Sermon for 18 October
Let us pray:
Foolish as we are, Lord Jesus,
you have claimed us as your own;
help us so to love you,
that we desire above all else
to share your way, and to walk with you
in costly service to the world;
in your name and for your sake we pray. Amen.
I wonder if the two brothers James and John thought they were onto a sure thing when they came to ask their favour of Jesus? After all, they were in the inner circle of the apostles, along with Peter, who—you’ll notice—was not invited along on this occasion. No, the brothers wanted to catch Jesus on his own. For a little heart-to-heart.
The disciples were expecting Jesus to declare himself as Messiah any time. As Messiah, he would be the king, and he’d need his closest advisers by his side. In particular, he’d need one on each side. So they came to Jesus with their little prepared speech and said,
Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.
It stands to reason—perhaps they thought this —it stands to reason that if there are three in the inner circle, that when Jesus comes in his glory, only two can sit on either side. They wanted those two to be them, the brothers James and John, but not Peter. He could stand a bit to one side. But not too near the limelight. It seems to be human nature, that when we’re close to the centre of something we want the privileges that this closeness can give us. We love the perks, the privileges, of being in the inner circle.
Did you notice the first thing Jesus said in reply?
You do not know what you are asking.
You don’t know what you’re asking…
What on earth could Jesus have meant? Let’s listen to him.
‘You do not know what you are asking,’ he says. ‘Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptised with the baptism that I am baptised with?’
Drinking a cup? Baptism? Is Jesus talking about the sacraments? Yes, he is—he is talking about their deepest meaning.
To sit at Jesus’ side is to drink the cup of suffering with him. To be baptised with his baptism is to undergo suffering for his sake.
It sounds like Jesus is saying that those who are close to him should be prepared to share his life in each and every respect. Baptism does not mean to be saved from suffering. To receive Holy Communion is to share the sufferings of Christ, as well as to share in the salvation those sufferings have brought about.
What else does Jesus say?
…to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.
What do these cryptic words mean? Who are those who sit at the right and left sides of Jesus? Is it the Moderator and the Pope?
Mark’s Gospel does identify these two on either side of Jesus. We know who they are. Yet we don’t even know their names.
Let’s just slow down, and listen to what Jesus is saying. James and John want to get the best spots; Jesus says those who are closest to him will undergo suffering with him.
Where does Jesus undergo his suffering? On the cross. It was there that he displayed the great love of God, which will never ever let us go.
And it was there that he had one person on his right side, and one on his left. Mark 15.27 says:
with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left.
‘…the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve’; here, we see the truly great depth of his service. His throne is a cross. He has ‘bandits’ at his right and left hand. There can hardly be a less noble throne room than Golgotha hill, the Place of the Skull.
But Mark says that’s where it happened. The cup of suffering, the baptism right down into the bitter waters of death, were for Jesus. And those on either side shared his sufferings.
This invites us to ask some questions of ourselves and our world. Who are those who are at the side of Jesus today? The Gospels are clear that it is those who suffer with him. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that whatever we do to the poor, the naked, the homeless, the imprisoned, the hospitalised, we do to Christ. We are challenged to see that these are the ones who are at his side today. Who are they?
I think of people who live in places like Pakistan, who may be blown up just by being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
I think of Sri Lankan boat people, demonised by both sides of politics in this country.
I think of the people of Samoa, Sumatra and the Philippines, whose homes have collapsed and who loved ones have died in natural disasters.
I think of homeless people here in Brisbane, I think of people hearing the words ‘You’ve just got a few weeks to live’ from a doctor’s lips.
I think of the 218 million children across the world who could be considered as child labourers, 57% of whom are engaged in hazardous work.
I think of children with nothing, who will receive a shoebox of gifts this Christmas.
Mark’s Gospel encourages me to believe that they are at the right hand of Jesus, and at his left.
It follows for me that if we withhold generosity; if we allow politicians to alarm us; if we divide those who are in poverty into the ‘deserving’ poor and the ‘undeserving’ poor, we might find ourselves a wee bit further from the heart of Jesus than we thought we were.
Jesus doesn’t ask us to serve him, so much as ask us to serve with him. Can we let go of our need for privilege, and embrace Jesus on the cross?
We sang a new song earlier, which in part goes:
My Lord colours outside the lines,
turns wounds to blessings, water into wine;
and takes me into places
where I’ve never been before
and opens doors to worlds outside the lines.
We’ll never walk on water
if we’re not prepared to drown,
body and soul need a soaking
from time to time.
And we’ll never move the gravestones
if we’re not prepared to die,
and realise there are worlds
outside the lines.
Jesus teaches us how to colour outside the expected lines. He teaches us that humble service offered in his name brings life to others and to us. He teaches us that suffering can open our eyes to worlds outside the lines, and that his risen life is the last word. And that risen life is ours, today, along with the suffering.
Can we believe it? Dare we believe it? Dare we give ourselves to Jesus, even when suffering comes, and the call to serve the world with him means that we must let go of worldly privilege?
It’s not all that easy sometimes. I remember when I started at the Wesley Hospital as a chaplain. I went to a ward for the first time, where I was comprehensively ignored by a junior nurse. I found myself thinking, ‘Doesn’t she know who I am? I’m Dr Walton!’ Then I remembered. I wasn’t there as a doctor. I had to let go of the privilege associated with medical rank and embrace the humbler way of being a chaplain. I had to colour outside the lines I had known up to that time, and find the new worlds beyond those lines.
Like me, you may need to start letting go of privilege by making small steps, one foot in front of another, making slow progress. We can each make a beginning; and if we want to serve with Jesus, if we want to colour outside those lines, we must make that new beginning. Amen.