Twentieth Sunday after Trinity
Mark 10:35-45 Isaiah 53:4-end
Whenever you think of the Christian faith, what image comes to mind? Is it the crown or the cross? Over the centuries, many have tried to tell the story of Jesus without the cross, thinking that it was too gruesome to focus much on it. And of course it is too gruesome; as an instrument of death, what else could it be? And yet, the cross is central to the story of Jesus; without it, or without Jesus’ death, there’s no point. People have been wearing crosses as a necklace; yet, what started off as a symbol of faith, has often become a fashion statement. If the latter, then I would wonder how much the wearers are aware of its original meaning. At best, it may be for them something like a good-luck charm; I would pray that they will come to realise its true power, and find faith through it.
But what about us? We’re taught the Scriptures, the Gospel tells us in full the journey that Jesus went, ‘from heaven to earth, from the earth to the cross, from the cross to the grave, from the grave to the sky’ as the song says (Lord, we lift your name on high). In the reading from Mark 10, two of his disciples come to Jesus with a request: to sit at his right and at his left in his kingdom. When Jesus probes a bit deeper, asking whether they truly understand what they are asking, they are confident enough to state that, ‘yes, they are able to drink the cup that he drinks or be baptised with the baptism that he is baptised with’. In other words, they are prepared to follow Jesus into martyrdom for the cause that he has set out. It sounds good, from our perspective maybe, but Jesus knows that it will have to be different in the way God has designed the work of salvation: his own Son as a ransom for many. Furthermore, the kingdom of God is not about positions of power and privilege.
Would-be leaders must take the role of servants, and not rulers like the ones known in earthly kingdoms.
Concluding this discourse, at the end of the passage from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus quotes from the prophet Isaiah chapter 53, verse 12, which speaks of the servant’s redeeming death. James and John seem to want to turn the Messianic journey into a glorious march, with a fitting reward for them, his supporters, in the final victory. Perhaps a bit like the march of a victorious general after a battle. They seem to have a different understanding of the ‘cup’ that Jesus refers to. Both here and later, in chapter 14, in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus knows that this is the cup of God’s wrath, God’s judgement on the wickedness of the world and that he will go and take that wrath upon himself. It’s serious stuff! It’s a ‘baptism’ of going down into the waters of death itself; which is just what Christians in the early days of the Church understood their own baptism to be.
James and John may not, in this instance, have come to understand the full meaning of Jesus’ words that he has come ‘not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many’. One day they will understand and, as I would like to think, not even wonder any more about their own place in the Kingdom. They will know that theirs is a place of safety in the love of God, who went to such length, all the way to the cross, to win them a crown of righteousness. They will know that their Redeemer lives, and that ‘in the end he will stand upon the earth’ (Job 19:25). If they want to have a share in the Kingdom, they will have to give up on the world’s images of power and privilege and simply follow as Jesus leads. The Kingdom of God sets our own power-systems on their heads. It goes through a cross to a crown. That crown will be an everlasting one that will never spoil nor fade. From the cross to the grave; from the grave to the sky: there is no other way. But with our hand held safely in the all-powerful hand of Jesus, we shall neither stumble nor fall. Amen.