Seward United Methodist Church
Sunday, October 21, 2018
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In Search of Greatness

Mark 10:32-45

 Jesus and the disciples are on their way to Jerusalem.  It is the journey that will end in the cross.  Jesus doesn’t hide that fact from them.  He tells them quite plainly, “The Son of Man will be betrayed to death.”  

 But it just doesn’t seem to be sinking in.  The disciples can’t bring themselves to believe anything other than that Jesus will fit their concept of Messiah:  A victorious conqueror, soon to ascend to his throne, to bring a glorious, golden age.

 With that thought in mind, James and John come to Jesus and say, “We want the places of honor, on your left and right, in your glorious kingdom.”  In Matthew’s Gospel, Matthew tells us that it was their mother who made the actual request.  That’s not really an inconsistency, if they were on board with the question asked by their mother.  And certainly, we know that mothers want the best for their children.  

 James and John, of course, are part of this inner circle of the disciples.  Peter, James, and John seemed to have had a more intimate level of access to Jesus than the other 9 disciples.  On several occasions, like when Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter and on the Mount of Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John got to accompany Jesus when the other disciples did not.  

 We also know that James and John came from a well-to-do family.  Their father, a fisherman, was doing well enough to have hired men.  That means that they were probably doing very well.  They might not have been wealthy, but they were certainly comfortable.  They may have been the wealthiest of the Twelve, and hence may have had the highest social status.  

 The others might have resented their privileged position with Jesus, and they certainly resented this request to be Jesus’ viceroys, to have the positions second and third to him in his Kingdom.  

 Status was very important in the first century world, almost certainly more so than in our society.  There was very little association between the classes.  If you were poor, you didn’t have any middle class friends.  And certainly if you were wealthy, you wouldn’t hang around with people who weren’t.  And it was also very hard to move up in social class.  You could basically only be born into nobility.  The economic classes were rather fixed.  Very seldom did the poor become middle class or the middle class become

wealthy.  But this was a chance for them to “move up” when Jesus came into his Kingdom, or so they thought.

 Jesus says, “Can you drink the cup I’m about to drink or be baptized with the baptism I’m about to receive?”  

 Both of those were images of his coming death.  In the Old Testament, a person’s cup was their allotment from God, whether that allotment was good, like in Psalm 23:5, “My cup runneth over,” or bad, like in Isaiah 51:17, “O Jerusalem, you have drunk the cup of the Lord’s anger.”  Jesus’ cup was the cross, as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Baptism was understood to be a symbol of death, submerged below the water, as if one were being buried.  When a Gentile converted to Judaism, they were baptized to symbolize the death of who they were and the rebirth as a new person.  The same idea applied to the earliest Christian understanding of baptism. 

 Of course, the disciples don’t believe that he is going to die.  The disciples just can’t accept what’s going to happen to Jesus.  No matter what he says, it won’t convince them.  Only the cross will convince them.  

 They boldly answer, “Yes, we can!”  

Jesus has the insight that yes, they will.  We know that James was one of the first Christian martyrs, and John was exiled to the island of Patmos in his old age.  But Jesus says, “It’s not for me to say to whom those places will be given.”  While they were thinking of the places to Jesus’ left and right as places of honor, it’s possible that Jesus was thinking of those who would be crucified with him.  

The other disciples weren’t very happy about this whole situation.  And I think we can identify with them.  Probably we all know both sides of this experience in one way or another.  At some point in our lives, we have all been the one on the inside looking out, the one who is accepted while others are not.  We’ve probably all known the smug satisfaction of being honored when others are not.  And I’m pretty sure we all know the other side of the equation!  We’ve all been on the outside looking in:  The last one picked for the team, the only one not invited to the party, the black sheep of the family!  And we all know the pain and frustration, that feeling of “What’s wrong with me?”  

Jesus sets out to correct all of them about these things:  “You know the way of the world. Those in power lord it over others.”  People seek after power and status.  And

the world defines greatness as the ability to control other people.  Israel was part of that ancient Near East cultural setting where kings were considered to be divine, and their word was law.  There was no Constitution; there were no inalienable human rights.  And that is greatness to the world.

We might not have kings and nobility any more, but we still have the same idea of greatness.  We have people in our society, the wealthy, the politically powerful, celebrities, who are treated like royalty.  We still have people who say, “Jump!” and people jump!  And that is greatness to the world.  

“But among you it must be different!  Greatness in the Kingdom of God will be measured by surrender and service to others!  The greatest in the Kingdom is the servant, the slave.”  

Jesus himself sets the example for us to follow.  He came not to be served, but to serve others, even to the extent of giving his life for them.  Jesus’ self-denying death on the cross is not just an isolated historic event.  It is the example for us to imitate.  We imitate Jesus when we surrender our will and serve each other.  

That’s not easy.  We might say, “Oh, status and honor don’t mean much to me!”  But when we’re actually in the place of serving others, thinking more of them than ourselves, giving honor to them and denying it to ourselves, I think we all find that yes, they do mean something to us.  We do want to be honored.  We do feel like we are less than others when they are honored and we are not!  

But let us look at it from God’s perspective.  From God’s perspective, you and I are already the insiders.  We are inside God’s Kingdom.  

Our task is to make sure that those who are outside God’s Kingdom, outside of relationship with him, outside of the salvation life he offers, are given the opportunity to come inside.  How can we serve those who are on the outside?  

How can we serve those who are excluded in the eyes of the world?  And there are many:  The poor, the hard-to-love, those who have committed crimes, those who have done shameful things, the mentally ill.  Those are the very ones that Jesus came to serve.  He intentionally shunned those given honor by the world to spend his time with those dishonored by the world.  And that is the example we should follow.  

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