A Homily for Trinity XVII
All Saints Anglican Church, Prescott, AZ
September 23, 2018
Text: Mark 10:35-45
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
It would be easy to look at James and John this morning and smirk and think, you fools. Not only are you being arrogant, we think, but you’re missing the whole point of Christ’s ministry on earth. We see in John and James this morning that persistent nagging desire for earthly glory, when Christ is offering eternal, heavenly glory, we see the persistent desire for earthly hope, earthly comfort when Christ promises so much more.
Yet, we are James and John, too often we desire to trade our heavenly crowns for an uncomfortable earthly bed. We desire quick fixes for deep seeded heart problems, we desire easy answers when we’d be better off patiently looking for eternal answers. We desire earthly riches that corrupt, not only themselves, but also our hearts in lieu of the eternal riches that Christ promises.
The Gospel lesson redirects us from this earthly hope towards an eternal hope. It brings us through Christ’s crucifixion and points towards the suffering the church so often faces for his sake. It brings us from spiritual poverty to being reminded of the eternal promises of Christ not earthly promises.
This morning, we start with the bold statement of James and John “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Isn’t this often our posture when we come to the Lord? We want him to do for us as we see fit, yet this isn’t the way in which we are taught to prayer – no, Christ teaches us to pray “thy (that is the Lord’s) will be done.” That we would learn to submit to the Lord. Yet the lie that we can demand of God that which we desire is as old as Christ’s ministry on earth, it is so old and persistent that it predates the founding of the New Testament church on Pentecost Sunday.
There is a persistent theology in our time known popularly as the prosperity gospel. I have talked about this before, but we see it so often in our culture it bears being talked about again. In the most absurd version of it we see the leader promising that if you send him money the Lord will return it 10 fold or 100 fold or more depending on your faith. I hope that it is easy to see the error in this.
Sadly, this is all too common with a small group of religious leaders making the news for wanting things like an other leer jet. The thing that is so heartbreaking is that they equate God’s blessings with what they have. They make it sound as though the biggest and best way that God can work is by giving them more things. God the redeemer of our soul, the one who sent his only son to die on the cross for our salvation, the one who created the heavens and the earth, the one that knows our hearts intimately, the one that promises to walk through the valley of darkness with us, is not some cosmic vending machine. No, He is the Holy one, the King of king, the Lord of lords, let us not debase his name with such foolishness. God can do so much more than bring someone a Leer Jet, he has redeemed our souls and set us free through the blood of Christ. How much better is spiritual freedom than earthy wealth?
There is a more subtle kind of prosperity gospel, a kind that I think is far, far more common and therefore more dangerous and subtle. It flips the Lord’s prayer upside down like James and John do this morning and says “not your will oh Lord, but mine, for great is my faithfulness.” As we read on Christ will ask John and James if they are ready and willing to follow His will, to which they say yes, although they do not understand yet what they are agreeing to.
This most subtle message that is often propagated allows us to try and manipulate God’s will to our own. It says that God wants us to have our best life now, but our best life will come when this time comes to an end, when sin is finally, fully defeated when there is no more pain in our bones, or racism in culture, when there is no more sickness in our bodies or violence in the streets, when there is no more death, and no more corruption, when there is no more loneliness in our hearts or cruelty on earth. When the perfect kingdom is established – then will our hearts rejoice perfectly. Now in our moments of joy, now at the Lord’s table, now when we come together as a body of Christ we get but a taste of this coming joy – but then will we know it fully. For now, we persevere with our eyes fixed on this eternal promise, rejoicing always in the eternal promise.
But the warning is this – do not lay up our hopes and treasure in the here and now, but lay them up in heaven. Count your blessings with what they are doing in eternity. Count your blessings as they pertain towards your persistent running towards the kingdom, and realize that some of those things that are hard are the things that make us cling to most dearly to the Lord, and are therefore the greatest of blessings.
It is interesting, Matthew records a similar event to the one we read this morning in his 20th chapter, but the biggest difference is that it is James and John’s mother that ask Jesus the question. It is often so hard to trust our children to the Lord, yet even this is what the Lord has called us to. Their mother, again, desired for them earthly wealth and security, but Christ points beyond that. He responds to James and John with the same question that he is about to respond with this morning, a question which is a hard promise to bear.
“Do you know what you are asking.” He says “Are you able to drink that cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” In order to understand what Jesus is asking we need to fast forward a few chapters in St. Mark’s gospel to chapter 14 where Christ prays in the garden of Gethsemane “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you, Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
The cup is the coming crucifixion. In asking James and John to follow Him, He is asking that they take their lives and give them to Him, He is asking if they are willing to follow him, even unto death.
