July 25, 2018 - St. James
I wonder if the real reason that the other disciples were upset with James and John is because their mother got to it first. On their way to Jerusalem, Jesus takes the twelve aside privately and says to them, "See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised." And, immediately afterwards, as if she had been politely waiting on the side of the road to kiss her boys goodbye before they left for the holy city, Mother Zebedee comes up to Jesus, kneels before him, and implores him to let her boys sit at his right hand and at his left hand when he comes into his kingdom. It's a crass and self-serving request, but you have to give her credit: at least she recognized Jesus for who he really was--the king of God's people.
Throughout the gospel, Jesus' followers struggle to figure out who he really is. He spends time with sinners and outcasts yet proclaims the coming of God's reign with religious zeal. He flouts the religious rules about sabbath and fasting, yet he performs the kind of miracles that show that God is surely on his side. He spends most of his time scooting from town to town, refusing to put down roots, yet the people seem to want him to claim some centralized religious and political authority, rivaling the powers of Jerusalem and Rome. What sort of rabbi is he? What kind of leader will he be? Some figures are too radical for any sort of official authority. Other leaders often struggle to make room for someone whose voice is primarily a critique of the status quo, and prophetic leaders like that often lose their voice when they accept a place at the table of power. Just as a prophet rarely makes a good priest, it must have been hard for those who really knew Jesus to imagine him succeeding as a king. But Mother Zebedee saw it, and she wanted to embrace it on behalf of her sons.
As followers of Jesus, we proclaim him as our king. We have the benefit of Easter. We have seen Jesus raised from the dead. We have seen God's great vindication of Jesus and God's triumph over the forces of evil that crucified him. In the light of the resurrection, we see what Mother Zebedee saw: that Jesus' outside-in, upside-down ministry among the poor, the neglected, and the powerless is the very heart of God's reign on the earth. In his victory from the cross, we see that the kingship of Jesus unravels the royal robes that clothe the powers of the earth and establishes through Christ God's perfect reign on the earth. We see what the mother of James and John saw, but, unfortunately, that is often all that we see.
"You do not know what you are asking," Jesus said to her. Turning to the two disciples, Jesus asked, "Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?" The road that leads to Jerusalem and the kingship of Jesus and the establishment of God's reign also includes the cup of suffering, the path of rejection--not as a detour or as an obstacle on the way but as the very destination to which the king of kings and those who follow him will journey. We recognize in the life and ministry of Jesus how God's reign means good news for the poor, the oppressed, the weak, and the sinful. And we recognize in his death and resurrection that God has the power to overcome any and all who would stand in the way of that reign. But it is easy to forget that the renewal of the world and the reordering of its powers and our participation in that transformation require our suffering, our loss, and our death.
Yesterday, I saw a meme on Facebook that quoted the Rev. Fleming Rutledge, saying, "The church is always talking about building the kingdom, but it seems to be a kingdom without a king." Have we forgotten what it means to follow Jesus as our king? We seek to establish God's reign through our work and our ministries, but have we forgotten who it is that we are following? Have we lost sight of the path down which he leads us?
Today, we remember the life and witness and Christ-proclaiming death of James, the son of Zebedee. He was the first of the twelve disciples to be martyred and the only one whose death is recorded in the New Testament. He did drink the cup that Jesus drank. And his place is beside Jesus in his kingdom. And we celebrate his memory because, like all the saints, like all of those who are made holy by God through Christ, he traveled the path that leads through suffering and death into God's reign. That is our path. It is the road that all who follow Jesus must travel. It may not mean martyrdom by the sword, but it means a death no less profound. If we believe that Jesus is the one who comes to establish God's reign on the earth and to establish that reign by reversing the power structure of the world from one where strength and violence and wealth rule to one where the meek and mournful and forgotten are redeemed, then we, too, must be reversed. We must be stripped of our earthly status, crucified with Christ, and raised with him to new and different life. Yes, we want to go with Jesus into his kingdom. We've seen that much. We've figured that much out. Pursue, then, the strength of God and the faith in Christ that is needed to follow him where he leads us.