Sunday, October 21, 2012

Can you drink my cup?

May my words be in the name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

'The cup that I drink, you will drink; & and with the baptism that I am baptised, you will be baptised.'

Our Gospel reading today is part of a slightly longer section of scripture. It begins with Jesus & his disciples on the road, walking towards Jerusalem, and Jesus again explains to his disciples that he is going to suffer and die. Adding these extra verses to today's reading still gives us a relatively short passage of scripture of only 13 verses. But short as it is, it can still be broken down into five distinct sub-sections.

In the first, Jesus explains for the second time he is to suffer and die. Next, two of the disciples respond to this revelation with the request for places of honour. Jesus replies by reminding them of what his glory is to consist of. In the fourth section the remaining disciples express their anger at what James and John have done. And finally, Jesus points to what true leadership is like for those who follow him & again points to that fact that his own fate is to die.

So, three sections where Jesus talks about his own suffering and death; and in between those sections the response of his disciples to what he has been telling them. So let's look at those various sections in a little more detail.

The first is fairly clear cut. Jesus explains to his disciples that he is to suffer and die. It is not the first time he has done so. You will recall he did so before in Mark's Gospel, just after what is often called St Peter's confession that Jesus was the Christ. That time St Peter attempted to rebuke Jesus – he didn't understand; he got things wrong. He thought of the Messiah-ship in terms of earthly glory. This time it is the turn of James and John to get things wrong. Even though Jesus has just finished telling them he is to suffer and die, they are still thinking in terms of earthly glory, and they ask for places of honour when Jesus 'takes over.' Jesus response to them is interesting. He doesn't begin with a plain 'no.' He asks them a question: can they drink of his cup & endure the baptism he is to suffer? Of course we know when he speaks like he is speaking of his suffering and death which is to come; they do not … emphasising even more that they still do not understand what being the Messiah really is all about. 

The two give a confident reply to Jesus' rather ambiguous question: 'We are able.' And then Jesus makes a somewhat curious response to the answer that they have made in ignorance. They will indeed drink from his cup and endure his baptism, but they can not have the places of glory they seek. I'll come back to talk a little more on Jesus' answer to their request later.

The remaining ten disciples find out what Jesus and the two brothers have been talking about and they are angry. Not angry because the two have sought the high-places of earthly glory out because they don't understand what Jesus is about. What Jesus says in our final section makes clear, I think, that they don't understand him either. Indeed, it is clear from all that comes later in the Gospel, from how they react to Jesus' passion in death that they never even came close to understanding what he was saying. Which means they must be angry because the two have asked for places of honour … and they want those places for themselves! Really they are cross because James and John acted before they did.

Which is why Jesus must explain to them what it means to be a leader in his kingdom. Those who wish to be great must think of themselves as least of all; the one who serves others the most is the one who is the greatest. They must follow the example of their master, who came not to be served but to serve, to live a life of such humble service that he would give his life for others.

The structuring of the passage is quite extra-ordinary: Jesus speaks of his death; two misunderstand; he speaks of it again; and even more misunderstand; & so he explains again. And in a structure like this the middle-point acquires a particular importance – it becomes the focus of the piece. And what happens in the middle piece? Jesus tells the two that they will drink of his cup and be baptised with his baptism. I said earlier that I thought it was a curious response and that I would come back to it. And it is curious, for me at least, because of how Jesus says it. 

The two have said they are able, not understanding what it is they are saying they are able for. And Jesus says they will drink and will be baptised. He is essentially saying they are able. They are able to join in his suffering and death. They will join in his suffering and death. Not might. Will. James who died by the sword under Herod and John who tradition tells us went on to live into extreme old age. Both will join in drinking from the cup of Jesus' passion & the baptism of his suffering and death. They, not knowing what they said, said they were able. And Jesus told them that they would indeed be able to be his disciples & face whatever that brought to them.

And of course, Jesus asks that question of us all. Can you drink my cup? Can you endure my baptism? We unlike James and John know what it means to answer 'we are able' to that question. It means taking up our cross and following him; it means turning to God in all things; it means forgetting what we want in life & accepting what it is that God wants for us; it means leaving aside our own judgement in favour of what Christ acting through his Church teaches. We know what it means to say we are able … What remains for us to wonder is how we will respond. Will we also say that we are able? And will we say it not only with our lips but with our lives, our every action displaying to the world that we mean what we say? With God's help, I believe that we all may. And I pray God that we all will. Amen.

sermon notes 21 Oct 2012 (20th after Trinity)

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