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 hands 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 of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
“Love” has got to be one of the most overused and therefore underwhelming words that we use on a regular basis. What was once reserved for the intimate connection between individuals, and for the divine, is now the word we use to describe any affection toward anything.
I tried to keep track this week of how many times I heard the word and I lost count rather quickly. I heard of the love of our fall weather, the love of a certain gritty Star Wars Disney + series, and even, I kid you not, the love of Taco Bell.
Even in the church, we drop the “l” word all the time. We talk about loving God and loving neighbor, we sing of the gift of love, we participate in missional work in the name of love.
To quote a popular movie from a season that is just around the corner, “Love actually is all around.”
And yet, if love is actually all around, what difference does it make?
Notably, according to the strange new world of the Bible, love is not found in affection, or hallmark cards, or Romantic Comedies. Instead, love is found in service.
I love the thunder brothers: James and John. Peter is often seen as our proxy in the New Testament, always rushing in and saying more than he knows, but the thunder brothers are the perfect paragons of pathetic performance.
Jesus teaches his disciples about the mysteries of the Gospel, he offers them miraculous food when they see nothing but scarcity, he even spells out the whole death-and-resurrection business, the exodus for the rest of us, as literally as he can, and the thunder brothers still don’t get it.
They approach Jesus and demand cabinet positions in the kingdom of God.
They want power while God in the flesh has just told them, moments before, that glory comes in weakness. For the third time.
Perhaps we should give them the benefit of the doubt – maybe, confronted with bad news, you know the whole “the son of man will be handed over to the chief priests, he will be condemned to death, and they will murder him” thing, maybe the thunder brothers would prefer to stay on the sunny side of things.
“Excuse us Jesus, it’s all nice to hear all about the Son of Man stuff, but can we talk about what it will be like when this is all over and you’re finally in charge? We have some ideas we’d like to share with you. We think we’d be good for positions in upper management. What do you think?”
And Jesus, ever the good rabbi, answers their question with his own:
“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, okay, you don’t need to sing it. But let’s be sure we’re all on the same page. Remember, I’m in the death and resurrection business. I’m here to turn the world upside down. So, for God’s sake, literally, pay attention as I say this one more time: if you want to be first, you have to be last. If you want to great, you have to be the least. For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. Got it?”
Are you able? Are we able?
It’s a great question. And the answer is yes, and no.
We are able to follow the Lord, but we do not know where following the Lord will take us.
The thunder brothers want glory, power, prestige. In short, they want what we all want. They want the easiest way to the top in the shortest about of time with the least amount of resistance.
But glory, real faithful glory, isn’t what we often imagine it to be. We might picture the corner office, or the perfect stock portfolio, or the kids going to the right colleges, or going to seminary so that people will call you Reverend one day.
But this is how Jesus describes glory: service.
And Jesus serves the sinful who seek glory by the wrong means for the wrong reasons. You know, people like us.
Discipleship, which is just another word for following Jesus, is a strange and wondrous thing. It is strange because we really have no idea where we’re going, and it is wondrous because we do know that God in Christ is with us for the ride.
Contrary to how we might imagine the faith, it is not made up of theological propositions or lists of righteous behaviors. The marks of the Christian can actually be summed up rather simply: Are we following Jesus or not?
And yet, the simplicity of that question betrays the magnitude of discipleship.
Whatever our faith may be, whatever it may look like, it is found in the following. In the end, discipleship is often nothing more than stumbling behind the Lord on the roads of life, going from one adventure to the next, with the knowledge that Jesus is leading the way.
Which means, oddly enough, we never really choose to be Christians.
Discipleship is something done to us.
I’ve never not been a Christian, I’ve only known this life. Credit to my parents, church has always been part of my reality. But even to those who come to faith later in life, we do so not by choice. We do so because something happens to us and we eventually finds ourselves in a place like this.
That something is named Jesus Christ.
Jesus gathers people like us in on a journey that we might not have ever chosen on our own, and Jesus drags us places we might not have ever discovered on our own.
And, more often than not, service is the crucible of discipleship.
Put another way, following Jesus eventually brings us toward opportunities to serve, and to be served.
However, serving others, putting the needs of others before our own, doesn’t actually make us righteous. Service is not a salve and it definitely doesn’t earn us any reward in heaven. No amount of good works can make up for our lack of goodness. The only thing service does is rightly orders our disordered lives.
Rich Mullins poignantly put it this way: “Christianity is not about building an absolutely secure little niche in the world where you can live with your perfect family and your perfect little house where you never encounter anyone with any problems. Christianity is about learning to love like Jesus and Jesus loved the poor and Jesus loved the broken.”
Jesus says to his disciples, then and now, “Take up your cross and follow me.” And Jesus spends his time among the last, least, lost, little, and dead.
Notice, Jesus rightly rebukes the thunder brothers and their request. Even after all the miracles and the parables and the public displays of religious affection, they still don’t get it. And yet, Jesus also makes them a promise in this moment! Jesus’ promises them, and all of us, that we need not live in fear, we need not worry about what tomorrow might bring, we need not even scheme to accrue as much power as possible. Jesus doesn’t promise protection, safety, or power. Jesus promises us the cross!
Jesus’ ministry, from beginning to end, was not about power, or at least not about power as defined by the world. Again and again throughout the gospels we are bombarded by Jesus’ work of bearing the suffering that always comes as a result of caring for the weak and putting the last first.
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 Jesus takes us somewhere else.
That journey might look like spending a week helping out with Vacation Bible School showing love and grace to kids who might not know what those words even mean. Or it might look like working hard in the kitchen week after week to make sure bellies are full here at the church and in the community, particularly for those who do not know what it feels like to have a full belly. Or it might look like serving in worship whether singing, or reading, or praying, helping others experience God’s profound mercy. Or it might look like contributing to the financial aspects of the church, making a way for ministries where there is no way.
Or it might look like something we haven’t even thought of yet! If it is guided by grace, or moved with mercy, or filled with faith, then it is probably some part of the journey we call discipleship.
To love is to serve. To serve is to love.
And yet, at the same time, to receive love is to receive service.
This is often an under-discussed part of our faith. It’s all good and fine to talk about all the things we can do, all the differing ways we can serve the needs of our community, and so forth. It’s another thing entirely to put ourselves in the position of receiving service. Of mustering of the humility to recognize that we, ourselves, need help.
But we do. All of us. No matter how much we like to pretend we have it all figured out, the truth is we’re all making it up as we go and we can all use all the help we can get.
Thankfully, God chooses to become weak in order to dwell among us, God chooses to serve a people undeserving, and God gives God’s life as a random for many, including us.
If, and when, we serve, it is only ever because God first served us.
Put another way: we love because God first loved us.
Discipleship is an adventure – there’s always more to do and more to receive. Which, in the end, it what makes it so much fun. Amen.