Mark 10: 32 They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. 33 “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, 34 who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”38 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”39 “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”41 When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
For Jesus and the disciples, this is most definitely not their father’s family trip to Jerusalem. Its an uphill struggle in more ways than one. The road going up to Jerusalem has to be very familiar to Jesus and his disciples for all the times, from childhood on, that they went there for the high holy days, like New Years’, the Feast of Tabernacles or for Passover. This well-worn route should bring back memories of joyful times, of dancing and singing the Songs of Ascent from the Bible, like PS. 122: “I was glad when they said, ‘let us go up to the House of the Lord,’” Or the words we recited from Psalm 84: “How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of Hosts, my soul longs and thirsts for your courts.” Along that uphill road, they would experience joyful family reunions; they would anticipate, upon their arrival, wonderful music and worship, and great feasts of celebration and reconciliation.
But on this last Passover pilgrimage together, fear reigns on this road among the thirteen pilgrims. A heavy wet blanket of anxiety and depression lays over the group that Jesus leads, so that the disciples are following reluctantly, dragging their heels in confusion and dread. They know something bad is up; they know that there are people in Jerusalem who will be quite happy to see them, but only for the chance to put them away. As if to confirm their worst fears, Jesus tells them, “The Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him.”
Its not hard to imagine what they’re thinking: “ Lord, when you first said, ‘Come, Follow Me,’ we didn’t know that we were saying yes to this, to watching you get mocked, flogged and killed in Jerusalem. Or risking the same for ourselves. When we just confessed you, Jesus, as our long-awaited Messiah, we thought that we would do the mocking, the flogging and the killing. What you’re saying is not only terrifying, it doesn’t make any sense.”
That had to be what they’re thinking, because right away we hear James and John, the twin brothers, asking Jesus, “Will you grant us to sit at your right and your left when you are crowned king and seated on your throne? Like, next Tuesday?”
Maybe…. they didn’t get the memo. Maybe… they missed that meeting. More likely, they have reacted to their despair with denial. More likely, they are seeking escape from their grief in grandiosity; they are evading reality and responsibility through wishful, magical thinking. After all, its only human nature. Its often the way that groups and organizations work too: the twelve may not be able to work together, they may be falling apart, but they’re making plans to rule the world! No wonder Jesus called James and John, “Sons of Thunder.”
Which brings me to a question that this story raises for me: Why does Jesus insist on bringing such a divided, flighty, unstable and reactive group of people with him to Jerusalem, when the work he must do there on the cross and in the empty tomb is already so difficult, and ultimately, he must do it alone? Would it not be better, easier, to not have to deal with the constant foot-dragging, infighting and back-stabbing, even, the eventual betrayal and abandonment of his very own disciples?
Where do the disciples even fit into the way that we usually express the gospel, which most often is that, “Jesus died for our sins on the cross, and he rose from the grave to conquer death?” I believe that. But if that was the entire sum of all his work on our behalf—to die for our sins and to rise again–why didn’t he just say to those disciples, “You guys go back to Galilee while I go on to Jerusalem, die on the cross and rise from the tomb, and then I’ll meet you in Capernaum; we’ll take it again from there”?
I’m proposing two answers to that question, and I’ll start with the simplest: Jesus kept the disciples with him on this journey simply because he loved them, because he desired their friendship, their company, even their support. Especially in such a terrible time as when he saw his death approaching. If we knew that we would soon face the combined power and wrath of a brutal empire and the religious establishment, and that we had less than two weeks to live, wouldn’t we want some friends and family around, too?
And that’s why Jesus still says to us, 2100 years later, “Come, Follow Me.” Because, he loves us. Because he really, truly desires the pleasure of our company. Yes, in his divine nature, Jesus reflects God, the One being in the universe who is complete in himself. And yet, God is love, and love just wants to share and be shared. Being also fully human like you and I, Jesus desires friends. He delights in friends, even imperfect, inconstant friends, and he desires fellowship with us at least as much as we do with each other whenever we gather here on a Sunday morning and greet each other with smiles and hugs and hand shakes and worship together. And then we sit together downstairs during the time of fellowship and refreshments to catch up with each other.
