Summary: We all have a tendency to "seek first" for ourselves, but part of following Christ fully and completely means that we live as Christ did, serving others.
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.”