Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Although the evidence of today’s text would indicate otherwise, St. John, the writer of the fourth gospel account and the three epistles that bear his name, and St. James, his older brother and the first of the original Twelve to be martyred, are good models for our growth in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Along with St. Peter (who had his own challenges in following Jesus), James and John were part of the inner circle of the Twelve disciples. You gotta wonder sometimes, though… what did poor Andrew think, always being the odd man out?
We often read about the special relationship James and John, sons of Zebedee and Sons of Thunder, had with the Lord. They got to see Him in glory on the Transfiguration Mountain. They were asked to pray with Him in the Garden ofGethsemane on the night before He died.
But how are James and John models for growth in discipleship? Their behavior in this episode is anything but humble and service-oriented. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. James and John are not pictured here with halos around their heads, as they might be in a painting or stained glass window. Instead, we see them as ambitious and pushy. They act and speak as if they deserve great things at the expense of the other disciples. They sound like those who say prayers like they’re ordering room service from a God who is just waiting around to deliver what we want. They sound…well, just like you and me.
A few years before I became aware of popular music, there was a singer named Janis Joplin. I didn’t have any knowledge of her until well after she’d thrown away God’s gift of life and died of a drug overdose. But she was talented, and one of her songs went like this (and feel free to say it along with me, if you know the words): “O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz? My friends all drive Porsches; I must make amends. Worked hard all my life, no help from my friends; O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?”
That’s James and John in today’s text. “Lord, do for us what we want. Make us your top guys when you take over.” That’s you and me when we pray sometimes, too: “Lord, you know I could use some special treatment here. You know how long and intensely I’ve loved you, and how long I’ve been trying to do the right thing! When do I get the big payback for all I’ve done for you?”
And so, as Jesus’ disciples in our own time, the first thing that this text calls us to do is to look inside ourselves with both integrity and strength, where we discover that we have neither. We are dishonest and weak, every day. But eventually we must probe our own agendas, our own plans, our own ambitions, and then to confess that, just like James and John, we have not cared very much about anyone but ourselves.
Janis Joplin’s song wasn’t: “O Lord, won’t you buy my neighbors a Mercedes Benz.” She didn’t sing: “O Lord, won’t you fill the bellies of the hungry,” or “O Lord, won’t you rescue the lost and the condemned.” Though intended to be a tongue-in-cheek condemnation of materialism, that song showed, like a lot of comedy, a degree of bitterness and cynicism toward the kind of false piety James and John were demonstrating. It’s a piety that is outwardly dignified, but is meant for one’s own benefit, not really interested in meeting the needs of others.
We who call ourselves Lutherans often glibly toss around the word “grace” as if it were an excuse for intentional sins. How easy it is for me and you to see the James and John in everybody else, too. How easy to see the blindness and hear the hypocrisy in other’s words and actions. How much harder it is to see your own ambition, your own agenda, and your own wants.
How much harder it is to confess: “Lord, I have prayed selfishly. I have prayed wrongly and repeatedly: ‘My will be done.’ Have mercy on me, a sinner.”
We who call ourselves Lutherans also frequently and willfully forget that the very first of Martin Luther’s 95 theses declares: “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said ‘Repent,’ willed that the whole life of believers should be one of repentance.” So James and John are models for our growth in discipleship, our growth in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, because James and John didn’t stay where they were…nor did Peter or Andrew or the others, except Judas.
Jesus’ first response to James and John is important for us to hear clearly and reflect upon. He says: “‘you do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?’ And they said to him, ‘We are able.’
And Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’”
James and John don’t have any idea what He is saying, and Mark almost wants us to laugh about how clueless they are. Jesus has already told them multiple times what is going to happen to Him in Jerusalem. He’s going to be rejected and killed and on the third day rise. At no time has Jesus even hinted that He was going to move into the king’s palace inJerusalem or exercise earthly ruling power. In fact, nothing He has said and done has pointed to the kind of ambitions that James and John clearly have for Him, and for themselves.
Notice that the Lord Jesus didn’t chastise James and John directly, as he had Peter when he’d overstepped his place and tried to inject his own ideas into Jesus’ ministry.
Instead, Jesus lets the rest of the disciples do the job of letting the air out of James’ and John’s balloon. And, wow, did their resentments ever surface! You can almost hear the voices, like on a school playground: “That’s not fair. Why should Jimmy and Johnny get ice cream and not us? Why should they get to be Jesus’ special helpers?”
That’s when Jesus steps in and settles everyone down: “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Yet even then, neither James nor John nor any of the others get what it means to be His disciples. Jesus is the Truth in human flesh. He is God. He is the One, True Light. As St. John himself would go on to write, decades later: “In Him there is no darkness at all.” Just standing in the presence of God’s Son Jesus, James and John and the other ten are illuminated and seen and known by Him—both for what they are, and for what they are not. Like us, they are not whom God created them to be. Like us, they are in bondage to sin and cannot free themselves. Even though they have been walking with Jesus, they haven’t been listening or learning or growing to the extent they should, either.
