What strikes me as I read this story is the contrasting attitudes of Jesus and his followers James and John. Jesus is trying to prepare the hearts of his followers, letting them know of his growing awareness that his mission will bring him – and them – into danger. Jesus will be handed over to the authorities. He will be abused. He may be killed. It all must happen, for Jesus’ mission cannot be fulfilled any other way. These are serious, hard words yet Jesus shares them so that the disciples will not be caught off guard. As happens to the master, so to the student. They too will be under threat and Jesus wants them to know in advance so that they will not be too shaken off guard, nor give up as if God’s plans are over.
Jesus’ humility here is striking. He does not express “why me?” as he could do. He does not talk about advancing himself. He merely talks of the necessity of facing into this danger, so that he might help affect the liberation of all peoples and all creation. He is not seeking his own way, but the way of others.
It is as if James and John do not hear him. This reminds me of times as a chaplain and as a pastor I have sat with people waiting for test results at the hospital. I could not tell you how many times I’ve sat beside people who heard medical news that clearly was “it’s incurable”, “it’s fatal”, “there’s nothing more we can do”, only to respond as if they heard something different. Sometimes some news is too big, too disastrous to really take in.
For me, that fateful morning in September when I saw the two planes fly into the Twin Towers of New York city was like that for me. Though I was watching it on television from miles away, that moment was very visceral to me. Yet when the scene was over, a part of me didn’t want to believe what had happened. A part of me kept trying to react as if it was simply a program on television, a story from a movie, not my real life.
I think this is a real natural reaction to bad news. We can try to continue to go through the motions, acting as if we are not hearing what we actually here. So James & John act as if this is not the dire news. They ask for the baptism Jesus will be baptized with as a way of proving their devotion – not recognizing he is talking about persecution, death. They talk about it like it’s a competition with a prize: being at Jesus’ right side.
Jesus is quick to let them know they will be baptized this way. We all will, if we truly follow Jesus. Not that all of us will be killed for our faith, but following Jesus requires being willing to face into a kind of death. First death of our own control over the direction of our lives, as Jesus calls into lives of service in which we often enter the orbit of other’s needs, of serving those around us, in ways that reorient our lives sending them in directions we would not have chosen without Christ. And all of us will face moments we are called not to pick the popular path or the convenient path, but rather the path that works toward the greatest liberation of those oppressed in our communities, the greatest healing of others & God’s earth. Often such choices may bring resistance from friends, co-workers, families, even from our own heart which may be drawing us away from the best choice to the easiest.
This difficult process that we are called to face into is why Jesus cannot simply wave a magic Messiah wand over these two men and grant them their request of standing by Jesus’ side. Standing by Jesus’ side is a kind of relationship with Jesus, one that evolves over time. It only comes through our consistent choice to join Jesus where Jesus is working, standing by him ourselves. Jesus cannot grant this to us, we must choose to seek it out. In reality, we think we can cry “Jesus put us on our side” like James and John and be put there with no effort when in actual fact every day Jesus is crying out “Who is on the Lord’s Side? Who will serve the King?” looking to see if we, that day, will stand beside him.
I can’t say every day I hear that call and answer, but I can say it is my goal, my hope. Let us all learn to listen for that voice of truth and follow it to our heart’s true destination.
And I sure ain’t whistling Dixie,
Your progressive redneck preacher,