Racing for Last

Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
October 21, 2018

Mark 10: 35-45 (CEB)
35James and John, Zebedee’s sons, came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”
36“What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
37They said, “Allow one of us to sit on your right and the other on your left when you enter your glory.”
38Jesus replied, “You don’t know what you’re asking! Can you drink the cup I drink or receive the baptism I receive?”
39“We can,” they answered.
Jesus said, “You will drink the cup I drink and receive the baptism I receive, 40but to sit at my right or left hand isn’t mine to give. It belongs to those for whom it has been prepared.”
41Now when the other ten disciples heard about this, they became angry with James and John. 42Jesus called them over and said, “You know that the ones who are considered the rulers by the Gentiles show off their authority over them and their high-ranking officials order them around. 43But that’s not the way it will be with you. Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. 44Whoever wants to be first among you will be the slave of all, 45for the Human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.”

You all have heard of armchair quarterbacks, right? On football game days, and armchair quarterback is someone who sits in the comfort of their living room—complete with a plush armchair or recliner, climate control, and a stocked refrigerator just a few steps away to cheer on the team. Except the thing is, armchair quarterbacks don’t just cheer on the team, do they? Armchair quarterbacks know exactly how every single play should have gone down, especially the ones that didn’t go down well! With the advantage of an elevated and widescreen view, the armchair quarterback can see every player on the field with clarity, and knows exactly which receiver was open and where the ball should’ve been thrown, or where the hole was that the runner should’ve gone through. We have all the answers. [In fact, I’m sure that yesterday, if the armchair quarterbacks had controlled the game, then…would’ve won!]

The reality, though, as we all know, is that if we were actually the ones “under center,” taking snaps and directing plays, we would not be nearly as effective as we are in our minds, sitting in our recliners with some chips and salsa. When you’re on the field with guys that are six and a half feet tall, weighing 250 pounds and barreling at you, your adrenaline pumps up. You get in a hurry, you can’t see exactly everything that is happening on the field, you don’t know what’s happening behind you, or even on the other side of the field—outside of your peripheral vision. It’s way more complicated than it seemed when we were watching it on the TV…

…Which is basically where James and John are thinking they are as they approach Jesus in the Scripture passage we heard a few moments ago. James and John are feeling pretty confident that they’ve got it all figured out. They gave up everything they owned, they walked away from their jobs and their families to following this man who called them, telling them he would make them “fishers of people.” As his disciples, they have seen his great wisdom and his power to heal. James and John believe this Jesus is the Messiah. They are sure that before too long he is going to conquer the world, and when he does, they want a place in the inner court, a position on the cabinet, the seats of honor to his right and to his left. The problem is, James and John are calling the plays without a real understanding of what’s happening on the field. They are acting like armchair quarterbacks!

Did you notice the opening of the passage? When James and John approach Jesus, the first thing they say to him is, “We want you to grant us whatever we ask.” They thought they could outsmart Jesus, they thought they could get a promise of their reward before actually asking for it. It’s almost like they knew what they were asking wasn’t really very appropriate; particularly for a couple of disciples of this new and surprisingly different prophet named Jesus. What’s funny, though, is that even though they seemed to understand that maybe their request was a little “over-the-top,” they had absolutely no idea just how off-the-mark it was. I mean, I think we all have at least a little inkling of guilt when we are acting out of selfish motives, and I think that’s what James and John were feeling too. But, as Jesus himself said, they had no idea what they were asking. In making this request of Jesus, the brothers were indicating a complete lack of understanding of who Jesus was and what he was about.

To get an idea of just how misguided James and John were, we need only look at the what Mark reports just before the beginning of this passage. Just before this question from James and John, Jesus has predicted his passion; his trial and crucifixion…for the third time! “Look!” he said. “We’re going up to Jerusalem. The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the legal experts. They will condemn him to death and hand him over to the Gentiles. They will ridicule him, spit on him, torture him, and kill him. After three days, he will rise up.” The only thing Jesus doesn’t do as he predicts his looming death and resurrection is say, “I.” And because he doesn’t make that very plan connection that he is the Son of Man about whom he is speaking, the disciples don’t make the connection either. Jesus has described in vivid detail how he will be tried, tortured, and killed before he rises again, but it is not enough for the sons of Zebedee. They have a singular focus, a “one-track-mind,” if you will, and they want to cash in on Jesus’ glory, forgetting that the path to glory goes through the cross.

So it is that, as Jesus gently guides the two ambitious disciples back to reality, we all get a pretty sober lesson in what it means to be great; what it means to be honored in God’s kingdom. “Can you drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”

“Sure we can!” the brothers replied. They thought Jesus was paying them a compliment. To them, it seemed as if Jesus was admiring their abilities and calling them to the next level of leadership in preparation for their ultimate glory at the throne of Jesus. They thought that not only were they going to get to sit with Jesus in his triumph, but they were going to share his glory from that point on. But oh, how wrong they were. The disciples still didn’t understand, none of them; not at all. Jesus was indeed calling them to a new level of leadership, but this wasn’t any promotion.

And suddenly we begin to see Jesus, in essence, calling the traits of good leaders out of his disciples. There’s no pushing yourself to the top, here, no assertiveness and aggression in this kingdom. Instead, if you want to move up in this new world, you sink to the bottom first; if you want to be first, you set yourself up in the last position. This isn’t like those pagan nations, Jesus says, in my kingdom, you don’t push people around and Lord yourself over others because you are a great leader. You sacrifice more, everything; you humble yourself and serve the people you think ought to be serving you. You love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, because there will be persecution. You make yourself less than the least. And ultimately, you give even your life. Those are the things that Jesus is teaching his disciples when he tells them they will share in his cup and in his baptism. This is great leadership, he is saying to them; this is the path to the glory you so desire.

It doesn’t sound all that great, does it? There’s nothing about this path that lifts us up on a pedestal; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. But ultimately, the glory we will know will be far better than we could have ever imagined, precisely because we followed Jesus all the way.

Did you all hear that story out of the Rio Summer Olympics back in 2016 about the women in the 5,000 meter foot race? Near the beginning of the race, American Abbey D’Agostino and New Zealander Nikki Hamblin tripped over one another’s feet and fell. Instead of getting up and running, D’Agostino turned to help her fellow runner. “Get up, get up,” she said, “we have to finish this.” But as they got going again, D’Agostino’s knee gave out. This time, Hamblin turned back to help. They finished the race together, in the last two spots. Does anybody know who run the women’s 5,000 meter race in the 2016 Rio Olympics? Me either…but I do remember that story.

Or how about this one…a few weeks ago, up in Virginia, a couple of high school football teams were playing one another on a Friday night. One of the teams had a member with cerebral palsy. The coaches had agreed before the game that near the end of the game, this high school senior would take a handoff and the other team would allow him to run a few yards. Well, the appointed time in the game came, and the young man took the field. The quarterback called the snap count and then handed the ball off to the football player with cerebral palsy. The other team made way for him and he went a few yards with his teammates running behind him and encouraging him, then the other team joined in–running along, clapping and cheering him on. For 80 yards, the other 21 boys on that field ran right beside him, cheering for him, ready to catch him if he fell. He ran all the way, on his own, for a touchdown.

The first shall be last. “Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant….” Christians don’t push other people around. Christians don’t demand their own way. Christians give their lives for the sake of others. If you want to know how to have life, if you want to be whole and complete, take a look at what Jesus has done, how Jesus has lived. “I haven’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give my life as a ransom for many.”

Let us pray in the words of St. Francis of Assisi: Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

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