jesus, who had become the passion of their hearts. For James and John, this was a particularly great sacrifice. As they were fishing with their father, Zebedee, Jesus walked by and called them to follow him, promising to make them “fishers of men.” Despite the fact that these men had likely been fishing with their father everyday for years, even tens of years, and their father with his father in the decades before (and on and on), they drop what they are doing right then and there and follow Jesus. They left it all behind, just like that! It is understandable that at some point, they would seek their reward, and in this case, they even go beyond a simple reward; hoping also for some precedence and rank. But the lesson of this passage from Mark is that James’ and John’s idea of reward is wrong. They have misunderstood Jesus and Jesus’ purposes on earth. The reason James and John misunderstand Jesus is exactly the same as the reason that many people, even down to our day, are desperate to find a way of having Jesus without having the cross as well: the cross calls into question all human pride and glory. 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.” Jesus teaches us that in God’s Kingdom, rewards look different, and greatness is not about gaining power and prestige!
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.