James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then 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.” When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave or all. For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
There was an incident as a prestigious university a number of year ago, perhaps the same one where I went to seminary, during which, one random fall morning, their was a disheveled looking beggar sitting on the steps leading into the Law School.
The sight was quite the juxtaposition on the immaculately manicured campus.
The next week the same beggar, bandaged and certainly in need of help, sat by the doors leading into the School of Medicine.
One week later and the beggar was back again, bruised and bloodied, and this time he was laying down by the entrance to the Divinity School.
By this time, the university decided they had to put an end to these incidents and so they alerted the police to be on the look out for the questionable figure on campus.
However, when they surrounded the beggar a few days later, the beggar began removing his outer clothing and his bandages and his fake beard and produced a Student ID card. He was in the midst of his PhD in Sociology and had been conducting an experiment on campus.
The idea behind his escapades was to discern if people from certain academic disciplines were more or less inclined to helping a stranger in need. After all, he had a pretty decent set of variables to work with, and it didn’t take him long to set up the whole experiment.
Months later, when he published his findings, the campus was in a bit of a shock.
Apparently, while laying out in front of the Law building, countless students offered him money but that was the extent of what they were willing to do.
A fair number of students enrolled in the Medical School offered to examine his injuries or escort him over to the hospital.
And while perched in front of the Divinity School, not a single student nor professor stopped to offer anything. Well, they apparently offered lots of excuses but nothing more.
In fact, the story goes that they only person who stopped in front of the Divinity School was a janitor, who risked losing his job in order to help make sure the beggar was taken care of.
James and John, the brothers Zebedee, are idiots. Jesus teaches them about the mysteries of the kingdom of God, Jesus offers them miraculous food to eat when they see nothing but scarcity, Jesus even spells the whole death-and-resurrection business, the exodus for the rest of us, as literally as he can and still, they miss it all. They approach their Lord and demand cabinet positions in the kingdom.
These fools want power while God in the flesh has told them time and time again that glory comes in weakness.
In short, the brothers Zebedee are out of their league.
And yet, just as Peter blurted out his own non-sequitur desire to build houses up on top of the Mount of Transfiguration, James and John fumble out their desire for greatness.
Perhaps, like us, when these brothers are confronted with seemingly bad news, they prefer to keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side.
“Excuse us JC, it’s all good and fine for you to talk about that Son of Man stuff, but can we talk about what it will be like when this is all over?”
And JC, like a good rabbi, answers their question with a question.
“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”
“Lord, we are able! Our spirits are thine!”
“Okay,” Jesus intones, “I just want to make sure we’re all clear, then, about what that means. Remember, I’m in the death and resurrection business. I’m here to turn the world upside down. So, for God’s sake, pay attention as I say this for the 50th time: if you want to be first, you have to be last. If you want to be great, you have to be the least. For the Son of man came not to be served, but to serve, and to his his life a random for many. Got it?”
The disciples, James and John and all the rest, they want glory, they want power, they want prestige.
These fools are just like us! Looking for the easiest way to the top in the shortest about of time with the least amount of resistance!
But glory, according to the strange new world of the Bible, is not how we so often picture glory. We might imagine the corner office, or the perfect stock portfolio, or the kids going to the right college, or going to seminary so that people will call you Reverend one day.
However, this is how Jesus describes glory: The Son of Man, God in the flesh, serving humanity from the hard wood of cross, rectifying the sins of all those who seek glory by the wrong means for the wrong reasons.
At the end of the day it’s important to remember that the Gospel, the Good News, is a story. It’s not a self-help program, it’s not a textbook with steps to salvation, it’s not program for perfect morality. It’s a story, actually the story, that renarrates all of our stories.
Whenever we enter the strange new world of the Bible, its impossible to miss how the whole thing, particular the New Testament, is organized around a journey. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end that is really a new beginning.
And, like most journeys, we know we have somewhere to go, but we never really know what we will encounter along the way.
The same is true of the disciples, then and now. Disciples follow Jesus, but we clearly don’t know a lot more than that.
Following Jesus, then and now, is a strange and wondrous thing. It is strange because we do not know where it will lead and it is wondrous because we do know that God in Christ is with us for the entire ride.