This prayer in the garden is of interest, and worthy of our contemplation for a moment. It has tripped up many a thinker as we look at who Christ is. In our confessions and creeds we state that Christ is fully God and fully man, yet why does he pray such a prayer? We must remember that as in Adam all men fell, in Christ all are made alive, it is in Adam that our will is corrupt and bent towards our own destruction, but in Christ that our will is renewed for God.
In the garden we see Christ’s human will struggle with what he knows is coming, yet it is in the garden that we see Christ’s human will submit to God’s will in a way that we often fail to do. In the garden we see what perfect submission to the Father looks like. In the garden we see what the call for our desire is to be.
When James and John flip the Lord’s prayer on its head and ask Christ to do something for them, He flips it back over, and points forward, points towards the garden, points towards the crucifixion, points towards his death, and resurrection. Here they neither see nor understand, but they will. He says – “I will go on to death for you, will you follow for my sake?”
We now see what the cup of Christ is, but what is the baptism that he is calling them to? In our baptism we are called to die to ourselves in order to live for Christ. Our baptism is a representation of our faithful living out the dying to ourselves and being reborn in Him. When Christ says he will be baptized he is saying that he will die and be raised again on the third day. He is saying He is about to lay down his life, only to be resurrected again. So, too we die that we might live.
This is one of the arguments that those who confess believers or creedo baptism make. That one must know what they are promising in their baptismal vows before they make those vows to the Lord.
For those of us who confess infant or paedo-baptism, we would argue that first and foremost we never fully comprehend what it means to submit to the will of the Lord. Secondly, it is good and wise to vow to raise our children up under the covenantal will of God. Thirdly, even the littlest of children is as much a part of the body of Christ as the oldest and wisest person in the congregation and to cut them off is to deny this very truth. So, for the paedo-baptist we seek to raise all members of the body up to be ready and willing to do the will of the Father, to drink the cup which he puts before us, and to be constantly baptized in Him, constantly laying down our lives to be reborn in Him.
So, it is that Christ calls James and John, asking them subtly – will you lay down your life for Him and they say we are able. But Christ knows that they do not fully comprehend what they are agreeing to, but he also knows that, although in a few days all the disciples will scatter, and flee to the safety of their own homes, that although the fear of the world will grip their hearts as they watch their leader die on the cross and hear stories of his trial, that the cup that he drinks they too will drink and the baptism that he faces they too will face.
After Christ’s resurrection – the disciples see him and their lives are transformed. In the past we have talked about the lives of the disciples and how they were radically changed upon seeing the resurrected Christ. For we know that most of them would go on to their death for Christ’s sake, and all of them would face persecution.
The death of disciples aren’t recorded in scripture but from Church tradition we have a pretty good idea that they do drink of the cup that Christ asks them to drink of. St. Peter would be crucified upside down in Rome, St. Paul beheaded. St. Andrew may have been crucified in Greece, St. Thomas stabbed with a spear in India. One of the St. James, we know of at least three, was stoned to death, St. James the brother of the Lord was thrown off the parapet of the temple.
Only St. John lives to an old age but faces hardship as well. It is thought that he was first boiled alive in oil, but escaping that without injury he was sent to exile on the island of Patmos where he received the vision and wrote the book of Revelation.
Indeed, each of the disciples drank the cup that Christ promised them, indeed each of the disciples had a roaring faith and lead them through the darkness of persecution. Indeed, each of the disciples burned brightly for the sake of Christ, took the cup, were baptized with him, and lived truly for His glory.
This is a hard fact – that Christ calls us to follow after Him. He promises spiritual and eternal comfort not earthly comfort. For some this means leaving their homes and going across the world as missionaries. For some this means persistently preaching the gospel in the same context for twenty or thirty years, sometimes having things to rejoice about and at others wondering if they would ever make headway. For some, this means loving the neighbor well, the neighbor who is persistently frustrating, and rude and annoying.
For all this means faithfully following Christ, faithfully reading His word, faithfully participating in the local Christian community, partaking in the sacraments, and being constant in prayer. For all this means being baptized in Him daily that we might live daily for His glory, that we might rise up and let His light shine before all men to see our Father in heaven.
Christ hearing that they were willing to take up his cup, and partake in His baptism, having warned them adds one more caveat – the seats at his righthand and his left-hand are not his to give away. He will go on to call the disciples to humility, but first we must understand that we serve Christ and build up our wealth in heaven, what this looks like will be a mystery. We also know that those amongst us who serve him with the greatest humility in the here and now, those who serve not trying to call attention to themselves, or even for a great reward will be rewarded the most richly, and so he is laying the foundation for his final exhortation in this section.
