For the last several weeks, our Gospel readings on Sundays have been following through the Gospel of Mark – a series of scripture texts about what it means to be a disciple or a follower of Jesus. Each text has had a unique theme or focus, but the common message proclaimed over and over by the author of the Gospel is that being a disciple is challenging.
There are forms of spirituality and perhaps even some religions that promise only peace and fulfilment, success and happiness, but Christianity is not one of them. And in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus does not sugar-coat the commitment and sacrifice required of those who would follow him and his way with their lives.
My guess is that James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were a couple of pretty great disciples. They were among the very first ones that Jesus called, just after Simon Peter and Andrew. James and John were fishermen too, and Jesus found them in their boat mending the nets: “Immediately he called them;” the Gospel tells us, “and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.”
The brothers travelled with Jesus and the others from that time on. They listened to his teaching and struggled to understand his parables. They witnessed his miracles and wondered at his ability to bless and to heal the people they met. And then, as time went on they went out in his name to proclaim his message and perform healing miracles themselves.
At some point, Jesus gives the brothers a nickname of sorts. He calls them the “sons of thunder,” and though we don’t know how they earned the name, we get the impression that they were a force to be reckoned with.
James and John were certainly some of Jesus’ closest friends. On the day that Jesus went up a mountain and was transfigured before his disciples, it was Peter, James, and John that he brought with him to witness the strange and wonderful event. Peter and the two brothers were the ones who heard the voice of God confirming Jesus’ identity in the same words spoken at his baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved.” And they were the ones who heard the clear instruction from God: “Listen to him!”
If Jesus had an inner circle of disciples, these men were it. And I suppose, by the time we get to today’s story, James and John are starting to look for some recognition and some acknowledgement of their status as leaders within the group.
They say to Jesus, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” They know the kind of power that Jesus has from God, and they want to benefit from it and from their special relationship with him. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
When the other disciples hear about what the “sons of thunder” are asking for, they get rather upset. How can these two be asking for special privileges? Who do they think they are?
But Jesus doesn’t get upset with them. He just tries to help them to understand what it really means for them to be his disciples, what it means for them to live his way. What it doesn’t mean is privilege or prestige. Jesus himself is ridiculed and rejected and killed, and his followers will need to be prepared for a similar reception.
As the scriptures attest, Jesus does eventually end up at the right hand of God in power and glory. But he doesn’t get there by seeking power and glory for himself. He doesn’t get there by asserting his rights or highlighting his worthiness. Instead of lording it over others, he becomes a servant and gives his life for others. And that is the life that James, and John, and all who follow Jesus are called to live.
“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” Jesus asks. “Are you able to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” And the brothers say, “Yes, we are able.” Jesus baptism, and our baptism is not just about being cleansed and forgiven for our sins, though it is that. It is not just about receiving God’s blessing and the gift of the Holy Spirit in our lives, though it is that. It is not just about being grafted into the body of Christ – about belonging to the family of God – though it is that. But our baptism is an entering into the death and resurrection of Christ. It is a dying to ourselves, to our old lives, and being raised to a new life of service to God in Christ.
Our baptism is a gift and a blessing, and a wonderful assurance that we belong to God and that we are in God’s care. But it is also a call to be God’s people in the world, to live our lives in service to God’s purposes – not seeking our own glory or recognition, but humbly living our lives in service to others.
Here at St. Andrew’s, as at other Christian congregations, we gather Sunday by Sunday and at other times throughout the week to worship and to serve together, and community is built as we serve.
In a Presbyterian resource called, “Glorifying and Enjoying God” which we are using for our membership classes this month, we read this reflection on what it means to serve as Christians within the church and the community.
“The early Christians did not think of their worship as ending at the dismissal; they took their faith with them into every aspect of their lives. Their worship was translated into work and witness, and the church grew.
“Like these early Christians, we also gather together to be strengthened by our fellowship. In our worship there is opportunity to hear God speaking through scriptures, prayer, music, the sermon, and sacraments. The same connection to God can happen as we offer food to a hungry person or listen to a child who has something to tell. Worship and witness are interrelated. One leads to the other.
“In congregations, people of all ages learn to care for each other and try to demonstrate that God’s wondrous love is meant for everyone. This means that Presbyterians are active in work and worship beyond their own congregation’s activities. You will find Presbyterians involved in leading scouts, on community boards, in service groups. You will find Presbyterians running thrift shops, leading school associations, repairing appliances for seniors. You will find Presbyterians writing letters for Amnesty International, giving to Presbyterian World Service & Development, joining international coalitions. You will find Presbyterians in politics, in economics, and working to change unfair social structures. Presbyterians are socially engaged. We work in partnership with God, reflecting God’s intention for justice, peace, and love.”
As Christians who are baptized with the same baptism with which Jesus was baptized, we are called to serve. And the extra blessing is that as we serve God and God’s purposes, we gain so much as well. We gain meaning and purpose for our lives. We experience God’s blessing and God’s presence with us. We journey together as a church and share one another’s burdens as well as our joys. We grow in faith, in love, in peace, and in hope.
I would like to end by sharing a story of one Presbyterian and what it meant for her to offer her life in service:
“It was Friday evening. Thea usually had lots of energy, but tonight she was tired. She and her husband were finishing the supper dishes when Thea noticed the red light on her answering machine. She switched on the message and recognized the voice of Allison who shared with her the teaching of the Grade 7 church school class at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church.
“’I’m terribly sorry to spring this on you at the last moment,’ Allison said, her voice cracking with laryngitis, ‘but I wonder if you would teach for me on Sunday.’
“Thea sighed. Of course she would help. After all, Allison had taught for her when she had the stomach flu. Thea thought back over the past week. There had been the usual family responsibilities, her work, the board meeting for the community justice office, the Shrove Tuesday pancake supper at the church. What a mountain of sticky plates she and the Grade 7 class had washed! Thea poured herself a cup of lemon tea and sat down to rest.
“The next day, Thea settled in her favourite chair with her church school materials. Mmmm… first Sunday in Lent. Will the kids realize that? Of course, they celebrated the beginning of Lent with the pancake supper this week… but how could she help the 12-year-old children in her class understand Lent? I know that Lent is a time to re-examine and reaffirm our identity as people baptized into Christ’s body, the church, and I know that Lent leads us to Easter, Thea thought. I know that purple is the colour for getting ready and our church uses purple all through Lent as a sign that we are getting ready for Easter.
“Then Thea had a quick flash of an idea. Why not combine those three thoughts – we celebrate being God’s people – Lent moves towards Easter – purple is the colour of Lent. ‘Now I know what to do,’ Thea said. ‘I have a big piece of heavy paper upstairs. We’ll draw a calendar of this and next month. We’ll mark on 40 days – the 40 days of Lent. Then we’ll talk about the things we can do in Lent to express our care and concern for others. Every time we think of something to do together as God’s people, we’ll glue a square of purple paper on one of the days of our calendar. I wonder how many we could fill by Easter. Every Sunday we’ll read the stories leading up to Easter. Then we’ll talk about more ‘purple projects’ we can do during the week.’
“’We might be able to provide something for the food bank,’ Thea said. ‘The staff told me they need fruit juice. Maybe we could collect cans of grape juice. Purple juice.’ Thea chuckled to herself.
“Thea was beginning to feel new energy. Maybe I could even wear that new purple blouse I bought last week. I wonder if the kids would get excited about wearing purple t-shirts all through Lent?
“And she ran upstairs to look for construction paper. Purple, of course.”
May God help us to discern the ways that we are being called to offer our lives in service. May God give us the energy we need to do God’s will, and the joy that comes from being a part of God’s good purposes.