a sermon on Mark 10:32-45 for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
preached on October 21, 2012, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
As a child, how many times did your mother or father have to tell you something before it made sense and really sunk in? Or as a parent, how many times did you have to tell your child not to do something before he or she would actually stop doing it? I don’t think any of us can actually count the times for either of those questions! It’s not just children who have a hard time getting things into our heads—it seems to be a pretty human thing. So often we tend to be stubborn folks, slow to learn the lessons we are taught but frustrated when others don’t figure things out as fast as we’d like, impatient for others to change but deeply resistant to change ourselves, ready for something to shift and move but afraid of the uncertainty that movement can bring.
Our reading today from Mark offers us a moment when Jesus and his disciples experienced just this sort of thing. It opens with Jesus telling his disciples for a third time about his coming death and resurrection. Every time this comes up, they can’t quite process it. Even though they have been journeying together for several years, they haven’t quite gotten it into their heads that this journey might not end with glory and honor for Jesus and for them. They just don’t seem to realize how many people are threatened by Jesus’ message that challenges the power structures and demands a new and different way for everyone. So even when he told them again that they were on the way to Jerusalem where he would be condemned and killed, they were amazed and afraid.
Then the brothers James and John approached him with a request. “Arrange it,” they said, “so that we will be awarded the highest places of honor in your glory—one of us at your right, the other at your left.” (Mark 10:37, The Message)
As usual, Jesus was surprised—they still didn’t get what he was up to and what was ahead for him. “You have no idea what you’re asking,” he replied. “Are you really up for this? Are you really sure that you can drink the cup I am about to drink and be baptized with the baptism that I am about to receive?”
“Of course!” they replied. They would do anything to be near Jesus, anything to share the glory that they were sure he would have, anything to continue the wonderful experiences that had defined their world for the last several years as they journeyed with Jesus, anything to preserve for all time the way things had been over the last couple years.
But then Jesus burst their bubble a bit. “Yes, you can drink the cup that I will drink and share the baptism that is ahead for me, but I can’t guarantee anything about glory. That’s not mine to promise, and it is for those for whom it has already been prepared.”
The other disciples got wind of all this and got angry. How could James and John be so interested in status and power, trying to take something for themselves that they all ought to be sharing? The other disciples wanted their fair share of status and power too! But Jesus would have none of it from any of them. He made it clear that status and titles should mean nothing to them—they should be more concerned with how they are serving God, one another and the world.
Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. Whoever wants to be first among you will be the slave of all. The [Son of Man] didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people. (Mark 10:43b-45, CEB)
This text is so rich with meaning and possibility, which probably explains why I’ve now preached on it every time it has come up in the lectionary! The disciples are so incredibly naïve here—somehow they just don’t get what Jesus is up to in his life and ministry, even though he has told them everything they need to know several times before. Jesus is so direct and so honest with them here—he doesn’t shy away from explaining what he’s really up to even when he knows that it is not the best news for the disciples. And in the midst of a power play from James and John, all the disciples show their true colors here—they want in on the action too! But the repeated questions of the disciples also remind us of children who are struggling to find their way in the world—of anyone who is confused and afraid of a new and uncertain thing.
The text reminds us too: “Those who followed were afraid.” Maybe James’ and John’s request to Jesus was less about grabbing power and more about fear that the good thing that they shared with Jesus was really going to come to an end. Maybe the disciples’ reactions here were less about gaining eternal life and more about holding on to things as they were in the moment. Maybe it was finally starting to sink in that they would be facing the same way of condemnation and death that Jesus had ahead, that they actually would have to take up their cross and follow in his footsteps. The disciples’ uncertainty and confusion was clearly shifting into fear, and they wanted to do everything possible to hold on to things as they were.
But in the face of their fear of the unknown, Jesus made it clear that they would not walk this way alone. First, he was going ahead of them. He would be the first one to face these things, and they would be all the stronger for their own trials and tribulations because they could look to his example along the way. But that was not all of it. His cup that they would share, his baptism that they would share—these are nothing less than the things that have sustained the followers of Jesus for two millennia. This was a promise to them that something will change, that they too will one day share a new and different way with him. My preaching professor Chuck Campbell paraphrases Jesus’s words here like this:
You will not always be driven by your fears and your need for security. Rather, you will be empowered to take up your cross and follow me. You will be faithful disciples even to the end. (Feasting on the Word Year B Volume 4, p. 193)
For us today as we celebrate our 141st anniversary, as we remember the faithfulness of our members who have been among us for a milestone of years, as we commemorate the 30th anniversary of the merger with the Epworth United Methodist Church that continues to shape the life of this place even today, Jesus’ words can continue to speak their challenge and their promise to us. We as individuals and as a congregation must walk with him along the difficult road. We must seek to live together in all our celebration and all our sighing and all our pain. And we must not be afraid to face the end of the way things have been so that we can embrace the new thing that God promises is surely ahead.
So just as Jesus promised this way for his disciples, so his promise comes to us, too. We share the cup that he has drunk so that we might know the fullness of his death and his resurrection. We share the baptism that he has already known so that we might die and rise anew with him. Chuck Campbell again offers words of comfort and hope to us:
We need not always live in fear; we need not continually seek our own security. Rather, we have Jesus’ promise that we can and will live as faithful disciples as we seek to follow him. (Feasting on the Word Year B Volume 4, p. 193)
By this gift from Jesus Christ himself, we are freed from all that brings us fear, all that keeps us apart from God, and all that prevents us from being the kind of servant to others that Christ was to us. By this gift, we are freed to serve God and neighbor, to set aside our ways of seeking status and stability and security, to take up the way of service to those in greatest need modeled by none less than Christ himself.
And so today, as we begin our 142nd year together, may Jesus’ words be our challenge and our hope. Yes, the path before us is marked by death and resurrection—but it is a path that Jesus has gone before us, a path that so many others have known in this place before us and with us, a path whose signposts of comfort along the way are nothing less than the cup of his salvation and the baptism of his new life. So may God give us the strength we need for the journey that is before us, that we might share Jesus’ promise of new life in this place and everywhere and be his servants now and always until he comes again.
Lord, come quickly! Amen.