Sometimes I wonder if we fully grasp what it means to be a Christian in today’s society. Because, in all honesty, we’ve got it pretty easy. In this country, at least, we are not a minority. Our lives are not in danger because we’re Christian. We don’t have to gather in secret to worship. We do not run the risk of physical harm just because we’re Christian. Many of us wear symbols of our faith either through jewelry or tattoos and don’t think twice about it. But, I think that if we lived a life that Jesus lived and the life that he was asking the disciples to live, we wouldn’t or couldn’t do it. For so many of us, our faith is our lifestyle, but it is not our core identity. There’s not very many of us who have given up much, or anything, to follow Christ. But, that is exactly what Jesus is challenging the disciples and us to this week. A life of service and a life of humility.
This story is a complicated one. A part of the story that we don’t hear is that preceding this, Jesus tells about his death for the third time. Jesus doesn’t hold back. He tells them that he will be spat on, mocked, flogged, and killed. Immediately following that, James and John make their request to sit at his side, one on his right, one on his left. James and John are asking for seats of power. It’s as if (as one of my colleagues put it) they’re asking to be vice president and secretary of state. Soon, James and John will see one person on Jesus’ left, and one on his right, but they will be the criminals sentenced to hang with him. James and John showed unadulterated enthusiasm for following Jesus and being able to drink the cup and be baptized like Jesus. They don’t realize that they’re agreeing to being crucified. I have to admire their confidence.
We are probably just as confident. We enthusiastically claim the label of “Christian.” We quote Bible verses. We hang them in our homes. We teach the commandments to our children and grandchildren. We reach out into the world in the name of Christ. Absolutely none of this is a bad thing. We may not be as blunt as to outright ask Jesus for a position of power, like a seat on his left or right, but perhaps we think that doing all the right things will garner us favor with Christ. Maybe worse yet, perhaps we assume that our faithfulness to Christ will bring us riches. Not money necessarily, but health, friends, more members, and on and on.
I also wonder if James and John asked what they did because they were operating under an umbrella of fear. They asked Jesus for seats of power before any of the rest of the disciples could. What if there wasn’t enough to go around? How quickly they would forget their requests as soon as they saw what Jesus’ version of power looked like. We operate out of fear quite a bit as well. We hold on to so many things for a time period that has yet to come; it’s called “just in case.” What I find interesting about James and John’s request is that they asked on behalf of themselves. In that brief moment their fellow disciples moved from companions to competition. And despite pledging allegiance to Jesus, confessing our faith in him, and singing his praises, when push comes to shove, we choose fear over trust. We choose to put our confidence in our own abilities rather than in Christ. And we look out for ourselves rather than being concerned for our neighbors.
Jesus knows all of this. After all, Jesus knows the depths of our hearts; our deepest wishes and darkest fears. Knowing all this, he points the disciples and us to a life of service and to a life where we will be last on this earth, but first in God’s kingdom. And as a reminder and an example of how we are supposed to live this life, Jesus shows us how to live this life of service and humility. He shows us, James, John, and the rest of the disciples what this life will look like all the way to the cross. Do we want what Jesus has now? Do we want this power? Do we want to claim that we can handle it?
Here’s what’s frustrating for me in this reading. I know so many of you who have sacrificed a lot. I see it week after week. I see it as you rush in during the first hymn and sigh as you slump down into the pew frustrated that you didn’t make it on time after promising yourself you would…even with all the kids. I see the sacrifices made as I look in your eyes and listen to your voice. I ask how you are and you say “fine” but your eyes and voice tell me that you’re anything but. The worry of crop prices and a harvest challenged by mother nature is so very present. I see the sacrifices you make for yourselves, for your families, and for this church. And so when Jesus tells us once again to make more sacrifices, perhaps there is a small part of me that wants to yell at Jesus “how much more do you want?”
I mean, from the sounds of it, Jesus is asking (maybe challenging us) to follow him all the way to the cross. Jesus asks us through his actions and leadership if we’re willing to give up everything we know of comfort to follow him. Are we willing to lose our homes, jobs, friends, family, privilege, maybe even our good names, just to follow him? Again, Jesus! How much more do you want? Don’t you know what I’m going through already?
But Jesus was sent into this world to free us from our sin. Jesus came into this world to free us from ourselves. We may think we want power, prestige, and fame, but what will that cost? What will be the cost to our relationships? What will be the cost to our ethics and morals? Jesus came to challenge our ideas of what it looks like to have abundant life. Jesus came to challenge our ideas of what it looks like to have power. I think Jesus knows what we have sacrificed. All of us have had to sacrifice something in life. And maybe you feel like no one noticed. Like all of your hard work, your worries, your late hours, your pacing, your whatever has gone unnoticed. But Jesus saw you.
The good news, my beloved, is that following Christ actually frees us from what we think we want and instead frees us to receive what we need. Let that sink in for just a moment. We ask Jesus for places of power. He asks if we’re willing to follow him all the way to a cross. The cross is where our best intentions go to die. The cross is where the feeling of not being enough goes to die. The cross is where all the sacrifices you have made are recognized and Jesus says “but wait! I have something better for you.” When we are a servant to all and last on the list, we have nothing but room to be filled up with Christ’s love. Christ frees us from the expectations of this world and prepares us for kingdom living. I don’t know about you, but that’s good news to me. God doesn’t expect me to be the world’s best Pastor, or the world’s best mom, wife, daughter, or friend or whatever. What God expects me to be is the best receptacle of love that I can be. All God desires for us is to open ourselves up to the love of God through Jesus. We don’t need seats of power, we don’t need to be rulers or titans for God to love us. Serve others. Serve God. God will love us. The sacrifices of this world are taken up in the cross. God will keep coming to us and for us in love. Even in the moments that we’d rather shoo him away; even in the moments we’d rather run from that love; even in the moments that we’d rather deny that love. God will come in love over and over again. Thanks be to God!