Sermon preached by Jordan Haynie, Seminarian Intern
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost – October 21, 2012
Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?
May I speak to the glory of our Great High Priest, Amen.
We’ve been hearing some tough words from Jesus lately. I’m not entirely sure what possessed the writers of the lectionary to make us deal with divorce, money, and ambition three weeks in a row, but I suppose they, in their wisdom, “know what they’re doing.” And so here we are. Face to face with a story that makes us confront our own desires for greatness. Y’all should know before we get started that you are dealing with a Yale student and even worse, a Texan, whose greatness has been assured since she had the luck to be born in that great state. So I must admit that I have a lot of sympathy for the Sons of Zebedee. And y’all are gonna have to forgive me for Texaning up this story a bit.
James and John come to Jesus to ask Him a favor. They want to sit at His right hand and His left when He comes in glory. “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you,” they say. Well! All right, then! I didn’t realize Jesus was quite such a “made-to-order” kind of guy, but He doesn’t seem too ticked off by this question. After all, immediately prior to the conversation, they’ve been walking to Jerusalem where Jesus knows that He is going to die. And He’s been telling them this over and over. It’s not like it’s a surprise! “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” Let me tell y’all, if my priest said something like that to me, I would not be asking for any favors – I would be high-tailing it out of there as fast as I possibly could!
I mean, these guys, they know Jesus is on the outs with the people in power. And yet they ask Him for a favor, with the confidence that He can achieve it! Frankly, I’ve never seen such faith! “Teacher, we know you want us all to be with the poor instead of the wealthy and that you will be brutally executed by the State for the truths you tell, but we think you are so worthy, so righteous, so powerful, that despite all this we want to be with you through all of that, no matter what. In fact, we want to be so close to you, that we are at your right and left hand.” That is a greatness to aspire to. When they ask Him this, they are not speaking of some golden throne in the clouds, where they can receive worship from saints and angels, no. They are asking to be with Jesus always – through the hard stuff, through His baptism, through His death.
It’s odd, isn’t it? We don’t often picture Jesus’ death when we talk about baptism. Though our prayers in the service acknowledge that, “In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit,” we more often think of the River Jordan, and the descent of the Spirit, who names Jesus, saying, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”. Who in baptism says to us, “You are Mine, I love you, I need your hands to help build the Kingdom”. We think of children in white dresses, and the acceptance we find in God’s inviting us to join the Kingdom. And these are all good things! They are all true. But then there’s this passage. This passage, where Jesus asks, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” Jesus isn’t talking about a sweet Instagram-worthy moment in church on Sunday or a little bit of water on the forehead, Jesus, is talking about the baptism of His death.
And when James and John say, “Yeah, of course!” like any good Texan would, He tells them that indeed they will share it! They too will have a dark night in a garden where they pray that the cup might pass from them. James will be killed by Herod shortly after Jesus’ own death, and while John will escape martyrdom and live to old age, he will flee from Jerusalem, having seen all his friends killed for the God that they follow. I don’t know about y’all, but that is quite a different baptism than I signed up for when I promised to turn to Jesus Christ, and accept him as my Savior, to follow and obey him as my Lord.
I realize that this violent imagery and talk of martyrdom is tough for many of us to hear. And that many folks might be wondering if they really want to be baptized right about now. And it’s true that this passage, like many others, has been used to keep slaves in their place by telling them they’re really greater than their masters in spirit, so they should just put up with whatever earthly abuse, they must endure before they find glory in heaven. It has been used to justify domestic violence by telling women that they are merely sharing in the suffering of Christ. It has been used to keep down those who would question the powerful by telling them that ambition is not of the Lord. My friends, I tell you, that is not the good news of Christ. And that is not what Jesus is saying to these Sons of Zebedee. “But whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”
Jesus, Our Great High Priest, who made a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world, is ALSO a full, perfect, and sufficient servant of the whole world. He, the ruler of the Universe, who was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself. He, healer of the nations, defender of the oppressed, who consorts with women and tax collectors did not demand that those who have been trampled humble themselves still further in search of a greatness their exploiters will never know. No. Jesus, Our Great High Priest, asks if we will share his baptism. And when we say yes, though we know (or don’t know) the pain and struggle that could come, He who came to be served and not to serve, serves us. When we promise to stay near Him in the tough times even at the Cross, He smiles, and says He has given His life as ransom for many, that He’s the One who will be with us in the tough times. We who aspire to be great must finally admit that we have no power to achieve greatness. That we will flee the Garden, that we will deny Christ, that we will not always love our neighbors as ourselves, that we will not always see Christ in the least of these, that we will lord our power over others, that we will be impatient, that we will be selfish, that we will screw up. But we who have been baptized into Christ’s death will also have a resurrection like His. No matter what we’ve done. Because true greatness, as everything else, belongs to the Lord.