“Can I give you a call? Do you have time to talk?” How often do you cringe, at least a bit, when you hear that? Chances are, somebody wants to ask something of you. Not always. Sometimes it’s all about sharing some wonderful news, or even a funny story, or just some welcome catching-up time. But often enough you know there’s a request coming, and you’ll have to say yes—or no. It’s awkward.
So imagine Jesus cringing when these two brothers step up and open with, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Now THERE’S a loaded request. It’s way more brazen than, “Can I give you a call?”
You wonder why Jesus didn’t just shut them down then and there. What an impertinent request! But Jesus himself keeps encouraging us to be downright impertinent in what we ask (Mark 11:24), and he can’t blame these brothers for taking him at his word.
So, maybe with a little trepidation, Jesus decides to ask them what they want him to do. Maybe he’s hoping that they’re finally starting to understand him. After all, he’s just finished predicting his shameful execution for the third and last time before it actually happened. Maybe third time’s a charm.
Well, Jesus, to quote “The Princess Bride,” “get used to disappointment.” They haven’t learned anything. “And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory’.”
Despite everything Jesus has been telling them—THREE. TIMES. OVER!—it seems they’re letting that one ominous word, “crucifixion,” slide right past. If they did notice it at all, they apparently thought it just a minor interruption in Jesus’ plan for world domination.
After all, he said “resurrection” too, and back then everybody just KNEW that this word meant the moment, any day now, when ALL the dead rise, and God bombastically breaks in with an empire bigger and badder than Rome’s. That’s what Jesus was promising, right? He keeps repeating, “the kingdom of God has come near.” Everybody knows what that means. Why let let a little hiccup like crucifixion spoil that grandiose vision?
Now we know today that Jesus’ resurrection wasn’t anything like that. And so did Mark and his first readers. After his execution Jesus did start showing up in startling ways—to some people at least. He even started inhabiting the lives of his followers with the very life of God. They still called what happened “resurrection,“ because they couldn’t think of a better word.
But it wasn’t a resurrection anybody was expecting. The emperor Tiberius didn’t even notice, and Pilate had no trouble dismissing any rumors to that effect as fake news. Instead of a bigger, badder empire, Jesus’ followers got a cluster of scattered communities that were barely tolerated when they weren’t outlawed. And the empire they wanted to replace kept on going for centuries as if nothing had happened.
Of course James and John DON’T know that, not yet. And despite everything Jesus has been telling them, they’re still making plans for a huge payoff any day now.
So Jesus tries one more time to get through. “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” And the brothers still don’t get it, so they answer with, “Bring it on! We’re able.”
And Jesus as a much as says, “Well good, because that’s exactly what you’re going to get, regardless of seating arrangements, which are not up to me anyway.” He’s offering them a version of, “Be careful what you ask for—you might get it.“
He’s not just threatening them, though it does sound a little ominous. He IS promising them a relationship way more intimate than sitting on his right or left hand. He really is assuring them that they’re going to discover what life is really all about. But what life is really all about is definitely NOT basking in the glory a new, bigger, badder emperor.
“The cup that I drink you WILL drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you WILL be baptized.” You WILL discover what life is really all about. You may even fall in love with it. But you’re not going to like it at first. You still don’t know what you’re asking.
When the rest of the disciples find out about this they’re outraged. Could that be because THEY’RE finally starting to understand? Fat chance. They’re up in arms because James and John asked Jesus for special treatment before THEY worked up the nerve to make the same request. Nobody’s getting this, not James and John, not the other disciples, nobody.
So one more time Jesus tries to explain what he’s been getting at all along. “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
He’s only been saying something like this every time he predicted his execution. Every time! And if he hoped that this time it would finally sink in, that was another reason to get used to disappointment. It didn’t. In fact, you can read Mark’s whole gospel as the story of how Jesus’ closest followers never understood his good news, right up to the point where they ran away in fear, without telling anybody, at the news of his resurrection. They never understood.
Now maybe you’re thinking that we know more than these disciples. It’s hard not to think that. After all, we’ve heard how the story turns out. We’ve been hearing it all our lives. So we catch ourselves thinking, “Thank God we’re not as clueless as those disciples!”
And okay, maybe we’re not QUITE as clueless. But it seems that way too many Christians still think of the cross as just a momentary hiccup in the life of Superman—I mean, Jesus.
Maybe we don’t think THAT, and that’s not so clueless. But we might still be more devious. After all, we’ve learned how to LOOK and SOUND selfless—even to ourselves!—as a strategy for self-promotion. And we’re just as remarkably adept at neutralizing a revolutionary idea so we can get on with business as usual. And when it comes to games like these, I bet I don’t need to prove to this gathering that those of us who are clergy can be the worst offenders.
So we might want to pause a moment before too glibly answering Jesus’ question: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” He’s still asking us, make no mistake. He’s always asking.
Of course—we’d LIKE to say we’re able. That’s why we’re here. We HOPE we’re able. But we’re still very good at dodging the question.
So Jesus’ word to us today is the same as his word to James and John. “Able or not you WILL go through this with me. You WILL discover what life is really all about. You may even fall in love with it. But at first you’re not going to like it.”
That’s still ominous news, just as ominous as it was to James and John. But it’s also ominously good news. It’s not just, “you WILL go through this“; it’s also, “you will go through this WITH ME“! Or to put it another way, “I will go through this with you.“ That’s Jesus‘ promise, God‘s promise, nested within this ominous news.
After all, the creed we recite every Sunday teaches that in Jesus’ utterly human life, death, and risen life, no less than God “came not to be served but to serve, and to give [God’s] life a ransom for many.” And we sacramentally obsessed Christians believe that this utterly self-giving life of God still comes to us over and over again in every baptism, and in every renewal of baptismal vows, and in every sharing of Christ’s body and blood in our thanksgiving meal.
But we’re promised today that this self-giving life will come to us even more intensely when life impels us to leave this somewhat safe liturgical space and immerse ourselves once again into a conflicted world that still hankers too much after today’s “great ones and tyrants,” figures who promise us a glory that’s utterly at odds with the glory of God’s self-giving. If by grace we manage to ignore that siren call, we’re sure to be dismissed as people of no consequence. But this is still where God promises to find us, and to raise us, empowering us to drink the cup that God drinks and to be baptized with the baptism that God undergoes with us.
Like it or not, it WILL happen. That’s ominous news. But sooner or later, we WILL fall in love with it. That’s ominously GOOD news. Amen.