What are the marks of faithfulness, or discipleship, today? Do you have to be baptized? Do you have to have perfect worship attendance? Do you have to tithe?
Notably, Jesus never says to his disciples, “You have to believe these five propositions in order to be a disciples” or “You must engage in this list of Spiritual Disciplines.”
He merely says, “Follow me.”
And yet, the “merely” in that sentence is a betrayal of the magnitude of discipleship.
Whatever our faith may be, whatever it may look like, it is found in the following. It’s not about having some sort of emotional response to the Spirit, or making some sort of public proclamation about Jesus’ lordship. Those things can, and dare I say should, happen.
But they are not discipleship. They, to put it bluntly, are not the Good News.
In the end, discipleship is nothing more than stumbling behind the Lord on the road of life, going from one adventure to the next, with the safe and secure knowledge that he’s in charge.
Therefore, we never really choose to be Christians.
Discipleship is something done to us.
I’ve never not been a Christian. I’ve spent my whole life in and around and the church and don’t know know anything different. But even those who come to faith later in life, we do so not by making a decision. We do so because something happens to us and we eventually find ourselves within a community like this one.
That something is named Jesus Christ.
It just kind of happens that at some point we realize we’re caught up on the journey that we might not have ever chosen on our own.
Which, when you think about it, is pretty Good News! It’s very Good News because it means the church has room for those with tremendous faith and for those with tremendous doubts. The church has room for those who feel like they’re on top of the world and for those who feel like their down in a ditch. It means the church is a journey, an adventure, in which we are always moving.
And yet, like any journey, there are signposts, guides, billboards that help us know where we are going.
To be on the way of faith, to be caught up in the adventure of grace, means imitating the moves of the master. That is: we learn and live and move and have our being by repetition, by habit, by practice.
That’s why Jesus is forever telling stories. Notice: Jesus stories are not about esoteric conceptions that college freshman debate in Philosophy 101. Jesus’ stories, instead, are centered down in the muck and the mire of life. Jesus tells stories about things like anger, justice, disappointment, fear, money, jealousy, forgiveness, relationships – you know, the things we all deal with on a daily basis.
Those stories, those words, they become the habits around which our lives are made intelligible. This happens because Jesus’ stories are always about himself, and if we take seriously the claim that we have been incorporated into His body, then they are also stories about us.
Here’s a parable that Will Willimon tells which, of course, riffs on one of Jesus’ parables:
“There’s a barber who, after a day of cutting people’s hair for money, goes out to a hospital for the mentally challenged and cuts hair for free. A friend of his is an accountant who, after a long day of serving people’s financial interests for money, goes out at night to cruise local bars, to pick up women for one night stands, and to enjoy himself as much as possible. Both men, the barber and the accountant, are apprentices, people attached to some larger vision of what life is about, why we are here. One is attached to Jesus. The other is attached to consumerism and selfish hedonism. So the interesting question to ask them is not the abstract ‘What do you believe in?’ But, instead is it the concrete question, ‘Whom are you following?’”
Faith is about following.
Jesus says to the disciples, then and now, “Take up you cross and follow me.” When we respond to that call, it means that Jesus will lead us place, places we might not ever imagine.
Flannery O’ Connor once said, “Most people come to the Church by means the church does not allow, else there would be no need their getting to her at all.”
Which is just another way of saying that Jesus meets us where we are, not where we ought to be. But then the Lord takes us somewhere else. That journey might look like spending a few hours on a Saturday morning helping with a yard sale in a church fellowship hall. Or it might look like volunteering over with Kid’s Soar helping kids with their education. Or it might look like serving as an usher on Sunday mornings helping to embody the love of God in your interactions with others.
Or it might look like something we haven’t even thought of yet! If it is guided by grace, or moved by mercy, or filled with faith, then it is probably some joyful part of the journey. What we do in our service, which is but another word for discipleship, whether we’re volunteering with a local organization or helping at church to bring about a new vision of the kingdom, all of those things form us while we are doing them.
Discipleship, then, isn’t something we ever really finish; discipleship is an adventure – there’s always more to do. Which, in the end, it what makes it so fun. Amen.