It’s been a tough couple of months or so on the preaching front. Firstly, we had those five weeks of bread. Five weeks in which most preachers exhausted their stock of bread related anecdotes and inspirational stories. Still, in three years’ time most folk will have forgotten these so they can be trotted out once again (only joking). After this, just as we saw Jesus and the disciples return to their old routine, so did we preachers; it was back to the difficult subjects and unanswerable questions. Some passages are so challenging that we might think wistfully of that blithering bread!
Firstly, it was Jesus and his shocking attitude towards the Syrophoenician Woman. The next week we looked at the disciples with their selective hearing; steadfastly refusing to hear the whole story because they didn’t like what they thought was the end. After that we were urged to see the dangers of causing others to stumble, not forgetting the ease with which we ourselves stumble. Then it was onto one of those impossible questions from the Pharisees, intended to make Jesus not only stumble but fall. Finally last week, when it was sell your stuff and give everything to the poor, or else…
More than the earth
It’s a lot to take in, it’s a lot to preach on and, it’s even more to actually live your life by. So, perhaps, as we once again encounter James and John, requesting rather more than the earth of Jesus, it almost seems like a bit of light relief. Now, you might think that this would be an easy sermon to write, you would be wrong and not just because this story comes up so frequently. However, at least there is a chance to make ourselves feel better by having a little snigger at the two brothers getting it wrong. Surely, we think, they should know better. After all, one of the things that we have heard Jesus say very clearly in our readings over recent weeks is that anyone who thinks they are going to be first is in for a shock. 3 weeks ago, it was “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all”. Last week “Many who are first will be last and the last will be first”. And today “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all”.
Words like these, warnings like these, are threaded throughout the gospel story. They are mainly addressed to the disciples, both past and present and are intended to show who Jesus is and how we disciples might imitate him. Well, James and John have heard everything that we have, and more. For us it has been a journey of several weeks, for them probably a matter of days. They have heard it all and yet somehow, in that time, they managed to pretty much do all the things Jesus warned them (and us) against. They have ignored Jesus when he told them he was on the road to his death. All that ‘the first will be last business has completely passed them by. They have stumbled and they have stumbled big time…
So, here are James and John, the sons of Zebedee, the sons of thunder; James and John who have been there since Jesus began his ministry yet still, they don’t appear to get it? Maybe we think well if they don’t what chance have we? Or perhaps we confidently believe that we would never make such a crass mistake. We would never ask for more than we deserve. The thing is though we do get more than we deserve in fact far, far more. We all do. So, perhaps this time we should try and look at the request the brothers make a little differently?
Glimpsing the holy
Ever since the day Jesus called James and John away from their nets, they have experienced a life they could never have imagined. They may not fully understand who and what Jesus is but in him they have glimpsed what is holy. Being with him has enabled them to see the best in others and the best in themselves. Jesus has opened up both this life and the next for them and they don’t want to let it go. I think that is something which we can understand. We have all known people, and hopefully still do, who somehow make us feel better. The make us feel better in ourselves; they make us feel better about ourselves. Who wouldn’t want to hold on to that?
This is a something akin to what James and John have experienced with Jesus, not as great, but wonderful, nonetheless. It is what they have seen in miracles and heard in his teachings. It is what the brothers felt in Jesus’ friendship. James and John don’t want to lose the life they have shared with him; they want to be part of it always.
We can see such glimpses in our life, the times when for a brief, wonderful moment we actually ‘get it’ as we actually see and feel the difference Christ has and is making in our lives and in our world and it is glorious. These are also the times when we, like James and John, could find ourselves saying “Grant us to sit at your side in your glory”. It is not meant as a request for privilege and power but as a plea not to lose that glimpse of the Holy, not to lose that moment when we finally understand.
Are we willing?
For us, these are also our moments of decision. These are the times when we have to consider whether we are willing to drink the cup that Jesus drinks, whether we are willing to share his baptism. You see, no one not James and John nor anyone can share in that glory without being willing to pay the price. And that price may well involve suffering, sacrifice even death. To that James and John said yes. They were willing to pay the price. And they would do just that. They would pay.
However, James and John had a more immediate challenge – because they have to face the fury of the other disciples. The other ten are angry that James and John seem to have pulled a fast one; they might well have asked of Jesus all that James and John did; so, whilst they may be angry with the brothers, they are probably even more angry with themselves.
Lost and left out
Angry, frustrated, saddened not just because of because of ‘that question’ but because they did not see what James and John saw, that glimpse of holiness. The other disciples may not have experienced it but now they know it exists and they want it. This, most of us have also experienced and we may well do again. Those times when we feel lost and left out. Those times when we are no longer sure about just about everything, including our faith, including our God. These are the times when it so easy to be angry with others and so easy to be jealous of those who seem to understand what life is all about. These are the ”why not me” moments – and these are the “why not me instead of them” moments.
Well, as the ten consider what James and John had done it almost looks as if everything they had achieved together with Jesus might fall apart. Jesus, however, sees this possibility and moves to prevent it. He calls them together and explains, once again, that regardless of where they are on the journey and whatever their experiences, they are to walk the same path. They are all to be servants of one another and slaves of all and they are to walk one path and follow one Lord. They are one body of disciples, and they will become the one body of Christ. And so must we.
Jesus calls us to follow him and to be servants in this world. He never hides the risk, including that temptation to see ourselves as on the road to some kind of personal greatness. And he doesn’t hide the cost. This will be different for each of us, bringing with it a pain unique to ourselves. But whatever the cost, whatever the pain he will share this with us and will bear the greater burden.
So, take heart and remember that Jesus never asks his disciples to leave no matter how they stumbled. He invited them as he invites us to this table to share with him bread and wine. He never gives up on us and neither should we. Amen
‘Take heart’ was proclaimed by Elizabeth Binns on Sunday 17th October 2021 at Christ Church Walmersley. It was based on Mark 10:35-45. Beryl Cook’s picture of Madonna and Child is Elizabeth’s favourite picture and is shown here with grateful thanks. Copyright © John Cook 2021. www.ourberylcook.com.