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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.”
by Liz Niehoff
Today’s Gospel text, from Mark 10, focuses on an interaction between Jesus and two of his disciples, James and John. The text picks up without any preface or appropriate introduction, with John and James approaching Jesus with a very particular request: “Teacher Jesus, we want you to do everything and anything we ask you to do.”
I find the request of the two disciples to be blunt and, shall we say, bold. Yet the pastor in me understands them, and apparently so does Jesus. “You do not know what you are asking,” he responds. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”
Jesus tries to fill the two men in on the fact that their request is not his to grant. But their persistence is admirable. Perhaps in the end, what they ask of their humanly divine teacher is off base. Still, Christ refuses to give up, on James and John, and on us.
What happens if, and when, we get it wrong like James and John? We are human, after all. It is normal to get it wrong every now and again. Barbara Brown Taylor put it perfectly,
Popular religion focuses so hard on spiritual success that most of us do not know the first thing about the spiritual fruits of failure. When we fall ill, lose our jobs, wreck our marriages, or alienate our children, most of us are left alone to pick up the pieces. Even those of us who are ministered to by brave friends can find it hard to shake the shame of getting lost in our lives…We spend so much of our time protecting ourselves from this exposure that a weird kind of relief can result when we fail. To lie flat on the ground with the breath knocked out of you is to find a solid resting place. This is as low as you can go. You told yourself you would die if it ever came to this, but here you are. You cannot help yourself and yet you live.” (An Altar in the World, 78)
Jesus does not wipe away his disciples’ desire to draw near to him, despite the fact that their means are less than praiseworthy. Instead, he aims to teach them, allowing for a sigh of relief and a moment to pick up the pieces. In other words, Christ is not the “lesson-teacher”, but rather is in the midst of the lesson, and is the one who draws near to pick up the pieces with us when we get the message wrong. Jesus does not wipe away the other ten disciples’ anger, but dwells in the midst of it. In my chaplain opinion, Jesus lies flat on the ground in it, rather than ignoring the humanity of the response. In Christ’s own humanity, he recognizes the eagerness of his disciples and shares with them his purpose…again. What he shares with them is that greatness is honed less through work, and more through servitude and humility, through getting it wrong, through the scraped knees, picking yourself up, and listening for the still small voice of God.
James and John’s desire to draw near to Christ resulted in them treating Jesus like a genie who grants three wishes, rather than the Son of God who was there to serve not be served. In the process of missing the mark, they fell down, and likely scraped their knees. This does not constitute failure. They messed up in their eagerness. They gained new insights, both about themselves and about the potential of their God in Christ
You see, failure—if we let it—is never failure, but rather growth in disguise. Because of Christ, we live each and every time as changed people in the New Creation, having gotten it wrong in many different manifestations, permutations, shapes, and forms.
I wonder if all that James and John really wanted was to draw closer to Christ, especially having just come to the realization that their beloved teacher was to be crucified and was soon to be leaving them. But their execution was off. Christ, in his divine patience, saw not their poor execution, but rather the persistence of their faith.
May we, on this Lord’s Day, and in the week to come, feel the grace and closeness of God the Creator, Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit moving in and through our daily lives, meeting each and everyone one of us, just where we are, the Divine’s beloved. Amen.
Liz Niehoff is a New York native who has found her way to the rumbly city by the Bay, San Francisco, in order to serve as a hospital chaplain. Currently, Liz is discerning with God what comes next. She just finished her CPE residency at UCSF Medical Center working with heart and lung transplant patients, and is now seeking a new call as a staff chaplain.