Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Unknown Request

Although I can only speak for my own tradition, it appears to me that most expressions of Christianity are exercises in competitive holiness. Verses like "Many are called, but few are chosen" and "Narrow is the gate and hard is the road that leads to life, and those who find it are few" ring in the collective consciousness of would-be disciples. With that mentality, beer bottles never end up in the recycling bins where neighbors might see them. Sunday church is a performance art where one is judged by how well her children are dressed and behaved. Behind each sweet, saintly smile is a dark side of self-righteous condemnation--or at least that's what we tell ourselves to reassure us that we're not the only hypocrites in church.

But, if that's bad, my tradition is even worse. Instead of trying to show others how "Holy Ghost sanctified" we are, those of us in the Grace-vs-Law, classically evangelical, historically Protestant tradition compete to show others just how not holy but made righteous by the blood of Jesus we are blessed to be. "There is no sinner greater than I," a preacher might proclaim from the pulpit, not quite bragging but getting pretty close. Instead of exuding holiness, we rely on the trope of sinner-turned-saint to express our understanding of discipleship. We want the world to see how fully dependent we are on the gospel. We eschew even the slightest scent of works-based righteousness, and want our companions in Christ to see just how confident we are that it is nothing we have done that has granted us a place in the kingdom. In other words, we compete to be last in line because, as Jesus said, the last shall be first. There's a one-upmanship of humility that is as ridiculous as it is disingenuous.

As I read this Sunday's gospel lesson (Mark 10:35-45), I can't quite tell which one James and John had in mind when they asked Jesus for permission to sit at his right and his left in his glory, but, whichever one it was, they were mistaken. In fact, Jesus underscores that confusion, telling them "You do not know what you are asking." Given that the passage concludes with Jesus reminding his disciples that "whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all," I've always understood the request by the Sons of Zebedee to be a grasp at power. I'm starting to wonder, though, whether the instruction meant for me turns upon the opposite reading.

When asked by Jesus if they are able to drink the same cup and be baptized with the same baptism, they respond clearly, "We are able." (Read Steve Pankey's insightful post on those dangerous words here.) I suspect that they know that conflict is ahead. They recognize that their master is in direct conflict with the religious and political authorities of the day. They must know that trouble lies ahead and that even life-threatening disputes are in their future. They seem willing to risk everything to follow Jesus.

Consider that the verses immediately before this episode constitute Jesus' third prediction of his passion and death. Yes, I know the gospel consistently portrays the disciples as blatantly unaware of the implications of Jesus' passion predictions, and I don't dispute that pattern here. But I wonder whether James and John can already see that it will only be through death that glory is found. I wonder whether their request of Jesus is an acknowledgment that they must surrender completely to his movement, giving up even their lives, so that they might receive the heavenly reward that awaits.

Doesn't that sound familiar? Isn't that what it means to be a Christian? Didn't Jesus tell us that? But there's danger in focusing on the reward instead of the obedience. Whether we project holiness or brokenness, whenever we compete with others for the shiniest crown in the kingdom, we do the gospel an injustice. Whether I'm sitting in the front row of church or wearing my cross necklace down at the watering hole, if I'm looking for what's coming to me, I'm missing the point. The truth is that all of us want the glory that awaits. We want riches in heaven. Whether we're trying to be win the lifetime achievement award for holiness or the come-from-behind trophy, the award is the mistake. Just follow Jesus. In the kingdom, there's no difference between first and last place.

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