James, John, Henri and Adam
Mark 10:35-45 (NRSV)
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “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?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 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.”
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
I have a feeling Jesus regrets some of the thing he says some of the time. Like that time he said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” Or, “everyone who asks receives and whoever searches finds.” Or, when he said, “I will do whatever you ask in my name…”
Because James and John, the Sons of Zebedee, seem to accept the challenge this morning, don’t you think? They sound like the most spoiled-rotten kids you ever met, in this Gospel, don’t they? Like kids at the grocery store, begging for all the junk food. Or like children on Santa’s lap, asking for only the best stuff. Or like trick-or-treaters, begging for the full-sized candy bars of their choice. And they make no bones about it, do they?
And I want to be mad at them about it, like the other ten disciples were, but maybe we shouldn’t blame them. Maybe they were just taking Jesus up on his offer, when they say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” There’s no hemming and hawing… there’s no beating around the bush… there’s no bargaining, even, as far as we can tell. “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
And I imagine Jesus is a little exasperated by it. “What is it you want me to do for you?” he asks them back. And when they ask for the best seats in the kingdom – when they tell him they want to be front and center on the other side of God’s heaven – Jesus tells them they don’t understand what it is they’re asking for; that they really have no idea what they’re talking about.
See, when Jesus says they will “drink the cup that he drinks, and be baptized with the baptism with which he’s been baptized,” he’s not talking about the same kind of baptismal party we have planned this morning for Aimee and Gunnar Anderson. No, the cup he’s talking about is the one he prays about in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion and death. (“Father, if it be your will, let this cup pass from me.”) It wasn’t a cup he was sure even he could stomach.
And the baptism he’s talking about isn’t just that holy moment in the river with his cousin, John the Baptist, when he came up from the water, when the dove descended, and when the voice from heaven declared Jesus to be God’s beloved Son. All of that was and would be part of it. But James and John were focused too much on “the glory” bit and not enough on the blood, sweat and tears that come as part of it all, too. Because glory can be gory, in God’s eyes. Success can look like suffering a lot of the time. “Greatness” in the Kingdom of God doesn’t look like “winning” by the standards of this world.
None of this is what we always want to hear. None of this is how the world operates. All of this is summed up in that one promise we heard last week, in the story just before this one, when Jesus tells the disciples that “many who are first will be last and the last will be first.”
So, a front row seat in God’s kingdom means becoming a servant. Glory is achieved by becoming a slave to all. It means heading to the end of the line. It means giving more than you take; sharing more than you ask for yourself; not being served, but serving.
I re-read a book by Henri Nouwen a few months ago, called Adam. Henri Nouwen was a catholic priest, writer and theologian who, was also a professor at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard Divinity Schools. At what some might have considered to be the height of his career, he gave up his position at Harvard and moved to Ontario to take on the demanding chore of caring for a man named Adam, who was born with so many physical difficulties that many believed he should never have lived in the first place.
Here is a picture of Nouwen and Adam, who he described like this:
“Adam is a 25 year-old man who cannot speak, cannot dress or undress himself, cannot walk alone, cannot eat without much help. He does not cry or laugh. Only occasionally does he make eye contact. His back is distorted. His arm and leg movements are twisted. He suffers from severe epilepsy and, despite heavy medication, sees few days without grand-mal seizures. Sometimes, as he grows suddenly rigid, he utters a howling groan. On a few occasions I’ve seen one big tear roll down his cheek.
It takes me about an hour and a half to wake Adam up, give him is medication, carry him into his bath, wash him, shave him, clean his teeth, dress him, walk him to the kitchen, give him his breakfast, put him in his wheelchair and bring him to the place where he spends most of the day with therapeutic exercises.”
The fact that Henri Nouwen was an esteemed faculty member at places like Harvard tells you something, and if you’ve ever read any of his works, you might wonder why such a man and such a mind with so much to offer so many, would commit so much of himself – his time and his energy and his life, really – to the messy, menial tasks of caring for this solitary, sickly individual, Adam.
The answer is something that Nouwen learned from following Jesus. It’s a lesson that James and John didn’t quite get and it’s one most of the world – myself included – struggles with or doubts is true or resists hearing for ourselves for whatever reason.
We want to be first, but we think that means being the fastest. We want to know peace and comfort, but we think that means having more power and money and stuff. We want to win God’s favor, but we think that means passing a test. We want to walk more closely with Jesus but we think it means being at the front of the line. We want to be successful, but we use all the wrong measuring sticks to determine what that means for ourselves.
What Jesus shows us, and what people like Henri Nouwen learned and lived, is that our ticket to heaven isn’t something we can buy or earn or just ask for. The grace of God is realized in our lives here and now when we share it with others. We know grace and mercy and forgiveness and trust when we offer grace and mercy and forgiveness and trust to the world where we live.
What Jesus shows us, and what people like Henri Nouwen learned and lived, is that to sit at the right hand of Jesus isn’t just a position to which we will be promoted someday. To sit at the right hand of Jesus is a position to which we are – each and every one of us – called to experience, right where we live.
Because, while on our good days, we’re inclined to admire and aspire to be more like Henri Nouwen in all of his sacrificial loving and giving and serving – as we should, perhaps – Nouwen himself recognizes, in the likes of Adam, the very nature of Jesus himself. A poor, suffering soul. A broken body. Someone worthless by the world’s standards. But a beloved child of God, worthy of love and mercy and honor, precisely because of that suffering, broken, worthlessness. But Nouwen never learned that – or could see and embrace it as fully as God wishes for us – until he changed his perspective and his place and his position in relation to Adam.
And that’s Jesus invitation to James and John – and to each of us, too – as we live in the strange pull between the Kingdom of God and this world that surrounds us.
We are called to be servants to the servants; to be slaves to the slave. We are called not to ask “what can I get?” like so many selfish little children, but instead “what can I give?” and “how much?” and, “to whom?” … like Jesus did when he climbed onto a cross and out of a tomb and into our hearts so that we would share the grace of God – and so that, through sharing it – humbly, selflessly, generously, without hope for worldly gain, recognition, or reward – we might experience God’s kind of glory most fully ourselves.