If one is ever so foolish to think that people in the church are not subject to the same weaknesses as those outside the church, then our Gospel for the day is a quick reminder that we're all in need of God's forgiveness and grace, that any of us can get off track and get headed in the wrong direction even when we are in church or involved in a good cause.
Our story shows that James and John are ambitious--not that ambition itself is wrong--it makes a worker work harder to get promoted, a salesperson push to make more sales, a student study longer for better grades, an athlete go through grueling training to claim the prize. Ambition can be like fuel to the heart. Where ambition gets to be a problem is when it makes us self-centered, less aware of others, closed to where God might want to lead us. It can blind us to what God can do in our lives and through our lives. And when we are blinded by ambition, we can miss the greater prize. One can be so busy making a living that one loses one's life. We can be so busy seeking recognition that we fail to recognize those most important to us--our family, our friends, our neighbors.
I'm reminded of the time I was helping my wife bathe one of our grandchildren. I commented I couldn't remember bathing my own children this much. And she replied, "You didn't." You see, I was serving a small, growing church at the time with no staff and was usually away from home at bath time. One can get so busy making a living that one loses what really matters.
Stephen Covey was right when he said that no one has ever commented at a funeral he or she should have spent more time at the office.
Ambition can be a cruel master. It is also one that is never satisfied. What if Jesus had given in to James and John and said, "You can have the positions of honor." Then what? Would these two have been satisfied? Or perhaps they would have wanted a part in making the decisions for the kingdom. One might speculate they would have been expecting the others of the 12 to become their servants. Jesus knew that ambition can distort our view of life and the world. Seen through ambition, others can become objects, tools to use, instead of being our sisters and brothers.
One might argue that James and John had been tapped for what seems an inner circle for the 12. They were chosen along with Peter to go with Jesus up to the mountain top for the transfiguration. Maybe they had gotten the wrong message.
When we find ourselves in places of importance, we must see them as opportunities to grow, not as trophies to retain. One might argue that the point of the transfiguration was not to place the three with Jesus over the others but to facilitate the growth of their faith so when the day would come when Jesus was no longer physically with them, they would have a greater awareness of his place in creation, his place above even the greatest of prophets and the greatest of lawgivers. Then we might learn from our opportunities so when even greater challenges come, we will be ready.
Another cause for this ambitious request for honor and prestige might have been their background. After all, they had not been tax collectors but successful businessmen as fisherman who grew up working for a father who was the same. How many things do we take for granted because of where or when we were born? Our blessings are opportunities for service, not entitlements.
In our Gospel today, Mark writes in a very plain and open manner. He shows James and John as ambitious men, eager for prestige and honor. One might say not behaving at all like good disciples should. When Matthew recalls the request, the words come from their mother Salome. Perhaps in Matthew's opinion, a mother's ambition for her sons is much more acceptable than for a person to have for themselves. Matthew seems to have a mindset that places the disciples in a stained glass kind of world, above many of our human shortcomings, like winning over others, taking the place of honor, wanting power and prestige at whatever the cost.
What is clear to us, they had followed Jesus this far, but did not understand what he was about. They must have listened to Jesus like many of us listen to directions or instructions--sort of half-hearted and regretting that we didn't really listen when we find ourselves lost or unable to accomplish our task. As we go back a few verses in the 10th chapter of Mark, Jesus is pointing out the importance of children in the kingdom, not as a world would measure by size and might. As Georgia Gov. Sonny Purdue commented recently, "Children are a minority of our population but 100 percent of our future." When we push for the immediate such as James and John, we are in danger of losing the eternal. Jesus is calling for a whole new way of prioritizing, of seeing ourselves.
Then there is the confrontation that followed with the man who wanted to inherit eternal life but couldn't give up his possessions for the poor in this life. Maybe they thought the challenge to find what is truly the ultimate was only his issue.
They could join with Peter about the sacrifices they had already made in leaving everything to follow Jesus, only to be warned that the first will be last and the last will be first. Couldn't they hear, really hear? Jesus had just told them that where they were headed--Jerusalem--was a place where he would be handed over to the authorities and condemned to death. And all they could do in response was ask for honor and glory and prestige and position.
We can be active in the church, hear many sermons and Bible lessons, we can read the Scriptures but still miss the point--so close to the holy of holies that it ceases to be holy.
