Mark 10:35-45 (NRSV) The Request of James and John
“35 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.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking.” 39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40 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.”
41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 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. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
I stood there in the dorm for students who traveled to attend seminary every week, feeling deeply ashamed that I had delayed God’s will for so long, so very long.
The first time that God called me into ministry, I was only 17 years old. My friend was feeling the call into the mission field, and I went to the altar rail to pray with her, to pray for her. As I prayed, God spoke to me, saying that He wanted me to go into ministry. This led to my first argument with God.
“I can’t go into ministry, Lord. There aren’t any women in ministry. So I’d have to become a missionary, and I don’t want to go to Africa!”
“I don’t want you to go to Africa, Tina” God countered. But I wouldn’t listen. I was in a fundamentalist evangelical Church that didn’t allow women to enter the ministry. “I can’t be a minister. There aren’t any women ministers, Lord! And I don’t WANT to go to Africa!”
“I don’t WANT you to go to Africa!” the Lord replied “I want you to be a minister for me.” And around and around we went. I think I argued with God for more than 10 minutes. Who argues with God?! Was I crazy?! Was I just disobedient? I don’t know! I just knew that I didn’t want to go to Africa and there was no such thing as a woman minister. Ignore the fact that God had tried to convince me to go to a Methodist school to pursue my undergraduate degree…I couldn’t afford it so I was already set to go to Illinois State University. I had my path set, and I was going to major in accounting and be a CPA.
That’s not how it worked out. Actually, about 9 weeks into my first semester I changed my major to Applied Computer Science, just like my dad predicted. I majored in computer programming and minored in communication and it worked perfectly for me. I loved my fields of study and excelled in both of them. An internship at Citibank sealed the deal and I graduated Cum Laude from the Honors Program at ISU. Obviously I had found God’s path for me; my skills told me so and so did my total satisfaction with my field of study and work. I took a job at Citicorp Mortgage in St. Louis and dived into my adult life head first, only to find God still knocking at my door.
He called again when I was only 22 years old. I felt the call as I read my Bible after a weekend out with friends. God encouraged me to take up my place as a minister in His Church, and all I could think was “Were You watching this weekend? Did you see me telling dirty jokes to a mixed crowd? Did you see me using all the wrong language? Are you kidding? I am absolutely the wrong person to be a minister! You must be out of your mind!” This call was much easier to ignore. I was attending Church regularly but didn’t that that meant much, and I didn’t see how God has set me aside from the very first day to serve His Church. All I could see was my faults, my failures, and my lack of holiness. That was enough to convince me that I was not fit to be anything at all in His Church.
God, however, was not so convinced. At 27 years old, I found myself serving on a panel discussion about faith in the workplace. One of the older women in the congregation was doing her best to convince the group at the panel discussion of how we needed to have our Scripture memorized and ready to deploy the minute it was needed; that Scripture was our best defense at a moment when we were called to testify. My college memories spoke to me and I blurted out “NO! That is not what we need to do.” Then I told the story of my roommate Nancy, who had remained an atheist for all four years of undergraduate study. She and I had been best friends, living on the same floor of the dorm and then moving together with two other friends to live in an apartment during our final two years of college. One day she said “Do you know when I know you’re a Christian, Tina? It’s not when you tell me about your God.” So I asked her how she knew I was a Christian. She said “It’s when you follow me around the house when I come home upset, trying to find out what upset me.” “Nancy” I said, “I don’t do that because I’m a Christian. I do that because I love you!” “But Tina” she replied, “no one else loves me that way.” At that moment I realized that I no longer knew where I ended and Christ began. I had been Christian for such a long time that I no longer knew what parts of me were mine uniquely, and which parts were expressions of Christ. I had become Christ-like when I wasn’t looking, and now I couldn’t find the edges of me…and I knew that if the love I was expressing for Nancy was mine alone, she never would have perceived it as an expression of my faith and my God. Suddenly I realized that God had changed me in ways I had not realized, and that the phrase “They will know we are Christians by our love” was far more truthful than I knew. So I told everyone who had gathered for the panel discussion that memorizing Scripture wasn’t going to increase the strength of our testimony one whit…we needed to focus on letting Christ into our hearts so deeply that we lost our ability to perceive where we ended and He began. Love was the answer…not reciting verses from some book, even a Holy book. Love would change everything and invite people into relationship with God in a way that book knowledge—even Holy book knowledge—could never approximate. At that moment, the pastor on the panel blurted out “Sounds like we have a future preacher in the room.” I answered him swiftly “That’s not funny! Don’t say that!” I had no idea how close I was to the ledge.
It was only two years later that I succumbed to God’s call. God’s sense of humor is awesome: He sent a Jewish atheist to ask me questions about the faith. The more questions I answered the more still and thoughtful she became until suddenly my atheist friend exclaimed “You should be a minister!” For reasons I can’t explain, I believed her.
Suddenly I knew that God wasn’t joking anymore. That night as I read the Scripture for the Bible study I attended, I found myself telling God that I would go wherever He sent me and do whatever He wanted me to do, but that I was terrified. God answered “Not yet” and spent the next year readying me to answer the call more completely.
Within 12 months I was enrolled in seminary part-time, and by 18 months I had left my job as a computer programmer and enrolled in seminary full-time, traveling to California every week to take classes and prepare myself for full-time ministry. It was then that my guilt went into overdrive.
Why did it take so long for me to answer God’s call?
What the heck was my problem? God had made it clear from the time I was 17 years old, and here I was at 31 years old with two children and a husband and NOW I finally decide that maybe I should follow God’s will for me. What took me so long? What had I done to the Kingdom by waiting so long? What I denied God by waiting so long? What great things could I have done for Him if I had just answered sooner? I tortured myself with this guilt and with the awareness that God had been infinitely patient with me despite my unwillingness to hear Him.
