Mark 10: 35-45
There are three points that I want us to consider from this fairly familiar reading from Mark's Gospel.
Firstly then what does this tell us about the man who actually wrote the gospel, and what's the significance of his way of retelling the story?
You see, the same story is in Matthew's gospel but here it's not James and John who make that embarrassing request
'Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory' but their mother who knelt at Jesus' feet and asked this favour for her sons.
Bearing in mind that Mark's gospel was written first, and Matthew used it as a source for his own gospel it begs the question 'Why did Matthew feel the need to involve Mum in the equation, and Mark not?'
There's a story about Oliver Cromwell which has a bearing on this. It's said that a court painter was once commissioned to paint a portrait of the great man. Well, these days of course there is the digital technology to enhance photographs so that all those little skin blemishes that might detract from the beauty of the image can be edited out - rough and craggy skin made to look smooth, and wrinkles literally iron out. (If only they could do that in real life!).
In those days the only available technology was the practised eye and brush of the painter, who would look at the subject and make important decisions as to which parts of the face required emphasising, and which parts might better be left understated.
The painter did what he thought was best, and painted a portrait that would flatter Cromwell's ego. So imagine his surprise when Cromwell took one look at the result and turned on the painter. 'Take it away!' he cried. 'And paint me warts and all!'
Was this Mark's intention as he wrote his gospel? Was he showing us here two disciples, and two of the closest of the twelve warts and all, rather than shifting the emphasis onto a third person as Matthew seems to have done.
And why not, because the disciples were not perfect, they weren't saints (in the 'holier than me' sense of the word) They were ordinary folk like you and me, with good points, bad points, good days and bad hair days. Some days they made sensible decisions and other days they seem to have missed the point altogether.
Isn't it reassuring to read in the bible about people who have faults like us?
It's something to think about - Jesus set out to change the world with people just like us .. AND DID IT.
So what does this story tell us about James and John, other than they showed themselves up at that moment t be still thinking in human terms rather than spiritual.
'Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask let one of us sit at your right hand and the other at your left in your glory.'
Jesus was about to set up a new Kingdom, they wanted a piece of the action
How's that for keen?
How's that for ambition?
How's that for totally failing to understand Jesus and his purpose?
Let's put this in perspective, because this little story comes as the disciples and Jesus travel towards Jerusalem. We're coming to the end of Jesus' short time on earth, and he's told his disciples for at least the third time that he's not going to be crowned with anything other than thorns; that this is no victory march in the human understanding of the word, it would involve pain and tears.
'We are going up to Jerusalem,' he said. 'and the Son of Man will be betrayed .. they will condemn him to death, and will turn him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise'
Jesus spelt out to his disciples the way in which he would be put to death. It was the most detailed explanation that they'd heard - and yet they still don't seem to have understood what Jesus was saying to them. They couldn't see the wood for the trees, and later it would take a cross of wood to open their eyes.
So where's the good news in all this? Are we just to condemn James and John as being so dense that they failed totally to comprehend the person they were following - that they couldn't look beyond the hope for an earthly Messiah which all believers hoped for. Or are there any redeeming features in this account from Mark's gospel?
Well, there are indeed, because however much James and John failed to understand Jesus' purpose, they still believed in Him. Here they were, ordinary men, possibly well educated men, following a charismatic carpenter on what seemed in earthly terms to be a one way trip to a rather sticky end. Yet follow they did, and with the confidence to feel that Jesus was, in a way that they couldn't fully comprehend, heading for a triumph that would lead to something new, something wonderful, something that they wanted to be involved in. They understood enough to know that they were on the right track, it was the journey that they seemed unsure of.
Their hearts were in the right place.
And doesn't that give us confidence? I know it does for me. These were not super-spiritual men who had dotted the 'Is' and crossed the 'Ts' of their theology so that they had a ready answer to every situation. They were ordinary mortals who were on a journey with their Lord, learning on the job and gaining the experience and knowledge that would serve them well in the days after Jesus' death.
And that gives me a lot of comfort, as it does when I read about Peter and his big mouth, doubting Thomas, and Paul and some of his rather outspoken views. These were people like you and I, complete with doubts, misunderstandings and preconceptions about what our relationship with Jesus should be, and how that affects our relationships with others.
But that's the sort of people that Jesus wants. He didn't look for the religious leaders of the day to follow him because he knew that they would see him as a threat to the establishment; he wanted ordinary people like you and me because he wanted hearts that were open for business.