Why did Jesus encounter such resistance and hostility during His earthly ministry, and finally the murderous attention of those in power? It’s largely because He is the Truth, and He told them the Truth.
Proud sinners can’t handle the Truth, so they rejected Him, they mocked Him, whipped Him brutally, and finally nailed Him to a cross where He suffered and died. They just wanted Him to shut up and go away permanently. That’s the way much of the world treats Jesus, still. They just want Him to be quiet and leave them alone.
When the Twelve saw the arrest and torture and crucifixion unfold, they were terrified. All of them but John left Him. No, they didn’t really want to drink His cup—the cup of suffering and humiliation and execution—nor could they.
How painful it was that Good Friday night and the next, when all their words of love and devotion and fidelity were found empty. Their failures haunted them as they mourned Jesus’ death in terror of what would happen to them. It’s painful to know how weak and foolish and petty and selfish you are capable of being. We are truly in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves!
And that is why God’s Son lovingly suffered and died for us and our salvation. He lived the life none of us can live, and died the death none of us could die. Before the Truth sets us free, it sometimes ticks us off or scares us. Something is fundamentally wrong with us, so we need God’s Son to save us.
We should expect that a little girl or boy will be childish. And when we are still young in our faith, new to discipleship, it’s to be expected that, like James and John, we will often get it wrong. But that doesn’t mean we are to sit still in our faith, and stagnate in our development. That’s not good enough for those who follow Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of faith. When it comes to faith, we aren’t to choose like Peter Pan whether or not to mature. God knows there are plenty of childish adults walking around, but we have to distinguish between a touch of occasional whimsy and the clinging to ongoing immaturity.
The power to change—the power to grow in our faith and knowledge and discipleship—comes not from within but from outside of us. As Martin Luther writes in his explanation of the third article of the Apostles’ Creed, the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies us through the Good News of Jesus Christ, and keeps us in the one, true faith in Him. We hear God’s Word, and it moves us to repentance. In His holy presence, we see what we are, and what we are not!
We know much more about St. John and what he went on to do in the years following Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension than we know about St. James. As I said, John wrote a gospel account, three epistles which are included in the Bible, and of course the book of Revelation, too. He was a respected pastor and teacher in the early Church, and wrote against many of the heresies which arose in those decades—heresies which still arise today, and can still be defeated with God’s Word.
But John’s brother, who has become known as James the Elder, didn’t stay in a permanent state of spiritual childishness, either. He didn’t whine when Jesus didn’t claim an earthly kingdom in Jerusalem. James was filled with the Holy Spirit and proclaimed the Good News of Jesus to a hostile world. And, we learn in Acts 12, that James did, in fact, drink the same cup as Jesus. There we learn that Herod Agrippa, the grandson of the Herod who slaughtered the babies after the Wise Men’s visit, “…laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also.” (Acts 12:1-3a).
We follow Jesus by becoming humble servants all the way to the grave. And if you should hear some other gospel that downplays the cross and talks of earthly glory and success, you should hear it for what it is: a childish, foolish, and just plain wrong interpretation of what it means to follow Jesus. It’s a lie, a heresy like James’ and John’s at the beginning of today’s text.
We learn from James’ and John’s mistakes, just as we learn from their faithfulness. But first and foremost, we learn from Jesus, who is always the faithful and true model of righteousness. Paul says in Colossians 1: “He is the image of the invisible God.” When we see Jesus, we see the Truth. We see what our heavenly Father meant us to be, before we rebelled and fell into sin.
One of our post-communion prayers reads: “always to rule our hearts and minds by Your Holy Spirit, that we may be enabled constantly to serve You, through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord…”
And so when we take into our bodies the very body and blood of Jesus in bread and wine, we receive both the forgiveness of sins and the power of His endless life—the power to serve God in faith and to serve our neighbors in love. The Spirit calls us to become what God says we are when we were buried and raised with Christ in the washing of Holy Baptism.
I cannot tell you precisely how long any of us has on earth or specifically what service to God and neighbor you should undertake. That, too, comes from God’s work in the Spirit—the Lord and Giver of Life, who spoke by the prophets and apostles to give you God’s word of Truth and guidance. I can say with certainty, though, that the study of God’s Word will reveal constantly what God does and doesn’t want us to become, and how God does and doesn’t want us to live.
Each of us is called to point not to ourselves, but to the Crucified and Risen Christ, the Son of God who gave His life as a ransom for many. Whether God will require of us a martyr’s death like James or other apostles and believers, no one can say.
But we are called to keep our eyes on Jesus, and to change and grow, however haltingly, however awkwardly, and to give our lives away in humble service, until no breath is left in us!
May God grant you that gift and that strength, in the holy (X) name of Jesus. Amen.