A sermon on Mark 10:35-45
Jesus asked James and John: What do you want me to do for you?
It’s a hard question – really, one of the hardest there is in our culture. Perhaps for our ancestors, labouring in fields and factories, the answer might have been easier. A rest. A good harvest. Improved working conditions. And when you’re sick, or someone you love is, the answer can be pretty stark: health for me or my loved one. So for some of us, the answer will be obvious.
But for those of us fortunate enough not to be in extreme situations as we sit here today, it is a hard question. Because we don’t know what we want.
As the psychologist Abraham Maslow said
“It isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.”
So: what do you want from Jesus? And, because we Christians think that Jesus is what God has to say, that’s the same question as: What, ultimately, do you want?
The disciples James and John are pretty clear about what it is that they want. Power. Position. To be Jesus’ right hand men when he “comes in glory”, which, for them at the time presumably meant: after they had driven out the Romans and the Herodians and finally shown those irritating Essenes who was right.
Jesus is characteristically indirect, and answers their question with a question. Can you drink the cup that I drink, and be baptised with the baptism that I am baptised with?
This is a good example of dramatic irony, because James and John, their heads full of dreams of military glory, say eagerly, rather naively: yes of course we can. Of course, they really didn’t know what they were letting themselves in for.
This is so familiar. Yes, of course I can do what needs to be done we say, as we start the new job, get married, take ordination vows – even if we privately worry whether we are up to it or not.
And it’s true for the life of the disciple, Jesus says: follow me. And so we do, hoping for the best.
Probably we need a level of ignorant self-confidence to get us embarked on important things. If we knew what it would really mean, to our finances, our social life, and our career when we moved cities, embarked on a course of study, or had a child, then we might not have had the courage to go through with it.
It’s dramatic irony because we know that Jesus’ cup and baptism are his passion, death, and resurrection. In the story, Jesus has “set his face like flint”, and turned to Jerusalem to fulfil God’s purposes through his obedience, through his faith.
The other disciples are outraged at James and John. The story isn’t explicit on whether it is because they are irritated at them for misunderstanding Jesus’ whole message, or whether it’s because they wish they’d gotten in first with their own requests for position. Perhaps I could be the general, or the treasurer? Maybe you could put me in charge of my home town – some of those people could really use a little “kingdom of God”, if you know what I mean.
Jesus takes the opportunity for a little teachable moment about leadership. I’m not going to belabour the point, though it’s an important one. The way to lead isn’t to lord it over people, but to be their servant. This isn’t to be a doormat letting people abuse you, but a question about motivation. Why do James and John want to be exalted? Not for very good reasons – for ego reasons, we’d say now. To buffer their sense of importance, to give them an external role so that they could be safe and secure and invulnerable.
True leadership, as demonstrated by Jesus, is anything by safe and secure and invulnerable. It is to be exercised on behalf of those who you lead. It isn’t to make you feel good about yourself, to get your own needs met.
How does this relate to our opening question though? What do you want Jesus to do for you? It’s a hard question because it relates to ultimate values. If Jesus could do one thing for you – if the life of the disciple had one outcome – what would you want?
In the story there is something about extrinsic versus intrinsic rewards going on. James and John make it sound as though they are disciples because they think there is going to be a reward that’s separable from discipleship itself. They want power and position and glory – and perhaps if Jesus isn’t going to supply it, then they might join another movement, follow another teacher, who will do. There seems to be no lack of potential messiahs to follow in first century Palestine.
We live in a different context now. The Romans are long, long gone, and easy answers are few and far between. But there are no lack of answers to the question of what we want from Jesus. There are a lot of false messiahs around now, just like them.
One extreme example is the prosperity gospel. Name it and claim it, the TV preachers say, and we roll our eyes and change the channel. We know life isn’t so simple, that the good suffer and the evil prosper. Besides, they are probably just after our money anyway.
But are we any better? What we want might not feel so superstitious, we might not be after the big house and the shiny car, or, in the case of some prosperity gospel preachers, the private jet.
But the impulse can be the same. We are in the discipleship game because of what we get out of it. Is what we get out of it the membership of some private little club? Are we essentially “rotary with hymns”? Do we fail to see God’s big picture? Do we neglect to participate in God’s work? Are we in the game for the fringe benefits?
The clue here is what Jesus says about cup and baptism. They are powerful, evocative symbols, but of what?
