A Homily for the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who allots us a portion with the great. Amen.
“Can you do me a favor?”
That question always gives me pause.
“What do they want? How much time will this require? What am I about to get myself in to?”
In my mind’s eye, I picture someone asking for the keys and title to my car or my ATM PIN or holding up a mask and asking me to help knock over the Atlanta Federal Reserve.
“Can you do me a favor?”
Knowing that I’m being ridiculous and just a bit paranoid, I wonder, “Can I really take that chance?” And so I respond, half-jokingly, “Maybe…”
Invariably the request in mundane. “Grab me a cup of coffee while you’re up?”
Enter the sons of Zebedee.
“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
That’s where I would pause. Not a favor. No, they’re hinting at something far beyond that.
What does Jesus think? Does he see what’s coming? Does he see the hesitation in their eye, that James is fidgeting nervously and John, though he’s doing all the talking, is avoiding eye contact with the other disciples? Is that why he is so coy in his response? Is that why he asks what they want before agreeing to it? Or does he want to force them to say it aloud themselves?
“What is it you want me to do for you?”
“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
You’ve gotta hand it to these “sons of thunder” – they live up to their bold nickname. Peter may be as solid as a rock, but James and John are loud and audacious. They know what they want, and by God they go for it.
But they are not alone. Imagine the scene – picture the look of indignation on the faces of the other disciples. Simon Peter and Andrew staring at each other in disbelief, Mary Magdalene silently mouthing, “Wow.” Judas watching from the outskirts, jealously admiring their audacity. In the brief silence that passes, James and John waver ever so slightly in what they’ve just done.
Only Jesus remains stone-faced. Immediately, he asks, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”
See, the sons of Zebedee think they’ve got this all figured out. They’re hanging out with the Messiah and drawing near to Jerusalem. James and John are pretty sure what comes next: the Son of David will take his throne and restore the children of Abraham to greatness. Being at his left and right – well those are pretty cushy positions in the new administration.
This is why the other disciples are mad – not because James and John don’t get it but because they got to it first. Poor Peter thought he had dibs. Andrew thought that being Peter’s brother meant he had a good chance at one of those two seats. And Judas was set on being the treasurer, of wielding the coin purse, of being the financial power behind the throne. But everyone just got beat to the punch.
Here’s the irony, though: Remember that we know how this story ends. We’re coming to the end of chapter ten. Yeah, chapter eleven starts with a big political rally, a parade fit for a king. But by chapter fourteen, Judas Iscariot will sneak away from dinner and betray Christ into the hands of Roman conspirators and collaborators.
By chapter fifteen, Jesus will be tortured and nailed to his cross. And there, at Golgotha, will be two other criminals crucified alongside him. One on his left. One on his right.
James and John will be nowhere in sight, nor will the other ten. Only Mary Magdalene and a few other women will remain faithful all the way through.
I said a few weeks ago that the closer the disciples get to Jerusalem, the more Jesus talks about the cross and the less the disciples understand. It’s no different today. For weeks now, Christ has been telling them that true greatness is service to others, that the last are first and the first are last, that death is the only way to true life. He’s been telling them exactly what Isaiah meant all those years ago as he wrote on the Suffering Servant, the one who is wounded and crushed, oppressed and beaten, who lives a life of anguish.
And yet these twelve men are still climbing all over each other to get to the top. Now, on the doorstep of Jerusalem, the twelve still don’t get it – and so Jesus spells it out one last time.
You want me to do you a favor, he asks. Well I’ll do you one better. You are going to give up everything, to put yourselves last, to hang out with losers, sinners, tax collectors, outcasts, and lepers. You are going to fall down and worship an executed criminal. If you have done everything right, you’ll end up despised and oppressed. You’ll be imprisoned, tortured, and in all likelihood, crucified yourself. If you end up rich and powerful, you probably did something wrong. Do you want to be lords? Then make yourself servants. Would you be great? Then humble yourself. Do you want life everlasting? Then give up your life.
When you put it like that, it’s no wonder the disciples don’t get it. This is the paradox of the Gospel of our Lord:
Servanthood is freedom, and lordship is slavery.
Perfect power is humility.
Loss is gain, and gain is loss.
The first are last, and the last are first.
Life is rooted in death.
Saint Mark begins his account of Jesus’ life with these words: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
And yet there is so much death and destruction.
And yet we are called to pick up our crosses, to carry our own lynching trees as we follow this poor man from Nazareth to the place of his execution.
How is this good news?
What comfort is there in any of this?
How is this greatness or the path to life everlasting?
How is this freedom?
How is this anything other than condemnation?
Because, dear ones, the cross and tomb are now empty. This whole story, this Gospel, this Good News is building up to a divine messenger sitting alone in a cave, greeting those faithful women: “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised.”
The suffering one has been allotted a portion with the great and is making us righteous – not through death but through conquering death.
Because Christ lives, we know that we too shall live.
Here in this water, at this font, in this bath, we are joined to his life!
Here at this table, at this Altar, in this meal we are fed by his gracious and resurrected body!
Here, in the midst of us, is the freedom to be humble and meek and to risk it all because we know that the victorious Christ has already won it all for us.
We can be the servants of all in this life because we know that our great King will lift us up on the last day.
We can put ourselves last because we know that our Lord is the beginning and the end, and he will usher us into places of greater glory.
We can risk even death now because we know that the Son of God lives!
We can sit alongside the poor and despised of this world, suffer alongside them, because we know that our present pains are nothing – nothing – compared to the glory of that coming Kingdom.
We know that the Suffering Servant is ushering all of us into that perfected Creation.
We can pray boldly for ourselves and others, asking our God to give us what we seek, because we know that Christ will grant us something even better: even life eternal.