My homily begins by 'setting the stage' for this morning's Gospel reading. We are told, earlier in the Book of Mark, that Jesus had recently invited three of his disciples: Peter, James and John, up onto a mountain top. While they were there the transfiguration occurred (where Jesus was transformed into the Christ of Glory - his face shining like the sun). The other nine disciples remained down in the valley where they had tried, in vain, to heal a sick child. They were now reunited and walking home, on their way back to Capernaum, eventually bound for Jerusalem.
You may recall Jesus's past efforts to try and get through, the seemingly thick heads of his disciples, why Jesus must make this journey to Jerusalem - and what would transpire there. His imminent trial; his suffering; his death and resurrection. Still, nothing seems to sink in. It's a long journey along the hot, dusty road; conversation flows. Soon, a lively argument breaks out amongst the disciples, as to who is the greatest among them. It is soon evident that the sons of Zebedee (James & John) are determined to secure a place of honour alongside Jesus.
Now we have to take into consideration, in James and John defence, that they have made tremendous sacrifices to be with Jesus and have witnessed Jesus's boundary-breaking Ministry for quite some time. They literally walked away from their fishing business. In fact, for several months now, all the disciples have followed Jesus, everywhere: longed to be a part of his inner circle; to be recognized; to have a position & influence. In their minds, they are probably still focused on Jesus becoming their future King of Israel: who would set them free; rule with justice and equality; and, share in the glory, when Jesus comes to reign.
Suddenly, James and John blurt out to Jesus: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory”. Jesus replies (no doubt, taken back): "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”? To which, James & John respond (with child-like naivety): “We are able”! The other 10 disciples are taken back, and likely thought: What is going on with James and John?? Jesus goes on to tell 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”. Jesus finishes off with: “ Whoever wishes to be 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”.
Are James & John insensitive, ambitious or just plain scared? Ambitious? Probably. Now there's nothing wrong with ambition: it can fuel the heart; it can lead to human beings making the world a better place. However, too much ambition can lead to self-centeredness, distort reality and become blind to the needs of others around us. Yes I think James and John were that ambitious. I also think that, underneath it all, James & John were terrified. I don't think James and John understood the paradoxical nature of Jesus's Kingship. Yes, they believed Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, but like had no concept of the suffering Jesus was baptized into, or the cup of sorrows he would have to drink (on behalf of humanity). They had no idea: how Jesus would be despised and betrayed; of the Crown of thorns he would wear as he was mocked as 'King of the Jews'; of the servitude of laying down his life for others; and, how his suffering on the cross would lead to resurrection and new life.
Instead the disciples end up doing the human thing. They focused on their own needs. They tried to secure a permanent place for themselves in this world. But the harsh reality is: we're not here to stay! We are spiritual beings on a human journey. We are each called to a journey that is uniquely our own because we are profoundly different. Our beginning is one we cannot remember. Our future is one we cannot see. I feel our greatest challenge, in life, is to find that journey, and be faithful to it. As its only when we follow an authentic life, our calling, that we experience the richness, the essence of what is meant to be truly alive. Jesus comments on the importance of serving others. ...or rather, he turns our perceptions upside down by throwing the concept of servanthood inside out.
Jesus tells us the lowest is the highest; the greatest is servant to all. In the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, the word for servant is slave. Ironically a slave was the one to have thought to have the closest, most intimate relationship to God - which may seem odd - but when you think of it, a slave has no identity beyond being wrapped up with its owner. Its primary focus is to bring out the best in others. However, the concept of being a servant of God is a common thread running through the scriptures. In early biblical times, only women fulfilled the vocation of 'diakonia' - the root of the word for Diaconate - which means: to serve others. It's difficult for us to grasp the concept of being a servant in modern times.
It's counter-intuitive to our modern society. It's part of the fabric of our daily lives to employ: 'Molly maids' to do our cleaning; gardeners to tend our properties; chefs to prepare our meals; employees whom we order about the workplace. So why should we serve others? Christian scholars tell us that God's divine intent for all people can only be achieved through those who voluntarily surrender themselves to servanthood. That if we trust in God, and put our heart in serving others, we open ourselves to healing and redemption.
When James & John said 'We are able' to Jesus, they - unknowingly - agreed to be bound up with Jesus' destiny. They would later discover what being 'great' in the kingdom of God entailed. To follow in the footsteps of Jesus, the greatest servant of all. Today, I believe Servant-hood is an attitude you choose as a form of discipleship. A personal decision you, must voluntarily decide to make, to bring out the best in others you encounter, throughout your life's journey.
Lastly, I would like to leave with you a few thoughts to mull over with respect to “drinking of the cup”, as for me it holds the richest meaning. One of my favourite authors, for reflecting & interpretating on biblical text, is Henri Nouwen. Henri was a much loved and respected Roman Catholic priest, a renoun contemplative and author whose many books live on as a Christian's guiding lights. He spent a lot of time working with the mentally handicapped in the L'Arche Community.
One of his books, that has inspired me is entitled: Can you Drink the Cup? Henri uses 'the cup' as a metaphor for our lives, as Christians, living together. He breaks 'the cup' down into 3 parts: The first part is: 1. the holding of our life. He's asking us to come to terms with what are uniquely: our joys; our sorrows; our challenges. To reflect on them, in prayer; to offer up to God. 2. The second part is: the lifting up of our life. This has to do with community. In Jesus example, we are invited to affirm and celebrate life, together. We lift up our lives: our joys, our sorrows, our imperfections our vulnerabilities, in clear view, for others to see. We encourage them to do the same. By doing this we show our support, our love and our respect for each other; we embark on a common journey, create community. Healing begins. 3. The third part is: the drinking of our lives, together: As we come to terms with our own reality, as we look compassionately at our own joys and sorrows, we discover our own potential, our unique way of being in the world. Only when we have reached this point, can we authentically drink of the cup of our life. Slowly, thankfully, fully. Henri also suggested 3 daily 'disciplines' to help us to 'claim and celebrate' our authentic self: Silence; words; and, actions. Silence: to acknowledge, to God, who we are & claim ourselves as a Gift from God; Words: to share what is on our hearts, with loving & caring friends; Actions: to discern and live out our true actions - as what we are called to do will bring us peace & joy. In the end, James - the Apostle and Martyr - did indeed drink the cup that Jesus had to. ...But, in a different way - he was baptized into Jesus - to drink from all the goodness that Jesus won for him on the cross and through empty tomb.
For us, today, drinking of the cup is an act of selfless love: of dying to the materiel world as the center of security and identify; of recognizing that the greatest person, in the Kingdom of God, has the heart of a servant. Look around here, this is who you're drinking with today. There are others who are absent, whom we share the cup with, in our heart. If you accept the invitation and come forward to drink this morning, who will drink just before, and just after you? What do you know about them, what stories have you shared? I encourage you - in your own special time, in your own unique way to hold, lift and drink of the cup. This is the cup of OUR lives, together. ....and here is the good news: Jesus has already drunk this cup - which, today - we will drink from, together. AMEN