It took me over a year (and the reassurances of many of my fellow seminary students) before I could realize the truth: God knew that I wouldn’t hear Him for a long time and so He started me calling me far in advance of when I would answer so that I could hear the call again and again and again.
It’s a little like James and John in today’s scripture.
We read this scripture and we think that James and John are just a little over the top. It’s not that they are bad disciples. It’s not that we don’t think they deserve to sit at Jesus’ right hand…in fact, we know that John was the disciple that Jesus loved the most. It’s just that…DANG! Asking so directly is just so BOLD! It seems a little arrogant and pushy and all the things that you think don’t go with being a disciple.
Yet at the same time, we relate.
There isn’t one faithful Christian who hasn’t had the fantasy of Christ saying the words “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” There isn’t one faithful Christian who hasn’t wondered if they have brought enough souls into the Kingdom to honor God. There isn’t one Christian who hasn’t wondered if they’ve sacrificed enough, or suffered enough, or been bold enough and spoken up enough…
We wonder over and over if we are good enough for the Kingdom; good enough for God.
Jesus’ answer to James and John is very telling. He asks them “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:39b) As Christians, we automatically think of the crucifixion when we read this. We think that Jesus is asking them if they can suffer and die for the Kingdom, if they are willing to lose their lives to spread the word. But I don’t know if that was actually the question.
I think that Jesus was asking them if they could hang with him in his disgrace, after the betrayal but before the crucifixion. Between those two moments was the time when Jesus was considered a worthless criminal and nothing more than another idiot campaigning for political power. You see, before Jesus was betrayed he was seen as spiritual powerhouse that threatened the religious powers in Israel. After his crucifixion, the embers of Christianity has been lit, and Jesus’ death and resurrection gathered power, marking Him as God’s blessed Son that had come to save us from a spiritual death that was much more profound that physical death.
But during that middle time—after his betrayal by Judas and before his death—Jesus was just a criminal. Before his journey to the cross, he looked like one more political Messiah that failed and was about to die. Jesus looked small and insignificant, potentially worthless and ineffective at changing anything. It was during those hours between His betrayal and His death that every disciple was tested to the maximum. Would they retain their faith in Him and stand strong when the government threatened to reduce Jesus to NOTHING? Because aligning yourself with nothing is humiliating. Giving up your job, leaving your family, traveling the countryside as homeless vagabond reliant on the support of women…all this was stupid if the messiah you followed was worth nothing!
We focus so much on the crucifixion, but Jesus attained His glory in the crucifixion. Jesus changed the world forever through the crucifixion, but in the hours just before that moment he risked being nothing…being worthless…being a total failure. Real commitment to Christ was expressed in continuing to believe when He appeared to be…NOTHING.
We don’t ever have to live through that moment, because Christ has already proved that He is so much more than
nothing. But now the challenge is reversed, because we cannot stand with Christ in His glory if we won’t let Him stand with us when we are busy being next to nothing. We can’t stand with Christ in His glory if we won’t let Him stand with us when we are deep in our crap.
The journey to faith is long and slow, and there are years and years full of stuff that amounts to a whole lot of crap, a whole lot of nothing. Jesus opts to stand with us no matter what stuff we’re churning out right now diamonds for the Kingdom or total crap, and Jesus opts in all the way. And that’s really uncomfortable, because we think that God wants nothing less than our best; God deserves nothing less than our best.
The truth is, however, that God wants it all: our best, our worst, and everything in between. The evidence of this is given to us in the life of Christ. Jesus was born as an insignificant infant…the only people who knew they were supposed to worship Him were a bunch of smelly, dirty shepherds; a few immigrant Magi; and a teenage girl who got pregnant out of wedlock. This is not a high profile group of folks! Jesus was 30 years old before anyone else figured out that He just might be the most significant human ever born, and even then He appealed mostly to smelly fisherman, prostitutes, lepers, and tax collectors that everyone hated. James and John knew that Jesus was the real thing, but in order to know that for sure they needed to hang with Jesus through His ministry, His triumphant return to Jerusalem, a night of doubt in the Garden, His arrest, His conviction, and His execution…all before they could see Him rise from the grave and enter into His glory. To be a real disciple, you had to hang with Jesus through all the crap before you could get to the glory.
It isn’t any different with us. Jesus opts in way before we show any promise, and we have to agree to let Him in, to let Him see us at less than our best, to let Him be with us in our worst moments and all of our crap…just so that He can draw us to those moments of glory. And the moments of glory will be few and far between. I heard God call me and waited for 15 years before I chose to answer…and instead of kicking me to the curb God chose to present that call over and over and over until I answered. When my guilt for failing to respond correctly the first time consumed my soul, God reminded me that He knew me before I was born, and knew everything I needed before I needed it, and knew all the crap I had to walk through before I could answer His Holy call…and that He was good with whatever it took to get me to answer Him. God is not worried about the details…He is only worried that we will never answer at all, that we will turn away from Him and refuse to let Him in.
You cannot be with Christ in his glory if you will not let Him be with you in your crap. If you look around you, the crap abounds, but God doesn’t care because what matters is that you let Him in…after that, it’s all a journey towards the glory, and Jesus had that part sewed up years and years ago, so it’s not like we need to worry if the glory is going to find us eventually. The glory is coming…and between now and then there is just one load of crap after another that will yield small glories along the way, small moments of brilliance that we can attribute to Him and thank Him for. In the end, it is a gathering of glory, one small spark at a time—one small flash of holiness and power at a time, that will gang up on us and overwhelm us with the almighty, amazing presence of God.
And in that moment, we will be with Him in His glory, and we will be His glory, and it be everything we have waited for.