a sermon for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24)
Jesus invited James and John to share the cup that he drank and to be baptized in his baptism, not because they were special but because they were human. We are all sons and daughters of Zebedee.
Once upon a time a man was driving home late at night. He was a traveling salesman and he had been away from home for a very long time. He was tired and wanted to see his family as soon as possible. So he pressed on after it turned dark, even after it started to rain. Suddenly, with a flash of light and a clap of thunder, his car was struck by a bolt of lightning. The man was terrified but unharmed and soon he finally arrived home. As his loving wife and two children gathered to greet him, he told them his harrowing story. Everyone was very quiet for several minutes. After a while, his teenaged son looked up at his father and said, “Dad, let’s go buy a lottery ticket. They say that we have about the same odds of winning the lottery as getting struck by lightning!”
In today’s Gospel, the sons of Zebedee sound a lot like that teenager. Jesus has just told his disciples for the third time that he was about to go into Jerusalem, suffer, die and be raised from the dead in three days. Everyone is stunned into silence. After a time, in spite of this terrifying prediction, James and John approach and ask him for a favor. “Can we sit at your right hand and your left in your glory?”
If their question weren’t so insensitive, it would sound comical. What were they thinking? But I wonder if we’re really very different from the sons of Zebedee. We may not ask for ringside seats at Jesus’ crucifixion, but at one time or another, all of us try to position ourselves above our friends and neighbors. When we’re children, we compete for our parent’s attention. When we’re older, we compete to get the best grades, or to send our kids into the best preschools, or the have best seats in the theater. Or maybe we compete so that our teachers or bosses notice how good we are.
The same thing happens in churches. Churches compete for the biggest congregations, the coolest children’s ministry, the best music program, or the biggest outreach program. It happens in charitable organizations, where people complete for larger donations than the other guys. And it happens in government. Today there are more than 20 people competing to be the ruler of our country, the most powerful person in the world. Of course, we call our rulers by different titles, but it’s still the same. “Look at me. I’m the smartest, or the toughest, or the richest. I’m the ONLY ONE who can do what needs to be done.”
All of us are sons and daughters of Zebedee. It’s only human nature. And Jesus asks a very human question. He doesn’t ask if James and John are the smartest guys in the room. He doesn’t ask if they are the toughest or the richest. He asks, “are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”
The disciples jump with excitement. “YES! Of course we are!” And it’s true. Who isn’t able to drink from the cup that Jesus drinks or be baptized with the baptism that he is baptized with? Washing and drinking are the simplest things in the world. Anyone can do it. You and I have done it. What’s the big deal?
Of course, baptism and communion are a big deal. Because it is by these two acts that we are invited into the kingdom of God. When we are baptized, when we are fed, this is when we become members not merely of a church, but of the whole kingdom of God. And we become more than members, we become disciples.
A friend of mine once said that the difference between being a member of a church and a disciple is this: membership has its privileges, as they used to say in the old American Express commercial. Discipleship has its responsibilities. And when James and John accepted Jesus invitation to become disciples, they accepted the responsibility to be servants to all.
The same thing is true for all of us. The cup that Jesus drank is offered to everyone. All are invited to be baptized the same way of Jesus was. All of us can sit on his left side or his right. Jesus invites us all into a community of servanthood. We are not members of a club, but servants in God’s kingdom.
The kingdom of God calls us to give up our worldly ideas of leadership. Discipleship isn’t about who’s the strongest, or the smartest, or the richest person in the room. It’s not about who has the coolest youth group, or the best music, or sells the most pumpkins, or even who feeds the most hotdogs to the most hungry people – as wonderful as all of these ministries are. Being a follower of Jesus Christ isn’t about any of that at all. Being a disciple, a follower of Jesus Christ, is about being a servant and a slave to everyone.
Imagine that! We are baptized with Jesus; we share communion with Christ. We are invited to take a place at Jesus’ side and serve the world has he served, feeding the hungry, comforting the refugee, comforting the imprisoned. Or, teaching a student who struggles to read, befriending someone who is lonely, speaking up on behalf of someone who has been bullied.
Last week, we celebrated the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, who born to a very wealthy family. When he was young man, he lived the typical life of a man with means, traveling the world and living the high life. One day, he had a vision that convinced him that God was calling him to do something else with his life. He renounced his wealth and became a monk, and he was known for his service to the poorest people of Italy. There is a prayer about him that we sometimes say that goes like this:
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.
Jesus welcomes us to share the cup that he drank and to be baptized in his baptism, not because we are special but because we are human. He invites us into the kingdom of God, where membership has its responsibilities, where the weakest members of society and valued, and the richest people have the least, and those who lead are servants of all, and where the greatest Servant of all, Jesus Christ, is our true leader.
Thanks be to God.