Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost
The suffering servant
You have made the Lord your refuge, and the Most High your habitation. (Ps. 91:9)
Through suffering Christ becomes the source of salvation
Warnings to ambitious disciples
Ms. Haynie, my sophomore English teacher, made us memorize this definition of irony: “Irony is the discrepancy between the apparent and the real.” I don’t know if that is the best definition of the word, but it surely does describe what is going on in today’s Gospel lesson.
As Jesus and his disciples walk steadily toward Jerusalem, James and John approach Jesus secretly—as if he were staging a messianic coup, and ask to be key players in the new regime. There is a discrepancy between what James and John imagine it means to be seated at the left and right sides of Jesus and the reality. They might imagine something like Moses and Elijah, radiant as the sun on either side of a spectacular Transfigured Jesus. But according to Mark’s Gospel, those who end up on Jesus’ right and are not Cabinet members but two outlaws, hanging on crosses on either side of Jesus own. That’s irony. Then Jesus asks the Zebedee brothers if they are able to drink from his cup, a cup that Jesus himself prays not to drink, and they respond, “of course.” We laugh because we know what happens next. But how could they know that soon they would share a cup of blessing at Jesus’ last earthly meal, or that they would accompany him to a garden where he would pray to God to take the cup of what comes next away from him? How could they have imagined seeing a thirsting Jesus begging for a drink from his cross, and a soldier offering him bitter wine on a sponge?
Though it’s unclear what Jesus means by asking if they’re able to share in his baptism, it is notable that at Jesus’ first baptism he was immersed in water and driven into the desert by the Holy Spirit. This time Jesus is immersed into our human condition, all the way to death–driven to the absolute extreme of what it means to be human. Though Jesus has told them three times already that he is going to suffer and die, James and John simply have no idea what he is saying, or what they are requesting. And that has been the story of the church ever since. Jesus’ followers of every time and place have misunderstood what it means to follow him, while being absolutely confident they are the ones who’ve finally gotten it right. Christians have always had trouble with Jesus’ eagerness to serve rather than to be served, and his expectation that we will do the same. James and John and all the rest of us struggle to find our place among the successful as we define success, and all the while Jesus keeps marching toward Jerusalem, keeps healing, keeps loving, keeps serving, keeps giving himself as a ransom for many.
Author Ched Myers says out something interesting about that term ransom. He explains that a ransom referred to “the price required to redeem captives or purchase freedom for indentured servants” (Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus). That’s a little different from the way this passage and our reading from Isaiah are frequently read. I’ve often heard that God’s holiness demands perfection, and when humanity doesn’t measure up, Jesus is offered as a sacrifice to make things right. But what if Jesus passion is not saving us from an angry God but saving us from ourselves? Maybe Jesus is paying the price of ransoming us from the baptism and cup that James and John believe they need, ransoming us from the glory that they and we misunderstand, freeing us all from the life we’ve been urged to strive after but that ultimately is not abundant life?
Jesus tells the church, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” But Jesus doesn’t just preach this message, he lives it, and embodies it on the cross. He enfleshes the concept that sometimes choosing to make the ultimate sacrifice is a life giving option. Lots of parents give up or restrict their own opportunities and options on behalf of their children. A firefighter might freely risk her own wellbeing to save others from a burning building. Or a citizen may take a bold action on behalf of others at a great personal cost. Back in July of 2016 a Muslim man threw his arms around a suicide bomber outside a mosque, ending his own life, but saving many others. Perhaps it is this self-giving love that saves us, not an appeasement to a fierce judge. And why? It sounds like we have been ransomed and liberated from what binds us in order to turn around and enter servitude on purpose. Remember, God has made us, to quote Luther’s Freedom of a Christian—“perfectly free, lord of all, and perfectly slave, subject to all.”
Freely, I’ve loved serving and failing and trying again to serve Jesus with you for the past almost 8 years. I know I’ve not always done right by all of you, and I am sorry for the things I’ve done or left undone that have hurt any of you. I am grateful that in a few moments, we gather again for the meal we’ve shared so often before—a meal at which Jesus is both host and meal, waiter and honored guest. This family meal is open to everyone, and covers all our sins with love. At this meal, Jesus offers us all not just forgiveness, but also courage and connection and belonging, no matter what the geography looks like. Every time we eat at this table we commune not only with all who are gathered in this sanctuary today, but also with all those saints of every time and every place who have ever shared this holy meal. Martin Luther is kneeling next to you. That’s James and John over there, and your grandmother is beside you. There’s that Sunday school teacher was so patient with you when you were growing up. And for all of eternity, you and I will continue to take communion together. Everyone–rich, poor, strong, weak, child, or adult, clergy, or lay, gets the same feast–the body and blood of Christ—given and shed for us, together and separately.
Here is a prayer from St. Ignatius of Loyola for us all on this journey filled with ironies and unexpected plot twists: “Teach us, good Lord, to serve you as you deserve; To give, and not to count the cost; To fight, and not to heed the wounds; To toil, and not to seek for rest; To labor, and not to ask for reward, Save that of knowing that we do thy will; Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen”
~Pastor Susan Schneider