In the portion of Mark’s gospel that we heard today, James and John the Sons of Zebedee, who had given up the family fishing business to follow Jesus, come to him asking to be seated on his left and his right when he comes into his glory. It appears that James and John are simply making a power play. It seems like yet another story in which the disciples appear clueless, unable to comprehend the teachings of Jesus. Jesus has for a third time predicted his suffering and death, yet James and John are applying for leadership positions in the new regime. It certainly looks like blind ambition on their part.
However, as Charles Campbell, professor of Homiletics at Duke Divinity School, points out, just a few verses before this story, Mark writes that the disciples were afraid. That sheds new light. What if James and John merely want a secure future? What if they just want some assurance, amidst Jesus’ predictions of suffering and death that everything will be all right? What if they are simply afraid?
We can identify with the disciples’ fear quite easily. We have made some frightening decisions as a nation for the sake of “security” in the last decade. Fear is a powerful emotion that can cause us to forget our compassion and ramp up our judgment. Fear can paralyze us into inaction, and tempt us to quit. As we sit here in a culture increasingly less interested in organized religion, it can be easy to fear for the future of our parish, our neighborhood and our town. Can we really blame James and John for wanting just a little assurance that things will work out?
Jesus’ response to them is that they will drink of the cup he drinks and be baptized with the same baptism. This is to say that they will be with Jesus and Jesus will be with them. Jesus will be with them no matter what. There are some out there who believe that if you just follow the rules (whatever rules that particular person holds dear) you will never experience pain. That thinking is wrong, harmful and dangerous. Jesus was God’s own son and he wound up dying on a cross. Who are we to think that our fate will be better?
In our reading from Hebrews this morning we heard, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” The writer of Hebrews is lifting Jesus up as an example for us to follow. We are to follow Christ into submission. Now, submission is not a popular word in our culture. We prefer phrases like, “No retreat, no surrender,” “Never back down,” “Stand on your own two feet” and “Pull yourself up.” Our understanding of toughness is not faith in God, not trusting in God’s presence or providence; rather it is of the quarterback who leads the fourth-quarter comeback with a broken nose, or the cowboy who fights despite being outnumbered, out-gunned and injured. We don’t like “loud cries and tears.” We like “Suck it up.”
But as Christians, as followers of the one who submitted not just to being human, but to the cross, we are called to enter into pain and suffering, grief and loss, to be present with each other just as God is present with us. To do that, to practice that ministry of presence both with our own pain and that of our brothers and sisters in Christ, requires that we surrender our self-confidence, our self-reliance, our independence, and submit to confidence in God, reliance upon God and interdependence with each other.
In 1896, Judson W.V. DeVenter, wrote the lyrics of the classic hymn “I surrender all”:
All to Jesus I surrender,
All to Him I freely give;
I will ever love and trust Him,
In his presence daily live.
I surrender all,
I surrender all,
All to thee, my blessed Savior,
I surrender all.
DeVenter said that this hymn came about as he struggled to find his path, whether to serve his gifts for the arts or to become an evangelist. When he finally submitted not to his desires but to God’s will, he explained that a whole world opened to him. It is a mystery of the faith that to lose one’s life is to gain it.
This is a hard task. Submission is not popular. But it is in submission that Christ found his glory. Following the path of Christ will have both joy and pain, suffering and exaltation. Jesus, God’s own son, the one whom we came to know as God incarnate, God made flesh, died on a cross. God refused to be separated from humanity, separated from us. So God became one of us and lived among us and even suffered and died because of us. The testimony of the cross is that even in our darkest hour, even when it appears all hope is lost, even when we the fear threatens to cripple us, God is with us.
We should never limit God. Indeed, God is with us in our darkest hours in a multitude of ways. However, the one way we experience God among us the most is through the Body of Christ. That is the people gathered to worship God, to come to this table and receive the Body of Christ so that we can be the Body of Christ.
It is through us that God is with us. It is through us that God acts to hold us together. It is through us that God will not let us go. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
God will not let us go. No matter what may come, we will be present for each other, we will be the body of Christ for each other. We will share the love of God each and every day just as we share it here in this house of worship. Come to the feast. Come to God’s table. Come to the foretaste of the heavenly banquet. Receive the body and blood of the crucified God. Then go out into the world a fed and renewed people, emboldened and empowered to serve our Lord. Go out into the world as the Body of Christ to seek and serve all people in the name of Jesus. Go out into the world and heal the sick, feed the hungry, comfort those who morn, free the captives, and let all the world know that the love of God cannot be defeated.
God will not let us go. Amen!