Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
“We will have so much winning. We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with the winning. Believe me, I agree, you’ll never get bored with winning. We never get bored. We are going to turn this country around. We are going to start winning big on trade. Militarily, we’re going to build up our military. We’re going to have such a strong military that nobody, nobody is going to mess with us. We’re not going to have to use it.” -Donald Trump, September 2015
“I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be employed by thee or laid aside by thee. Exalted for thee or brought low for thee. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal. And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it. And the covenant which I have made on earth, Let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.” – Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition
In last Sunday’s epistle lesson from Hebrews we were reminded that God’s word is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joint from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” If the gospel lessons of the past few weeks have been any indication the power of God’s word to cut deeply into our lives, this week’s gospel conversation between Jesus, James, and John leaves no doubt that the Word made Flesh will not rest until everything that separates us from God has been sliced away with the precision of a surgeon with a scalpel.
Last week this “Good Teacher” cut into our idolatry of possessions. This week it gets even more personal. Placing ourselves in this story we realize that our sinfulness, like that of James and John, is not just caused by external forces like wealth (or Mammon), but by forces dwelling deep within us, like envy, pride, ego, and the illusion of grandeur.
To the seemingly benign request to the have seats closest to the dessert table in heaven, Jesus responds with a question: “Can you drink the cup I drink or receive the baptism I receive?” We who know the end of this story and who regularly gather around both the cup and the baptism of Christ know that this question is a foreshadowing of blood to be shed, suffering to be endured, and death on a cross.
Knowing this, we might not answer as quickly as do James and John. Deep down, however, we want to believe that we can walk this way with Jesus and so receive life victorious. We want to believe that there is a possibility that our path to greatness could be a bit less harrowing.
For the last few years I have made a regular practice of praying the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer as a part of my daily prayer practice. It was only recently that I was brave enough to admit to myself that though I pray all of the right words, there is yet a part of me—buried and subconscious—that simultaneously prays that God will not take me up on the offer to be put to suffering, laid aside, brought low, emptied, or left with nothing.
Like James and John—like most of us, I assume—what I really desire is a quick and easy path to glory, no suffering required. I assume that there is some way in which I must be entitled to such because I am a faithful disciple, after all. My family is in worship regularly. We tithe. We serve our neighbors. We fight for justice on all of the right issues. We might not ever articulate it, but in our heart of hearts we do somehow believe, like Job and James and John and the ten, that our faithfulness has earned us a bye from real suffering. Perhaps, even, our faithfulness to Jesus has earned us a spot in the royal council where we have earned our right to advise Jesus on how to really bring the kingdom in.
Regardless of the size of our delusions of grandeur, with all of the best intentions we believe that we will use our power and proximity to Christ to do all the good that we can. How easy to believe ourselves to be “one of the good guys” who will lead those around us towards the kingdom.
Karl Barth says when we follow Christ, we’re called to drop our obedience to “magic and dictatorship, the newspaper, the judgment of people, the currently prevailing mood and public opinion, certain strong personalities, ideologies, principles, systems and not least of all our own convictions.” Maybe the last conviction to be swept away is the one that allows us to believe that we have a right to be anywhere close to Christ. Maybe it’s the ego that believes we can “make a difference” if we just got into the right position. Maybe it’s the illusion that we’re more important than we really are.
With a few clear questions, the Word of God this week challenges us: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?” (Job) and “Can you drink the cup I drink?” (Mark) We find ourselves silenced before these questions, like James and John and Job. With all of our pretension stripped away, we may yet have the opportunity to see ourselves as we truly are.
We’ll find ourselves empty-handed and ready to receive the gift that is given to us—bread and wine—sustenance and suffering–“offered by the one who is the source of eternal salvation for all who obey.” (Hebrews 5:9) And, there, perhaps, as we are left helpless before the throne of the God who creates and redeems us, we will begin to see that we are not being prepared to sit at the right or left hand of glory, but prepared to be drawn into the very life of God.