We’re drawing near to the end of our reading of the Gospel of Mark this year. The past weeks, we have been accompanying Jesus and his disciples as they walk toward Jerusalem. They are now in Judea, the province where Jerusalem is located. As they near Jerusalem, the dangers and possibilities that await them come to dominate the narrative. It’s as if they can see the temple mount on the horizon as they walk.
We don’t know what the disciples were expecting. From Mark’s depiction of them, it seems likely that they thought they had signed up for a divine mission; that when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem and confronted Rome, God would intervene in history and restore the Kingdom of David and the Kingdom of God.
Jesus expected something quite different. As I’ve mentioned before, we are in a section of Mark’s gospel that is very carefully constructed. In the course of chapters 9 and 10, Jesus predicts that he will go to Jerusalem, where he will be arrested, executed, and on the third day rise from the dead. Each of these three predictions is followed by an exchange that showcases the disciples’ complete misunderstanding of Jesus’ words. And each time, Jesus follows up on the disciples’ cluelessness, ignorance, or obstinacy with a teaching about what it relly means to follow him, to be his disciple.
Today’s gospel reading comes from the third of those episodes and to understand what’s going on, I think it’s helpful to hear the verses that immediately preceded today’s Gospel lection:
32 They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’
Think about it for a moment. Jesus says this, describing what he expects to take place, what he thinks awaits. He does it in greater detail than in the two previous examples, mentions being mocked, spit upon, flogged, and killed and the next thing that happens is James and John, they’ve been with him from the very beginning, they were there at the Transfiguration when they saw Jesus in white clothes walking with Moses and Elijah. And now, they take Jesus aside.
It’s easy to imagine. Jesus has already separated the twelve out from the somewhat larger group of men and women who have been following him from Galilee, and now James and John find a way to separate Jesus from the rest of the group. They approach him somewhat obsequiously, tentatively: “Jesus, we have something we’d like to ask you.” He humors them, and then they blurt it out: “We want to be right next to you, on your left and right hand, when you come into your glory.”
You can see how problematic this request was by the way James and John approached Jesus, and by the reaction of the other disciples when they heard Jesus’ response. The Gospel of Matthew goes a step further. Matthew was so bothered by the question that he had James and John’s mother make the request.
This is one of those moments in the Gospel of Mark that are full of meaning and can be understood only in light of the gospel as a whole. Even as Jesus’ response points ahead to the events that will occur in Jerusalem, careful attention to them will find resonances elsewhere in the gospel. James and John ask to be at Jesus’ right and left hand when he comes into his glory. What does “glory” mean here? The disciples are thinking of military and political triumph, but Jesus has in mind his crucifixion and resurrection.
Who is it that that will be at Jesus’ left and right hand? The thieves or bandits who would be crucified with him.
And of course, the cup and baptism that Jesus promised James and John—yes, they would share that cup and baptism, martyrdom, suffering for the gospel and for the sake of Jesus.
There’s something else that’s quite interesting here. The symbol of the cup is not surprising. Jesus will use that symbol again when he prays in Gethsemane: “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”
The mention of baptism, on the other hand, is notable. In Mark, the only other time baptisms is mentioned comes with reference to John the Baptist—Jesus’ own baptism, of course, but also the identification of John as the Baptist, or Baptizer. This is worth our attention because while baptism is central to our faith as it was for Mark, if we think about it carefully, we’ll see that Mark understands it rather differently than we often do.
Jesus’ reference here suggests that the baptism he is referring to is not just a sprinkling of water over the heads of babies as we do at Grace and will do the next two Sundays. Jesus associates baptism with what he will undergo in Jerusalem, his arrest, execution, and yes, resurrection. It’s interesting to remember that after the first passion prediction, when Jesus talked about discipleship, he said to his followers, “If you would be my disciple, take up your cross and follow me.” Here, he is saying much the same thing about baptism. It’s not a cute ritual we perform on babies; nor is it even the rite of initiation or membership in the church—it’s about suffering, death, and resurrection.
Those are hard words, hard things to get our heads around. But Jesus continues. He contrasts empire, and all that empire stands for, with the reign of God. For him to speak of Gentiles here is a clear reference to Rome, as is his reference to tyranny. We may apply it directly to the Roman imperial system, but we may also apply it to all the ways human beings seek to dominate each other—to accumulate wealth and power, to oppress, abuse, and exploit the weak. That was what Rome’s power was based on, how it was gained and preserved. The parallels with our own time are obvious. Jesus is making a clear connection between that system of power and wealth with the request that James and John made. After all the time they had spent with him, they still thought that what they were about was replacing one oppressive system with another.
But Jesus short-circuits that. He offers a very different perspective, not just on power but on human relations, and what he is about, and what he is calling his followers to be about: If you want to be great, become a servant, if you want to be a Lord or ruler, become a slave to all. And then the kicker, “for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
These hard words, this enormous challenge stands before us as it did before James, John, and the other disciples. We really can’t conceive what it would be like to participate in Jesus’ fate, to suffer and to die for the sake of the Gospel. We can’t even, let’s be honest, imagine what it would be like if we really took seriously Jesus’ words about servanthood and service.
The disciples couldn’t either. One of the things about Mark’s depiction of the disciples is that in so many ways he pictures them very much like us. We want to imagine that they are saints and role models but Mark shows them as bumbling, obtuse, confused, and in the end, frightened failures. They didn’t follow Jesus to the cross; they ran away and hid.
But Jesus didn’t give up on them. Jesus continued on his way, to the very end, to an ignominious and horrific death and in that death, showed his disciples, and us, what love and service are. We are very much like James and John. We want power, and glory, wealth and success and when Jesus shows us what he really means by himself, by his life, when he shows us what God’s reign is like, we turn away, much like the young man in last week’s gospel. But Jesus keeps on going, to the very end, and when he stretched his arms on the hard wood of the cross, he stretched them out to us in love, forgiving us, and reminding us of his call to follow him. And when we falter and fail, when we want to turn away, Jesus’ self-giving love fills us and inspires us to keep on going. Thanks be to God!