Through his impoverished and persecuted worldwide church, Jesus still suffers in the world. So he desires friends and friendship just as much as we do whenever we come forward during prayer time to ask for support, as we face illness or job loss and say, “Pray for me,” just as Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemanae, asked his disciples, “Won’t you pray with me?” If anything, the delight we have in the love and friendship we share is only a pale copy of God’s desire and delight in us and in our friendship. Such love and friendship are not just a human things; they were God things first.
Is that surprising? Or do we think we come into the world only as something like laboratory experiments? So that God looks at each human being who enters the world and only says, “Maybe I’ll make the nose a little smaller on the next one?” No, we are not the accidental by-products of a celestial laboratory experiment, we are the overflow and the expression of the limitless love that flows within the Trinity. The love of God from which we come invites us to join that love and return it. So when Jesus says to any of his disciples, “Come, Follow Me,” what he’s saying is, “Will you be my friend forever?”
And how will we answer that question? There is always a first time to say, Yes to Jesus, if we have not already done so. With our first Yes comes everything that Jesus says Yes to: love, life and peace, forever. Then life afterward becomes a journey of friendship, of saying Yes, Yes every time we fellowship with Jesus in prayer, in worship, in fellowship with others, and in service.
But what holds us back is fear, the fear that we will lose our selves, our freedom or our uniqueness in a love that is so deep and so strong. Never mind that the self we’re often protecting is a false self, a mask given us by society. Never mind that the liberty we cherish can often be another form of bondage.
We are tempted by the same fear in groups. There’s safety in numbers, but also a threat: the threat that we will lose our uniqueness and our independence to the group, that we’ll get overlooked, overrun, loaded down, scapegoated or rejected, or end up at the bottom of the social heap. So our instinct for self-preservation leads to self-promotion. Like name-dropping at a party, whenever we mention someone important whom we know, but its still all about us, as I was telling Brad Pitt and George Clooney just last week. That’s how I understand James and John asking Jesus for thrones at his right hand and his left. They saw the threat coming to their selves, to their lives; they got scared, so they reached for the old familiar weapons of self-promotion.
Normally, self-preservation is not a bad thing. God gave us an instinct for self-protection because he doesn’t want us walking off cliffs or stepping into oncoming trains anymore than we do. And if you’re looking for a job, or growing a business, that’s the time for some self-promotion. But when it comes to following Jesus and being a friend to God and our neighbor, this instinct has to be reined in and re-directed. Otherwise, we end up doing like James and John, protecting and promoting ourselves at the expense of our friendships.
And that leads us to reason number two that Jesus is taking the disciples all the way with him to Jerusalem and the cross, for the educational experience, so that they can see and confront not only their enemies in Jerusalem, but their own enemies within: their over-blown, nonstop penchant for self-preservation and self-promotion. Those disciples would have to lose their faith in social status and their own human nature to grow a deeper faith in God. Then, they’ll be ready to replace self-preservation and self-promotion with self-surrender, like that of Jesus, giving himself up to the will of God, even on a cross.
As hard as that was for the Twelve, its all part of the divine plan, a painful but necessary step if that fractious, fighting group of competitive, jealous self-promoters was to become the firstfruits of God’s New Creation, and the missionary force that would turn the world upside-down. That, again, is the second reason why Jesus insisted that the disciples must come with him to Jerusalem, even knowing how badly they would fail him, and each other: so that, in the school of the cross, they would finally learn how much they needed a Savior, how much they needed to be transformed, and how little they could do on their own. Through their struggles and failures in Jerusalem, they would be broken and molded to where they would become yielded and ready to become the new humanity he is creating. For through Jesus, God is again molding the clay of the earth–us– like he did in the first Creation, to create a new humanity. Only this is really hard, stubborn and resistant clay that he’s working with. It’s been hardened nearly into stone by fear and by habits of self-protection and self-promotion. It will have to be softened by some hard knocks and face up to its own failures before its yielded, surrendered and ready to receive the second in-breathing of God’s Spirit, as happened on that first Pentecost after the Resurrection. Then they will embody the character, the qualities and the community that will not only enable them to share the Good News with the world, they will be Good News to the world.
