Earlier this week, I asked Mary Katherine, “What did you do at school today?” She said, “I got the boringest job at school today.” I asked, “What job was that?” She said, “I was the caboose (the back of the train). That isn’t a very important job, is it?” The preacher in me said, “You know what Jesus said about being last. He said, ‘the last will be first.’” She went on to say, “that doesn’t make any sense, Dad.” (note to self: I am not my daughter’s preacher).
Today, the disciples hear, for the seventh time in Mark’s gospel, the concept that the first will be last and the last will be first in the kingdom of God. And apparently, that doesn’t make any sense to the disciples either. This time, it is James and John, the so-called Sons of Thunder, who stick their foot in their mouth.
Today’s lesson begins on the heels of Jesus’ third passion prediction. He has set his face toward Jerusalem and is more convinced than ever that the victory of God is found through suffering and death on a cross in Calvary.
Jesus knows there is no way around this suffering and death – the powers and principalities of this world will do everything in their power to make sure that the light of God doesn’t expose the lies and corruption of kingdoms that are built by taking advantage of the poor and powerless – the last. The disciples, however, misinterpret Jesus’ confidence.
They believe Jesus is poised to take the earthly throne in Jerusalem like his ancestor David. They still think political and military victory is the answer to the lies and corruption of the empire, and they sense victory is at hand. And like someone on a political campaign staff, the Sons of Thunder ask their candidate for the best jobs when he comes into power.
In essence, James and John want to know, “What’s in it for me?” They have been on the campaign trail for nearly three years. They have sacrificed their livelihood for this dark horse candidate. Their candidate is a terrible fundraiser, he keeps telling people to give their money to the poor and powerless, so they never had the luxury of even staying in a Motel 6.
And now that they sense Jesus is on the cusp of victory, they see an opportunity. They see an ivory tower ahead. They want to secure the best seats in the house before the other disciples wise up and ask. Jesus goes on to explain that they do not know what they are asking. So, Jesus asks a question of his own, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”
In other words, are you able to suffer the same fate as me? Are you able to accept that God’s victory is found in the way of suffering and death, a way that makes the last first?” The Sons of Thunder naively respond, “We can accept that.” Even then, Jesus says, “to sit at my right and my left is not mine to grant but it is for those whom it has been prepared.” (Oddly enough, two criminals find themselves on Jesus’ left and right as he hangs on the cross in Calvary – I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.)
The other disciples are not too pleased with James and John – not because they think the question is inappropriate but because they wish they had thought of the question first. Sensing an internal fracture looming, Jesus calls them together and says for the seventh time, whoever wants to be great must become last…for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.
Keeping with the political campaign theme, I can’t help but be reminded of the words of President John F. Kennedy. “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” Likewise, the motto in the kingdom of God asks, Ask not what God’s kingdom can do for you but what you can do for God’s kingdom.” And for those sitting in the pews today, Ask not what your church can do for you but what you can do for your church.
While these words are familiar, the statement is radical especially as we live in what many call a consumer culture. The culture we live in trains us to ask, “What’s in it for me?” Whether we are conscious of it or not, so many of our decisions in life – at work, at home, at church – are based on the attitude – what am I going to get out of it? We are led to conclusions that say, “If it doesn’t impact my little sphere of being, then why is it my problem?” Even the best of us are hamstringed by this way of thinking. It’s called self-preservation.
While a self-preservation attitude might help us hold onto our earthy goods and securities, it severely hinders our ability to pursue things heavenly, the things eternal. This kind of attitude turns us inward, it makes us self-absorbed, it hardens our hearts and blinds us to the needs of others, to the needs of the community, to the needs of God.
God knows that self-preservation is the thorn in the side of the human heart and as God promised long ago, God will not abandon us to the self-serving and self-destructive agenda of the human heart. God will not leave us for dead. God is in the business of turning our hearts again and again toward God’s agenda of self-sacrificial love which is the way to abundant life.
Ultimately, God turns our hearts toward this self-sacrificial love through the One who loved us even when it caused him public shame, unimaginable suffering, and a humiliating death on the cross between two criminals. Surely, no earthly leader would do this for his constituency.
On the cross on Calvary, where our hearts are turned forever, we see the self-sacrificial love of Christ put the pursuit of power and control to shame, we see the self-sacrificial love of God in Christ expose the pursuit of power and control as totally destructive. We see the self-sacrificial love of God in Christ level the playing field and make room for everyone to have a place at the table in the kingdom of God – a table that puts the least, the last, and the lost first. On the cross, we see how God makes the first last and the last first. We see the victory of our God.
And it is here, at the foot of the cross, where the kingdom of God comes into focus. It is here at the foot of the cross, the place where our Lord died because of us and for us, where we are given the grace to stop being so selfish, to stop asking, “What’s in it for me?” and start asking, “How can I help, how can I serve for the sake of the community, for the sake of the church, for the sake of the kingdom of God, for the sake of Jesus – our crucified Lord?” It is here where we are given the grace to finally stop pointing at ourselves and toward the One who died so the world would wake up to the way of eternal life.
From a worldly, consumer-based culture perspective, Mary Katherine and the disciples are right, the way of the cross makes no sense at all. But as St. Paul famously wrote, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
Ultimately, it is God’s hope that as we follow the way of the cross, we discover what our heart has been longing to know all along – the desire to be connected to something bigger than ourselves, the desire to be a part of a vision greater than our own, the desire to find a joy that cannot be bought or possessed or earned – only given by following the One who came not to be served but to serve. Amen.