How many times are we guilty of expecting special treatment because we call ourselves Christian? "Why," we ask, "did this happen to me?" Or, "Why was I not treated differently?" Just like James and John, we expect a special place because we believe. We grow self-centered. We think in terms of privilege, not sacrifice, being served, not serving.
When Jesus confronts James and John saying, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink from the cup that I drink or be baptized with the same baptism that I am baptized with?" His question is not over the many issues that have divided Christians for centuries on how and when to perform the sacraments, rather it is a challenge to be willing to make the sacrifice of self, to ask not what is in it for me but what can I do for others.
One might also hear a warning that to follow Christ is demanding. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, it is not cheap grace but costly discipleship.
It would have been easy for John and James to have grown bitter at this point. After all, in their opinion, they were only asking for what they were due. Hadn't Jesus sort of opened the door by their being among the three selected to witness the transfiguration? Hadn't they really made a tremendous sacrifice when they walked away from the fishing business and now they were being turned down? For months as they followed Jesus, they had imagined what it would be like to be one of the inner circle, to be recognized as a person of position and privilege. But now their dreams were crashing around them as Jesus talked of greatness as being a servant. That the inner circle of the kingdom was not as James and John had seen among the Romans or even the religious authorities, but rather as those who were willing to put others first, to serve with no expectations of a return, to give with no expectations of recognition or influence. He was challenging them to be a slave to all, that is, to give up our personal agendas to meet the needs of others.
How easy it is for us to grow bitter when all our dreams and hopes are not met. We might protest, after all, haven't we taken a public stand for Christ by calling ourselves Christians? Haven't we made what we consider great sacrifices by avoiding things because they are wrong or giving money to the church and to missions, by giving some of our precious time to attend church? "Don't I get something in return?" we protest.
In our Gospel today, James and John did not turn away though. When challenged, they responded, "We are able." One is reminded of the hymn "Are Ye Able" when it says, "Yes," sturdy dreamers answered, "to the death we follow thee." For Jesus warns James and John that if they follow him the cost will be great.
The good news is they didn't betray him. They remained even to the point of standing at the foot of the cross, of gathering with the others when they had seen him laid in a tomb. They remained and because they remained they found the joy of knowing that he was alive and received the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Instead of growing bitter, they were in the forefront of the tidal wave that would bring the Gospel to the world.
James must have been known as one who was a builder of the faith, for in Acts we read that when Herod wanted to strike at the church, he had James killed with the sword--the first of the faithful 11 to die.
John was the only one of the 11, according to tradition, that did not meet a violent death. He died a very old man in the city of Ephesus. But somewhere between that time on the road to Jerusalem when he and James sought prestige and honor, he had learned the true reason for living. He had finally got it. Jerome keeps for us the tradition, that at the end, John could no longer walk in the church but had to be carried by others. He could only say a few words and seemed to always say, "Little children, love one another." They pushed him for more, knowing his time seemed limited, for something different. And he replied, "It is the Lord's command, and if this alone be done, it is enough." John had learned the higher order that puts others above self, service above prestige, and love above honor.
This scene on the road to Jerusalem is followed by the story of the healing of the blind beggar Bartimaeus. Maybe the greater miracle was the new insight gained by James and John that would allow for them to move on in their faith and to grow more like Christ. In the words of a title of a book of sermons by James Moore: "They did not grow bitter but better."
The challenge for us in the caldron of life is to become the person God wants us to be, not necessarily the person we want to be, to find our place of service in his kingdom, not his protection in this world. To learn as James and John that if we listen, truly listen, we will hear the command to love one another, not to expect others to do for us. We will hear the challenge to seek, to serve, and not to be served--to give with no expectation of return.
We, too, are challenged with the question, "Are ye able?"
Still the master whispers down eternity,
and heroic spirits answer,
now as then in Galilee.
Lord, we are able, our spirits are thine.
Remold them, make us, like thee, divine.
Thy guiding radiance above us shall be
A beacon to God, to love, to loyalty.
At the school two of my grandchildren attend--Wesleyan here in Atlanta, Georgia--there is a large banner in the chapel that says "JOY." These letters stand for Jesus, Others, Yourself. That is not the order John and James sought on the road to Jerusalem, but when they found that order, it was the joy they found when they became a servant in God's kingdom.
Let us pray.
Oh Father, help us to so order our lives that your Son's will will come first. The need of others will be paramount and we ourselves will learn to be patient. Then we shall learn the joy of serving thee. Amen.