To those of us who know how the story unfolds, the cup that Jesus is to drink suggests the cup of the last supper, the cup of communion. The cup that we drink together every month. But it goes deeper than that. To share in the cup that Jesus drank is also to be reminded of Gethsemane and “if it be possible, let this cup pass me by.” It’s the cup of obedience, the cup of taking responsibility for what it is ours to do. The cup is that of participation in God’s work in the world.
And as for the baptism that Jesus with which Jesus was baptised – as Paul says “all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death.” To be baptised in Jesus’ baptism is to be in such deep solidarity with Jesus that we are, as Paul says, “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus.”
Which is to say: we enter into deep solidarity with Jesus, and, through him, with the God who enters into deep solidarity with us.
So what are we to say of this solidarity? It can involve suffering, yes. But, as we know, life itself inevitably involves suffering, and if that was the end of the story, then perhaps it would be better just to become stoics, to close ourselves off from life, to make ourselves small targets, to expose ourselves less to suffering.
After all, if you care for fewer people, then there are fewer people whose suffering can hurt you.
So far, so reasonable.
But this is not, in fact, how the story goes. This is not the life of the disciple, because the life of the disciple is based on that of Christ, and the life of Christ was one of radical openness to the world. Jesus took responsibility for the suffering world, and paid the price in his own body.
If you want to be safe from suffering, then Christianity is the worst idea imaginable, because it invites you to put yourself at risk at every turn.
But it also isn’t how the story ends. The story of Christ isn’t one of suffering and failure. It is also of God’s vindication of Christ, of triumph, of, ironically, glory. We bear Christ’s suffering about in our bodies “so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.” We are baptised into Christ’s death “so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”
What Jesus offers, what the life of the disciple brings is new life. We’ve traditionally talked about it in terms of the forgiveness of sins, but it is so hard for us to hear that sort of language without immediately thinking about court cases and worrying about penal substitutionary atonement and finding ourselves preoccupied with questions which, though worthy of attention, are not core.
Jesus brings transformation to those who have faith in him.
To have faith, to believe in Jesus, is not merely to have correct thoughts about Jesus, but to re-orientate not just your ideas, but your whole life around Christ. To be set free from sin yes, but that means to be “in Christ”, to be part of God’s redemptive work in this world. To be part of God’s mission in the world.
Which brings me back to the original question: what do you want Jesus to do for you?
I said it was a hard question to answer because it is to do with ultimate ends. That is, what question is worthy of being asked? What is the thing that would make sense of life, which would pull all the tattered threads together?
We don’t know what to ask for, because we can’t imagine what that sort of fullness, that sort of flourishing would look like.
Jesus gives us the answer. It isn’t a new car. It isn’t even necessarily freedom from suffering, important as that is. Jesus offers us one thing: himself.
Worship is a big part of this. I talk about mission a lot, and it sounds like I think the point of Christian life is to busy ourselves with good deeds or evangelism or similar. And, as an activist sort of person, I do think that is important. But it’s only important if we are actually collaborating with God, rather than feeding our egos or indulging a restless urge to be busy at all times.
The key is, I think, to be contemplatives in action.
Worship, in both corporate and private modes, is where we orient ourselves to the final question, the ultimate values. It is where we orient ourselves towards God, where we give our attention to the thing most worthy of our attention. It isn’t separate from mission – we need to worship in ways which are themselves part of the mission. And it’s a dialectic – we bring our action to our worship, and our worship to our action. I’m increasingly convinced of the centrality of worship to mission. We need to give that sort of actual attention to God at particular times in order to be able to see God at work in the rest of our lives. Especially through communion.
The gospel is transformation. To be free of my own self-preoccupation, my hunger for status, my fear, my anxiety. To (gradually) become someone who is like Jesus in freedom and in joy. To be so completely plugged into God. Call it sanctification, or theosis, at its heart, discipleship isn’t something static like a positive court order, but to be released into an entirely new life.
Doesn’t that sound like good news? To be free of ourselves, while still free to love ourselves as our neighbour? To find the meaning of our life in collaboration with the biggest, most meaningful story of all? This is what Jesus offers. This is Good News.
Sermon preached at Glen Iris Road Uniting Church on 21/10/2018
 https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/4570807.Abraham_H_Maslow accessed 20/10/2018
 Romans 6:4
 2 Corinthians 4:10
 2 Corinthians 4:10
 Romans 6:4