Here is a sermon from the archives on Mark 10:28-45. James and John wanted the places of honor next to Jesus. I preached this during the 2000 U.S. Presidential campaign. Coveting places of honor is a temptation for individual disciples, but it’s also a temptation for congregations.
A Sermon on Isaiah 52:13-53:12 and Mark 10:28-45
Sometimes Jesus’ disciples seem dense. What Jesus says doesn’t sink in with them, and our text today is a prime example. For much of chapters 8, 9 and 10 in Mark Jesus has been emphasizing to them that things don’t work the same way in the kingdom of God as they do in the world. Three times in these chapters Jesus stressed that unlike a triumphing worldly king, Jesus, the Son of Man, was going to suffer greatly, be rejected and killed by the authorities, and then rise again.
Now, we can understand the disciples not getting it the first time. The first time Peter started to rebuke Jesus, saying, “No way, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” And Jesus replied, “Get behind me, Satan, adversary of God, for you’re setting your mind not on divine things but on earthly things.” Then Jesus added, “Whoever want to become my followers must deny self and take up their cross and follow me. Those who save their lives will lose them, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it.”
We can understand the disciples not getting it the first time. It didn’t at all fit their expectations of a conquering hero Messiah. But they didn’t get it the second time, either. Soon they were arguing among themselves over which of them was the greatest. Jesus challenged them on that: “Whoever wants to be first must be last and servant of all.” Then, putting a child in their midst, he added, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me and the one who sent me.” And what did the disciples do? When a group of children came to see Jesus, the disciples tried to chase them away. Jesus was annoyed. He stressed yet again, “You have to receive the kingdom of God as a gift like a helpless child. You must become as a child or you’ll never enter it.”
The third time, in our lesson today, Jesus gave the grimmest description of all of what was going to happen to him: “Now look,” he said to the twelve, “we’re going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the religious leaders, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles, and they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”
Did the disciples get it this time? No! The next thing you know, James and John were asking Jesus to give them the best seats in his royal cabinet. They tried to maneuver their way to the top of the heap. This made the other ten disciples angry. They wanted the same reward, but to their consternation, James and John managed to speak to Jesus first.
What was with those disciples? Jesus just got through describing the ordeal that lay ahead, and here his closest friends were focused on the special privileges they wanted—and that they felt they deserved. Indeed they had left much to follow Jesus. They recognized that some self-sacrifice was called for, and that there are times when suffering is necessary. But in their minds, this was just a temporary step on the way to Jesus’ great victory. How much better things would be once the Romans were out and Jesus and his faithful ones were in! Then they’d be sitting pretty!
We might want to shake James and John and the others to get them to wake up. But Jesus didn’t blast his disciples for being slow to understand. Patiently he went right back to teaching. Maybe we’d best not be too hard on them, either. Are they really so different from us? Aren’t we conditioned from earliest childhood to be ambitious, to seek success, to accomplish important things?
The desire to make a name for ourselves, to get ahead starts early, and it’s nurtured by messages that come at us from everywhere: from parents who stress doing well in school, from competitive sports where the stress is on winning, from all sorts of media like TV telling us what we must do and what we must have to “make it” in this life.
Columbia Seminary professor Walter Brueggemann tells a story about a young acquaintance of his family who was worrying greatly about her preschooler. “If he doesn’t get into the right preschool,” she worried, “he won’t get into the right prep school. And if he doesn’t get into the right prep school, he won’t get into Davidson College. And if he doesn’t get into Davidson, he won’t get a good job at a place like Nations Bank in Charlotte. And if he doesn’t get a job like that, he won’t make enough money” (Brueggemann, “The Liturgy of Abundance, the Myth of Scarcity” in Christian Century, Vol. 116 #10, March 24-31, 1999, p. 344.)
Can we really blame James and John for wanting to make their parents Salome and Zebedee proud, or for wanting to accomplish something important and memorable with their lives, or for wanting to make a name for themselves?
Even congregations of disciples operate out of this mindset. They want to make a name for themselves as a church. They size themselves and each other up, and rank each other in an imaginary pyramid with only a few at the top. Numbers of people and numbers of activities and numbers of accomplishments are what take a church to the top. I find myself talking this way. On Sunday nights when Daddy and I talk on the phone, we compare notes about our churches. He always asks how many we had for worship on Sunday morning, and tells me how many they had at their church. What church doesn’t want to come out on top, or near the top? What church doesn’t want to be seen as one of Jesus’ right hand churches? “Jesus, we want you to grant us to sit at your right hand and at your left!”
