Proper 24, Year B, 2018
Kevin Gore – St Andrew’s, Mountain Home
Imagine a very different scene than the one in today’s Gospel. The planet Dagobah, a lush planet covered in swamps and forests, and home to the former Grand Master of the Jedi Order, Yoda. A young Luke Skywalker has been sent there to find Yoda and train in the ways of the Force. After meeting Luke for the first time, Yoda refuses to teach him. Luke is too old to start the training, too impulsive, too full of fear. Yoda is trying to spare Luke from a path of suffering, even if it is the one he has to walk. Finally Luke exclaims, “I won’t fail you. I’m not afraid.” Yoda replies, “You will be. You will be.” That my friends is foreshadowing. Yoda knows that Luke will face trials and fear greater than anything Luke can presently imagine, especially in facing Darth Vader. That scene is the first thing that came to mind when I was reading our Gospel lesson this week. It was the foreshadowing of trials to come, as Jesus is talking to these Sons of Zebedee that made me think of it. It’s a situation where the apprentice, the disciple, is asking for something they think will be a great honor, but they don’t realize the trial they are actually asking for.
Today’s reading comes almost directly after last week’s Gospel. There are four verses left out, and they are probably left out because they are redundant. Jesus is on the road with the disciples and he tells them what’s going to happen to him in Jerusalem. Again. The Son of Man is to be handed over, to be condemned to death, to be spit upon and flogged, to be killed and three days later to rise again. That is the verses immediately preceding today’s Gospel. It’s almost too incredulous to think that after Jesus tells them all this, up walk James and John and say, “That’s great Jesus, look, we have a favor to ask of you once you’re all super powerful. Can we sit next to you so people know how important we are?” Yes that is a very unflattering synopsis, but basically is why they are asking him. In the culture of the time, powerful people invited the most important, the most trusted to join them for any function, and would be seated closest to this powerful person. The problem is that the sons of Zebedee, just like the other disciples, still don’t understand what it means to walk with Jesus. In fact Jesus’ response, “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?” clearly indicates he knows they don’t get it. He’s referring to his crucifixion, the agonizing and brutal death that awaits him. So when James and John ask to be on Jesus’ left and right in Jesus’ glory, and then tell Jesus they absolutely can drink the cup he will drink from, Jesus responds with, “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.” There are already two who are destined to be at Jesus’ right and left in that most pivotal moment. From Mark, chapter 15, verses 25-27: “It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left.” Those two bandits weren’t the sons of Zebedee, but they would indeed be baptized in the same way, with blood and violence. The martyrdom of James, the son of Zebedee, is the only death of the apostles recorded in the bible. In the Acts of the Apostles, it is recounted how Herod Agrippa, different of course from Herod Antipas, has James executed by sword. This happened sometime between the year 40 to year 50. There are different accounts of John’s death, some by Christian persecutions and others say he lived to an old age. Either way he would have been subjected to the suppressions of the early church and knew what it meant to suffer. Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink;”
So you may be wondering as I pass about the half-way point in my sermon what exactly Star Wars or the martyrdom of the disciples has to do with us here today. That is a reasonable question. The answer is quite simple. When we walk through those doors every Sunday, when we kneel at the altar rail to receive communion, when we choose to be baptized or to reaffirm our baptismal vows, we are inviting that same cup. Christianity was never meant to be a dominant religion, or to have great power in the world. Those are not values of the Kingdom of God. Jesus does not say, “Blessed are those who subjugate the heretics, for they will inherit a homogenous kingdom.” No, the path of Jesus, following the values set forth in the Gospel, still to this day will not be taken kindly by most. But we are lured by ages past when Christian membership was used as the mainstream litmus test of Western Society, when it was used to mean you were part of the good people. That is not Jesus’ teaching, but it was the way society worked for many centuries. If we stop to look at the life of Jesus Christ, the teachings, the parables he tried time and again to teach the disciples with, we see a life that we should not invite lightly. Make no mistake: we should indeed invite it. It is the way we absolutely should be living. But invoking our God the way we do should be a far more sobering activity than we often find it to be. In the realm of the old adage, “Be careful what you wish for”, modern author Annie Dillard writes pertaining to people in church, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? […] It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”
In truth, that should be our hope. We pray, “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done.” We should want for God’s Kingdom and we should pray for the will of God to be done. But we must also understand that this is probably not that we are the most powerful, or that we are the most popular. Perhaps, following in the example of Christ, ‘thy will be done’ refers to how society treats those who insist on caring for the least of these. How judges fine and imprison those who dare feed the unhoused. How home owner associations react to the idea of low income or rehabilitation housing near them. Humanity is broken, it has been for a very very long time. Jesus knew that, and Jesus also knew that living out the values of the Kingdom of God is not going to make a lot of friends at the head of the wolf pack. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is praying in the Garden at Gethsemane, Chapter 26, verse 42, “Again Jesus went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” Jesus prayed ‘Thy will be done’ even knowing fully what it meant. We have asked for the cup to be held to our lips, we have heard the words, “the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation” and we have drank from it. So what does that really mean to us in living out the life of one who follows Christ? Where is our discipleship? Where in our lives do we continue to exemplify, to the best of our ability, the values of the Kingdom of God, regardless of the consequences?
In his work The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonheoffer had a lot to say about living out the values of the kingdom of God. He writes, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” That is the ultimate cost of discipleship, and the one that so many have paid for refusing to abandon those values. Bonheoffer writes, “Every moment and every situation challenges us to action and to obedience. We have literally no time to sit down and ask ourselves whether so-and-so is our neighbor or not. We must get into action and obey — we must behave like a neighbor to him. But perhaps this shocks you. Perhaps you still think you ought to think out beforehand and know what you ought to do. To that, there is only one answer. You can only know and think about it by actually doing it. It is no use asking questions; for it is only through obedience that you come to learn the truth.” Dietrich Bonheoffer was martyred on April 9th, 1945 by Nazis for conspiring against them. He had refused to leave his native Germany, and instead chose to stay and stand as a witness to the values of the Kingdom. He drank from the cup that Christ drank from.
I’m sure you hear it a lot from me, but knowing why we are here, why we chose this life and this faith is so incredibly important. If we are called to take up our cross, if as Jesus says we will save our life by losing it for his sake, then that gives us a lot to think about. We cannot be like the sons of Zebedee, hoping to sit at the head table because we are Jesus’ friends. The cup that is offered us, the baptism that we undertake is not one of comfort, but one that asks everything of us. But that’s ok, because we also know it is worth it. Make sure there is time in your life to reflect on that. Spend time in prayer and listening for God’s call. We must always look deep within ourselves as we approach this table, and decide if we are ready to pay the cost of that cup that is offered to us every week. It is no small thing to believe what we believe, or to follow Christ, but it is the life that is most worth living.