The reply that Jesus gave James and John to their strange request was typically 'Jesus'.
'Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptised with the baptism that I am baptised with?'
No simple 'Don't be silly!' 'Yes' or 'No', but Jesus uses Jewish metaphors instead - makes the disciples think hard about the question that they've just asked.
It was the custom at a royal banquet for the king to hand the cup to his guests, and the cup became a metaphor for the life and experience that God handed out to men. Listen to the Psalmist;
'You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows' (23:5)
'In the hand of the Lord is a cup full of foaming wine mixed with spices; he pours it out, and all the wicked of the earth drink it down to its very dregs.' (75:8)
One speaks of the life and happiness given to the writer by God, the other of the fate in store for the wicked.
'Are you able and willing to accept all that this commitment that you have made to me might involve?' asks Jesus. '
'Yes!' they reply.
The other metaphor that Jesus used was that of baptism. 'Can you be baptised with the baptism that I am baptised with?' he asks James and John, and here we have a problem with the literal translation to English because it would seem that Jesus did not mean baptism in the sense that we know it - a sprinkling of water. The Greek word as used here more correctly means 'submerged', and is often used in the sense of being submerged in an experience - for instance, someone recently bereaved being submerged in grief. A wrecked ship is submerged beneath the waves. The Psalmist uses a similar idea when in Psalm 42;7 he says 'All your waves and breakers have swept over me'
Do you see how Jesus was joining these two metaphors together to challenge the disciples into seriously considering their commitment?
'Are you up to the task of going through the experiences that I'm about to go through? To be submerged in the hatred, the pain and possibly also death that I have to endure?'
This was Jesus laying it firmly on the line concerning the demands that might be made on anyone who followed him. This was no easy option, it was a decision that demanded a lot of thought because the outcome might not be an easy or comfortable life. There could not be a victory without a cross, and there is only one standard of greatness in the Kingdom of Heaven and that is the standard of the cross.
'We can' replied James and John. 'We can share in your experiences, we are willing to be submerged in the experience of following you.'
And these were in a sense prophetic words, because James was beheaded by the order Herod Agrippa and John, though not martyred suffered for his Lord in exile.
They may not have fully appreciated the consequences of their decision, but they gladly accepted the challenge of their Lord and Master and the ultimate triumph that would be theirs.
Greatness in the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus tells his disciples, is not based upon rank or privilege. In the world a symbol of greatness is how many people you have working under your direct command. But not so in the Kingdom of God where the rules are turned upside down and inside out. Whoever wants to become first must be slave or servant of all. Here it's not so much how many people you can boss around, but how many people you can serve.
There's a poem by Kipling called Mary's Son
"If you stop to find out what your wages will be
and how they will clothe and feed you,
Willie, my son, don't you go to the sea,
For the sea will never need you.
"If you ask for the reason of every command,
And argue with people about you,
Willie, my son, dont you go to the land,
For the land will do better without you.
"If you stop to consider the work that you've done
And to boast what your labour is worth, dear,
Angels may come for you, Willie my son,
But you'll never be wanted on earth dear!"
As an example he pointed to his own life. 'For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.'
The Kingdom of God is populated by people who realise the common sense of what Jesus said, that the standards of the world are wrong and plainly seen by the inequalities in the world. The Kingdom of God is populated by people who are more ready to serve than to be served, who have looked at the supreme example of Jesus and said 'Yes' when asked if they too can drink the cup and be submerged in the experience of being a Christian.
The Kingdom of God is populated by ordinary people like James and John who at crucial moments in their lives were perfectly able to put their foot in it and say the most ridiculous things - yes, people just like you and I. But people who, while perhaps not fully understanding the implications of their commitment are still able to say with confidence 'I'm prepared to take the risk'
The cost might be great. It cost the life of Jesus to bring mankind back from sin into fellowship with God. It cost James his life by the sword, and John his freedom in exile. But through their lives and the lives of generations afterwards who took up the challenge of life in the Kingdom, we are here today worshipping the same God that James and John worshipped. We may have the same doubts and misconceptions as James and John in the reasons why we are here, but the challenge that Jesus made to those two disciples is the same one that he gives to each one of us today.
Are we willing to take up this life of service? Are we willing to take the cup that he offers - accept all that God might put our way? Are we willing to go all the way with Jesus, as James and John so obviously were?
As I said at the start, Jesus deliberately chose those twelve disciples. They were ordinary people, just like you and I. He set out to change the world with this most unlikely assortment of individuals - and did it!