No, Jesus didn’t rebuke James and John and the others. He saw far into the future. He recognized that despite their misunderstanding now, his disciples would suffer much for his sake and for the sake of the gospel. They would indeed share his cup of deep suffering, along with his cup of victory. No, he wouldn’t dress them down. Instead, Jesus redirected them.
Firmly but patiently, Jesus redirected their focus. “Look,” he said. “This is the way the world operates.” That’s what Jesus means when he speaks of the ways of the Gentiles. “Among the Gentiles, that is, in the world, rulers lord it over people, and the great ones are tyrants.” How right Jesus was! Then, as now, the more powerful you were, the more people you had under you as subjects, servants, or even slaves.
“It shall not be this way among you,” Jesus declared. “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant. Whoever wishes to be first must be the slave of all. Why? Because the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and give his life a ransom for many.” Christ’s goal was to serve and save humanity, setting us free from the tyranny of sin and death. And he would do it not as a conquering, dictatorial emperor, but as a humble suffering servant.
Is the idea of humble suffering service any more attractive now than it was then? In his commentary on this text, Scottish Bible scholar William Barclay puts it well, “The basic trouble with the human situation,” he writes, “is that [people] wish to do as little as possible and get as much as possible.”
After the last presidential debate, PBS commentator Mark Shields was of the opinion that this year’s candidates certainly aren’t challenging the American people to sacrifice and service. They are focusing more on who is going to get what. We are not hearing a call to service such as John Kennedy issued in his inaugural address when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
But, William Barclay continues, “It is only when [people] are filled with the desire to put into life more than they take out, that life for themselves and for others can be happy and prosperous” (Barclay, Mark, p. 267).
Christ Jesus was in the process of giving his all for our sake, and he called his disciples to serve in the same sort of way. The point of the Christian life is not winning. The point is not to rise to prominence. The point is not to earn privileges. The point is not even to earn our place in heaven, for that is God’s gift to us. The point of the Christian life is to serve.
To put it another way, to be truly upwardly mobile, upwardly mobile meaning to draw nearer to God, it is necessary to become downwardly mobile. It is necessary to bend down in service because that is what our Savior has done for us. He stooped to our weakness and took on all our frailties. He has borne all our infirmities and carried our diseases. He was wounded for our sin, and by his wounds we are healed.
On the night in which he was betrayed, Jesus issued the call to service by means of a parable acted out. He literally stooped down to wash every one of the disciples’ feet, the lowest of servants’ jobs, and told them that they must do the same thing. The next day he stooped down, he bent down for our sake, accepted a criminal’s death on the cross, and descended into hell to purchase our freedom, freedom from sin and death
What Jesus is looking for in his disciples is service. The question is not how big our membership rolls, buildings, budgets and programs are. The question is not how good we look in others eyes, how we rank in a church popularity poll. The question is are we serving in the manner of the one who serves us? Are we caring for the sick and the weak with tenderness and respect? Are we feeding the hungry and helping the poor to rise? Are we seeking peace and working for what is right and good everywhere we find ourselves? Are we welcoming sinners and telling them the good news of forgiveness? Are we calling people to new life? The goal of Jesus’ disciples is not worldly success but faithfulness to Jesus our Savior, our teacher.
But there is a caution for would-be servants. It is tempting to turn the ideal of suffering service into yet another means of getting ahead. One Presbyterian minister describes how this temptation got him. In junior high and high school he went to church camp every summer. In his first summer at camp, he writes, “I discovered that at the end of the week, the campers all selected one person as the best camper of the week, and that person got some kind of award. The next summer I decided I wanted to win that award. For the whole week I went out of my way to put other people first. When somebody struck out in a softball game, I gave him or her a word of encouragement when others were criticizing. At the table I made sure the person next to me got a piece of chicken before I took one. I put other peoples’ ideas ahead of my own when we were working on a skit for the talent show. It worked. I was elected the best camper. It was a great feeling.
“A few hours after the assembly and shortly before we all left for home, the DCE from my home church, a young woman whom I really liked and admired, took me aside and said that she earnestly hoped that I would not let that honor go to my head, that I would remember that the kind of unselfish and considerate behavior I had displayed for a week was the kind of behavior God wanted from me all the time. It was a very sobering message.” (Lectionary Homiletics, October 2000, p. 32).
That young man was blessed to have someone to redirect him. And that is just what our divine teacher will do for us if we accept his guidance. We can ask him to redirect us just as he did James and John and the others: O divine teacher, Lord Jesus, you bent down to serve us, teach us to bend down to serve others. We pray with our brother Francis of Assisi, “O Divine Master, grant that we may not seek so much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”