But first we learn the other ten are jealous, and it would seem, rightly so. Let us go back to our prosperity gospel preacher for a moment. He tells his congregation that he believes the Lord would like for him to have a leer jet, and he gets one. He thinks, ahh, Lord how deeply the Lord has blessed me, he creates a fancy high price video to show off how deeply the Lord has blessed him. Yet, what does this say to everyone else? What does this say to the woman in his congregation who can barely make ends meet and gave him more money than she should have? What does this say to the man in his congregation who works 6o hours a week at a thankless job and drives an inexpensive but practical car? What does this say to other pastors who have taken up small churches? Who will never have book deals? Who history will forget?
If the prosperity gospel is right (and mind you it is not) it says this pastor is better than you, it says – we can measure the faith of a man by his material possessions, it says that woman who struggles, than man who labors, the pastor who humbly sacrifices should give up, and walk away because the Lord’s love is insufficient and incomplete.
This my friends is not the gospel, do not measure your worth in earthly benefits, do not grow weary in the race you are running, for if you humbly serve our Lord, your riches are being stock piled in heaven. We do not know what our reward will be in heaven save that it will be an eternity of fellowship with God and this promise alone is far greater thing than a leer jet or a Bentley, or a mansion in the here and now. We know the heartbreaking reality, that those who desire their reward in the here and now have already gotten it.
Let us not mistake this for a rebuke against wealth, for we know some in the church will thrive, but we also know some in the church will struggle. Let us be thankful for whatever circumstance the Lord has brought us into, and let us pray fervently and strive thoroughly for the Lord to use whatever earthly gifts we have been given, great or little, to glorify God always.
This is essentially what Christ is saying when he refers to the gentiles, for those who love earthly authority have already received their benefit. This stands as a warning for those of us in leadership. It stands as a call to humility. It is easy to lead with a heavy hand, but it is a far harder and better thing to lead with humility, to bear the frustration that sometimes comes with leadership with joy and kindness. It is a far better thing to give kindness back to those who it would be easier to respond harshly to.
Here, Christ turns our worldly leadership model on its head. “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” If you are remotely familiar with modern self-help thoughts you know that some of the pithy sayings that come out of it include “be true to yourself,” or “you be you,” or “you need some time for self-care.” Well, we do need to take time to lock ourselves away and pray, to return to Christ, and remind ourselves to dwell in Him more fully. This is what Christian self-care looks like – that we would die to ourselves, that Christ would dwell more richly in us. That we would remove ourselves from the square that we could have time to dwell more deeply in Him, that we might come back ready to serve one another more fully. That we would die to our ego that Christ might dwell more richly in us.
In this, we are reminded that humility and self-sacrificing love is the way of the cross and the call which we are given to. There is a terrific scene in C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce that I know I have mentioned before but I want to return to the scene yet again because it drives home my point with a beauty in words that I lack, standing below the foot-hills of the heavenly kingdom Lewis starts:
Some kind of procession was approaching us, and the light came from the persons who composed it.
‘Is it?... is it?’ I whispered to my guide (he is asking here if it is a procession for St. Mary the theotokos, the God bearer, the mother of Christ.)
‘Not at all,’ said he (Lewis’s guide). ‘It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.”
‘She seems to be… well a person of particular importance?’
‘Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on earth are two quite different things.’
‘And who are all these young men and women on each side?’
‘They are her sons and daughters.’
‘She must have had a very large family, sir.’
‘Every young man or boy that met her became her son – even if it was only the boy that brought the meat to her back door. Every girl that met her was her daughter.’
In this passage we see a glimpse of Lewis’ vision of heaven a vision where the least among us becomes the greatest, a vision where the person who learns to love well in Christ blesses those so profoundly that they become spiritual parents to all whom they interact with.
This is what Christ is reminding us of – that we are called to serve, that we are called to live life out in His love for His glory, not our own. This is what Christ has ransomed us to. Christ’s death and resurrection acts as a ransom for our lives. It acts to set us free from our sinful afflictions that we would learn to live in His love and humility, that we would pray with a true heart that the will of the Lord would be done.
It is so very easy to be James on John, to say, Lord do my will, but our prayer is the Lord’s prayer may we genuinely desire to do the Lord’s will. To humbly submit to one another, to not desire to rule over one another, but to give generously, and live selflessly.
We are called to die to ourselves, whether it be serving Christ unto our physical death, or simply to put down our own will so that His will may persist in us. We are to live as the post resurrection Saints James and John, Saints Peter and Paul, the Sarah Smiths and the small church pastors who history will forget. We are called to live in such a way that our love of Christ burns so brightly that others see it and desire to burn likewise and that others would come to know Christ in the depth of that call.
So, just as Christ came to serve and give his life as a ransom for us, let us give our ransomed lives to God’s glory. To bless the communities that we are in that those whom we interact with might see the works that we do and come to dwell richly in that love that we so deeply enjoy and in that, likewise glorify our God who is in heaven.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.