In our Bible reading today,
James and John seek glory: "Grant us to sit, one at your right and one at your left, in your glory"
Jesus instead offers them suffering
And the disciples seek greatness
Jesus offers them service
James and John were two of three disciples closest to Jesus. Peter was the third.
• Jesus took Peter, James and John with him when he raised Jairus' daughter.
• He took Peter, James and John with him when he went up the mountain and was transfigured.
• And, after this, it was Peter, James and John who Jesus took with him when he prayed in the garden of Getsemane just before he was betrayed.
So if any of the disciples could assume that in the coming Kingdom they would be in the top places, it must have been James, John and Peter.
They were the ones closest to Jesus.
They were, it seemed, the inevitable - not successors of Jesus, because Jesus was always going to be around - but they were the inevitable right hand and left hand men.
What is it that makes us seek status and glory?
I suspect that it is the desire to be recognised as someone different, someone unique, someone special.
I wish to be different from the crowd because I am superior to the crowd.
The fact that everybody in the crowd is thinking that - causes some problems.
I like the story of the young woman who wanted to go to college, but her heart sank when she read the question on the application form that asked, "Are you a leader?" Being both honest and conscientious, she wrote, "No," and returned the application, expecting the worst. To her surprise, she received this letter from the college: "Dear Miss K: A study of the application forms reveals that this year our college will have 1,452 new leaders. We are accepting you because we feel it is imperative that they have at least one follower."
The point is that each of us is - to God - different, special, unique. I know that when we say everyone is special, it can mean nobody is special. But with God - because we are who we are, and where we are - it really is true. You are unique and special.
And it really does not depend upon where we are in relationship to other people. It does not depend upon our status in society. Just because we were not born into a royal family, or a fabulously wealthy family or just because we do not have the ability to be an Einstein or a Usain Bolt or an Obama it does not make us any the less a significant person.
I am getting to that seriously worrying age when someone who is younger than me could become prime minister next year.
But Jesus is saying to James and John and to us, 'It does not matter'. It does not make you any less a person. In the Kingdom of God the people who will be at the right hand and left hand of Jesus are not there because they are more spiritual or more godly or more intelligent or more able or more humble. They are not there because they have won the competition, because they have been awarded the trophy.
They are there because they are the people who God the Father has chosen will be there. (Mark 10:40)
And actually that makes them no different from you or me who are also where God our Father has chosen for us to be.
It is not where you are in society that matters, where you are in the pecking rank.
It is whether we are prepared to identify ourselves with Jesus.
And there are two ways that we are called to identify ourselves with Jesus
1. By going the way of suffering.
Jesus offers James and John not status, but suffering: 'Can you drink the cup that I drink?'
They don't realise it: but the cup that Jesus has to drink is not the bottle of champagne that will be given to him when the Kingdom comes. The cup that he has to drink is the cup of the wrath of God, the anger of God against human sin and rebellion against God.
The Old Testament talks many times of God pouring out his cup of anger on the people who reject him, who turn from him. The prophet Jeremiah says, "This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, said to me: "Take from my hand this cup filled with the wine of my wrath and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it." (Jeremiah 25:15)
It is a terrifying cup, and it was a cup that Jesus did not have to drink. But he chose to drink it, down to the last dreg - out of love for us. And because Jesus has drunk it, none of us need drink it.
And the baptism that Jesus has to suffer was the baptism of his death.
So Jesus says to James and John: You have asked me for something: status in the Kingdom of Heaven. The answer to your question is that it is not mine to give. I am now asking you something: “Are you prepared to suffer for others in the same way that I will suffer for others?”
And the second way that we are called to identify ourselves with Jesus is by
2. walking the way of service.
When the other disciples hear that James and John are asking for the top places in the Kingdom, they get very indignant: 'Who do they think they are? Why do they think that they are better than us? Why are they asking for the promotion? What right have they to push themselves forward?'
They too are playing the game of status, of one-upmanship, of 'I'm the King of the Castle'.
And Jesus says to them, "It is not a question of superiority. It is a question of service. It is not about where you are. It is about whether you are prepared to identify yourself with me.
"You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles Lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many".
The invitation is the invitation to serve as Jesus’ served.
And Jesus' service sets people free from sin: from the power of sin and from the consequences of sin. He gave his life as a ransom, because we were slaves to sin. We needed to be rescued, literally redeemed: that is bought for a price. And the price was his life.
So when we talk about Christian service, we are not talking about the sort of service which tries to make life simply more comfortable or convenient for someone else: in the way that we might serve a wealthy customer.
This is the sort of service that seeks to set people free from sin.
Obviously Jesus has done that, and Jesus alone has done that. There is nothing that we can add to his work. But we can share in the work that he has already done.
And we do that by our words and by our actions.
We speak: We tell others the good news that we do not need to be held captive by sin; that there is forgiveness and new life because of Jesus; that we can begin to change; that we who were enemies of God can become friends of God, can know God. And, yes, it is costly.
We are talking today about Passion 4 Life. That will cost. It will cost in terms of effort; in terms of putting our reputation on the line, in terms of giving
We live: Please do not underestimate the power of lives lived by people who are not seeking status but service. When everyone is trying to get to the top, the example of a life lived by someone who might get to the top but chooses to go to the bottom in order to set others free is incredibly powerful.
• I think of Henri Nouwen, a Harvard Professor, who - for Christ - gave up his chair in order to run a home to allow severely disabled people to live in the community.
• I think of the mum or dad who gives up the career they love in order to spend time at home nurturing and growing their children.
• I think of the man who gave up a major city job with a major city salary to work as a minister in Salford.
We are called to be people who serve others by setting them free from the desires of selfish ambition, of status seeking; of the desires to prove ourselves or make ourselves worthy - whether that is by what we do or where we are in society. "True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost."
It is costly, but it is also liberating. When you or I can make being crucified for someone else our ambition in life, when we can make what we give rather than what we can get our ambition, the rest of it - status, glory, superiority - becomes a joke.
To put it simply, what matters is not where we are in this world or the next. That is completely beyond our control.
What matters is what we do with what we do have. It is about how close we come to living Jesus' life, how close we come to identifying ourselves with him. Because if we are prepared to identify ourselves with him in his death, we will become like him in his resurrection power.
James and John were asked by Jesus if they could drink the cup that he would drink - and were told that it would not guarantee them the status that they desired. They said 'Yes'.
This James was one of the first Christians to be executed for his faith. This John, if tradition is right, died a natural death, but the last years of his life were lived in exile
You and I are asked by Jesus if we are willing to die to ourselves, to our selfish ambition and our desire for status and glory, and to take up our cross.
We are asked if we are prepared to serve others by setting them free from sin and the consequences of sin.
We are asked if we are ready to drink the cup that Jesus drank.
Please do not think that I am there. I am not. But I pray that we might be there. I pray that we might have the courage to say with James and John, ‘Yes, we are’