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The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon

The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at The Divinity School, Duke University. He is recently retired after serving eight years as Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church.

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Duke Divinity School, Durham, NC


Good News?

Mark 10:35-45

Proper 24 - Year B

October 18, 2009

LOOKING FOR PEACE IN LIFE?  WORRIED ABOUT THE FUTURE?  That's the questions the billboard asks.  Underneath the questions, the answer: JESUS CHRIST IS THE ANSWER.   

Now from what I see, this is the predominate presentation of Christianity these days:  You have some need, perhaps a need for peace in a troubled life, the need for greater hope and confidence in the future.  Well, Jesus is the answer. 

This is called "evangelism," the attempt to lure people toward the gospel, the effort to win people to Christ, by putting forth all the benefits of following Jesus.  Looking for meaning in life?  Jesus has got it for you.  A sense of serenity and hope in an often difficult and demanding world?  Jesus has got you covered.

Years ago my church hired a consultant to teach us how to grow our congregation.  "First find where people itch; then find a way for the church to scratch that itch," the consultant advised.  "The church is here to meet people's felt needs," he said.

Our scripture is from Mark's gospel, the earliest of the gospels, I assume.  Mark certainly wants to reach people with the message of Christ.  Mark's gospel begins with "Here is the good news of Jesus Christ."  Here in Mark is the good news about Jesus. 

Remarkably, when compared with the way we talk about Jesus, Mark has little to say about our felt needs, our struggles and our difficulties.  Mark mainly talks just about Jesus.  And when he talks about Jesus, it's not Jesus as the answer to our problems that Mark stresses but, rather, Jesus as strange and demanding Lord.

Take today's scripture.  As the disciples walk along with Jesus, a couple of the disciples say, "Lord, grant us to sit at your right and your left when you come into your kingdom."  Those who sit next to the chief are those who share power with the chief.  In other words, "Lord, when we get you elected Messiah and your Kingdom is come, grant us to sit on your Cabinet!" 

It is an understandable request for the disciples to make of Jesus.  After all, here are the ones who have left everything and they've come to follow Jesus, to walk with Jesus along his way.  Why did they commit to Jesus?  Well, unlike a lot of people, they believe that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, the great leader who would come in, raise an army, kick out the Romans out of Judea, set up Israel again as the most powerful nation in the world. 

It had not been easy trooping around behind Jesus through Judea.  Their request is quite understandable: "Lord, when you finally get everything together and win your kingdom, let us sit beside you in ruling your realm."

Lord, when you at last bring peace on earth, let that peace first be in my heart, in my marriage, in my family.  Lord, when you at last lift up the poor and set things right in the world, be sure that I am one of the major beneficiaries.

And Jesus replies to this perfectly understandable request by saying: "You don't know what you're asking.  Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?  Are you able to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?"

We know what the disciples don't know.  The road that Jesus is walking is a road that leads to torture, to death on a cross.  The "cup" that Jesus is to drink is the cup of his horrible death.  The "baptism" that will drown him is the baptism of his death as he suffocates to death on a cross.

The disciples show that they are clueless when they respond, "Sure!  We can do that!  We are able to drink your cup and be baptized with your baptism!  No problem!"

"'Are you able,' said the master, 'to be crucified with me?' Yea the sturdy dreamers answered, 'to the death we'll follow thee!  Lord we are able!'"  We used to sing that in church.

We are the "sturdy dreamers."  Are you able to receive the peace, the benefits, the joy, the sense of deeper meaning, the reassurance or whatever it is that Jesus is giving out this week?  "Oh, sure!  We are able!" we answer.

"Are you able to be crucified like I am to be crucified, to suffer, to be rejected and disappointed like I am to suffer and be rejected?" Jesus asks.  And these dreamers, these knuckleheads reply, "Sure! We are able!"

And you expect Jesus to say, "You idiots!  Here it is, deep in the Gospel of Mark and you are still clueless?  You show by your response that you don't have the foggiest idea of what I've been talking about all along the road, do you?"

And maybe Jesus was thinking that.  But what Jesus actually said was, "You will drink the cup that I drink, you will be baptized with my baptism."