Because the gospel of Jesus is not only good news about a relationship, it is a good news relationship. The Gospel comes in the form not just of words and ideas, but of relationships, relationships that Christians form with others, and with each other.
Key to such good news/gospel relationships is the quality that Jesus highlighted in verses 43-45: “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
What do we call this quality, or this characteristic? Words that come to mind would include “servanthood,” as in “whoever would be first must be servant of all.” We could also go for the word, “humility,” in the sense that one is free from worrying about where they stand on the social ladder. To be truly humble is to so trust in our worth in God’s eyes that we are freed from the constant, heavy burden of protecting and promoting ourselves. Or we could talk about “sacrifice,” as in “giving his life as a ransom for many.”
But servanthood, humility and sacrifice are expressions of something else, something deeper that I have already mentioned, that I would call “surrender,” as in “self-surrender,” or “yieldedness,” surrender or yieldedness to God, and surrender or yieldedness to each other. The ultimate example of this yieldedness or surrender is Jesus embracing the cross of non-violence for the love even of his enemies.
But we face the choice between self-protection/self-promotion and self-surrender to God and each other all the time, short of shouldering a cross. Parents of little babies know about yielding to the baby, yielding to each other, when those babies wake up at 2AM needing to be fed and changed, and when they take turns doing so.
You also see this kind of surrender and submission, one to another, in nature, society and the economy. There was once a wandering rabbi who stopped in a little Russian village to teach. After getting a few people to come to his Hebrew classes, he told the one rabbi who already lived there, “I would like to settle down and minister in this lovely little town along the Volga River.” The other rabbi was shocked and said, “But I was here first, and there’s not room for the two of us. The people in this community hardly pay me enough as it is to lead prayers and to preach. What makes you think that one more rabbi could make a living here?”
Then the wandering rabbi said, “I’ll tell you a story,” as rabbis often do. “There was once a farmer who bought a goose and built a lovely little coop for it. But being a forgetful, distracted man, he often forgot to feed the goose for several days at a time, so that the goose would often go hungry. In fact, he forgot one day that he even had a goose, and bought a rooster to put in the same coop.
“When the rooster landed in the coop, the goose spread his wings and hissed at him, ‘The farmer is so forgetful that there’s hardly food enough for one of us here, let alone two; out with you, or I’ll make chicken nuggets of you.’ He was big enough that he could do just that.
“But the rooster replied, ‘Its your coop all right; I know you were here first. But if you’ll let me stay and share this shelter with you, I’ll crow loud enough every morning until the farmer remembers that we’re here and feeds us both.’”
By submitting to each other, both goose and rooster got what they needed. And it came to pass that by honoring and supporting each other, the two rabbis grew their community to where it was even sending new rabbis out.
Those are the mathematics of heaven: when we give something to another out of love, nothing is lost, everybody gains. When we yield ourselves to God and each other, in love, we do not lose ourselves, we find ourselves, and so much more.
Submission and surrender like that requires trust in the goodness and generosity of God. Such trust brought Jesus to the cross, and his disciples with him. As Jesus predicted, they would indeed share his cup of self-surrender, sacrifice and even suffering. For his faith, James was beheaded, while John, his brother, was exiled, to the mines of the island of Patmos. But in the miraculous mathematics of divine love, the willing surrender of those two lives to the love of God has led to the many of us here, today, and around the world, following Jesus. John himself was given to see the throng around the throne of God in his vision that is our last book of the Bible.
Good thing then that Jesus did bring the twelve with him to Jerusalem and to the cross, to support him as friends. But failing that, then to learn of their own spiritual bankruptcy, and then to learn the calculus of heaven, the exponentially compounding interest of yielded-nesss, or surrender, to God.