Jesus promises his disciples not that they shall be in glory with him, rewarded and happy.  He promises that if they will follow him they shall share with him in his sufferings and challenges.

Two disciples ask to sit next to Jesus in his glory, one on his right, one on his left.  When Jesus came into his "glory," it was not on a throne.  It was on a cross, with two thieves, one on his right and one on his left.

This is the message that contemporary followers of Jesus have been reluctant to proclaim to the world, perhaps because we're reluctant to hear this message ourselves!  Jesus is not a technique for getting what we want out of God; Jesus is God's way of getting what God wants out of us.  God wants a world, a world redeemed, restored to God.  And the way God gets that is with ordinary people like us who are willing to walk like Jesus, talk like Jesus, yes, and even if need be to suffer like Jesus.

I've always thought it would have been enough of a challenge if Jesus had only said, "Even though I am the Messiah, the Son of God, Savior of the world, I am going to be nailed to a cross." 

Unfortunately for lots of our ideas about religion, Jesus said, "There's a cross for you too.  Come, take up your cross and follow."

Passed by a church the other day that had a sign out front that proclaimed, "Celebrate Recovery!"  Come, celebrate recovery, redemption, joy with us!

Ever seen a church with a sign out front that read, "Come! Be Crucified!  We've Got a Cross that Fits Your Back Too!"

And yet, Jesus was upfront.  Can't accuse Jesus of false advertizing.  "You will drink the cup that I drink; you will be baptized with my baptism."

When I was in campus ministry, a fellow campus minister asked me to participate in a baptism of a graduate student.  The grad student was from China.  He had been attracted to the Christian faith while a student at Duke.  I had met him once or twice before.  Well, I joyfully participated in the baptism of the student.  And I thought it a bright idea to bring my camera and take a few pictures after the baptism. 

"You can send these pictures to your family back in China," I said.  "You can share your baptism day with your friends at home," I said as I maneuvered everyone into place for the snapshots.  I noticed that the group looked a little shy and awkward, but they all stood together as I took my pictures.

After the baptism the campus minister said to me, "Oh, that was embarrassing, you with your camera and all."

"Embarrassing?  Why?" I asked.

"Well, because now that he's baptized, his life has been ruined.  His parents say that they will disinherit him.  The government will probably take away his scholarship.  He can't show those pictures to anybody back home.  His life as he knew it is over; he's been baptized into Jesus."

And, you know, when he said that, I thought of today's text.  "You will be baptized with my baptism...."  

I know a young man, he's a Baptist, who became an active Christian in high school.  He was going through a turbulent period in his life.  In an emotional youth worship service, he gave his life to Christ.  He said of his conversion, "I have found what I've always been looking for."

I visited with him a while back.  He now runs a ministry for inner city kids in East Saint Louis.  He lives in a dangerous, tough part of town, sharing the lot of the kids who come to his ministry.  He has been the victim of crime on a number of occasions.  I marveled at his faith and his faithfulness.

"Well, it's sort of what you sometimes get when you get Jesus," he said with a smile.  "I thought I 'found Christ' when in reality, Christ found me.  I thought he wanted to give me something.  Well he has given me many good gifts, but mostly what Jesus gave me was a job to do for him rather than to do what I wanted to do for myself."

And I thought of today's scripture:  "You will drink out of the same cup that I drink."

Back when I was at Duke Chapel, I once lamented to a group of students that we attracted so few students in our services on Sunday at Duke Chapel.  "Go easy on yourself," said one of the students.  "Duke is a very selective school with very bright students," she said.  (I'm thinking, "Yeah, bright but not all that humble.") 

"I think most of them are smart enough to figure out," she continued, "that if they gave their lives to Christ, he would only make their lives more difficult.  I think it's amazing you get as many students to come to Jesus as you do."

And I thought of Jesus: "You will drink my cup, you will be baptized with my baptism." 

And that's the Good News.

Let us pray.

Jesus, help us to hear you.  Help us to hear your challenging--sometimes bad--news as our good news.  Help us to hear your voice as our summons.  Help us to take up your cross daily and walk where you lead.  Amen.

 


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