October 21, 2018 – The 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24B
© 2018 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard at St. Paul's Soundcloud page, and video of the sermon and the rest of the service can be seen on our YouTube channel.
What do you think the seats on Jesus’ right and left hand look like? James and John asked Jesus to allow them to sit on either side of him when he comes into his glory. What sort of seats do you imagine those to be? Are they palatial thrones? Benches appropriate for judges? Seats of honor at an enormous banquet table? Jesus told James and John that the places at his right and left are not for them—that they already have been prepared for someone else. I wonder who that might be. If they aren’t for James and John, who does get to sit on either side of Jesus? Is it Peter? Another disciple? Maybe Jesus’ mother? Another saint who has earned that place? If the Brothers Zebedee were willing to accept the cup and baptism that Jesus himself would endure, what other qualifying exam must someone pass before earning one of those seats? Or maybe it’s a popularity contest. Maybe God will allow all of us to cast our vote for our favorite saint and put Francis or Patrick or Julian in those seats. Or maybe there’s a nice, orderly rotation so that, as eternity stretches on forever, each of us gets an infinite number of turns in the place of honor.
More important than our wondering what those seats might be like are James and John’s expectations. What sort of honor did they think they were after? “Teacher,” they said to Jesus, having stepped far enough away from the other disciples so that they couldn’t be overheard, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask you.” Jesus didn’t have any children of his own, but he had been in ministry long enough to know how to respond to that question. “What is it that you want me to do for you,” he replied, not taking the bait. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” they said to him. And Jesus replied, “You do not know what you are asking.”
“You do not know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. It must have been particularly galling for Jesus to hear two of his disciples ask that question. They were on their way to Jerusalem. Just a few verses earlier, as they walked the road together, Jesus had told them that he was going to the holy city in order that he might be condemned by the religious leaders of his people, who would hand him over to be mocked, tortured, and executed by the Roman authorities. Jesus was walking the road that led to his suffering and death, and all James and John could think about is whether they would get the places of honor when their master came into his glory? What glory?
And before you single out these two disciples for particular criticism, notice how the other ten reacted when they heard what the brothers had asked Jesus: they were indignant, resentful, enraged. And why? Was it because their colleagues had been so obtuse and so self-centered as to ask Jesus for the places of honor? Or was it because they were jealous that James and John had thought to ask Jesus first? Either way, their anger suggests that they were no more enlightened than their bold counterparts. None of the twelve really understood what Jesus had been saying to them.
The problem that the disciples had wasn’t that they were bad listeners. Jesus predicted his death three different times just to be sure that they heard him. The problem was that they didn’t understand what his death represented. James and John heard Jesus predict his death and then immediately asked if they could sit beside him in glory. Their mistake was thinking that Jesus’ death was only instrumental—that his struggle, rejection, and death were just a moment of hardship on a path that led to a victory that would bring them glory. They thought it was the unpleasant intermediate step that must be endured in the pursuit of the greater good—the tedious homework before the final exam, the hours of practice before the celebrated performance, the two-a-days in the summer heat that pay off when the season starts. Even though death awaited their master, they were already looking ahead to the victory lap: “Grant us to sit one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking.”
“Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,” Jesus said to the twelve, “and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Not pretend to be servant. Not play the part of the slave. Not tie a towel around your waist once a year and enact a ritual expression of servanthood that is incongruous with the rest of your life. If you want to be great, if you want to inherit glory, if you want to participate in the victory of God’s Son, you must become last of all, least of all, slave of all. What does that mean? What does that look like? “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” As followers of Jesus, we do not accept the path of suffering and servanthood because we think it will lead to glory. We accept that path because it is true glory.
What do the places of honor look like when Jesus comes into his glory? Who is situated at his right and his left? Is it not the bandits who are crucified on either side of him? Is his glory not revealed on the cross? Is his crown not made of thorns? Aren’t the criminals the ones who have been appointed as markers of God’s unconditional love? The religious elites don’t need anyone to remind them that they are loved. The wealthy and the powerful don’t need a savior to turn the world upside down in order that they might be seen as the recipients of God’s blessings. It is the bandits, the rejects, the unlovable among us whose appointed place in God’s reign is finally revealed when Jesus comes into his glory.
The cross, as the true glory of Jesus, shows us the fullness of God’s unconditional love. God does not love us because we love God back. God’s love is the first love, the first cause that breathes life into the entire universe. God loves because God is love. Love like that, which accepts no qualification, embodies the lowest possible position so that it might look up to everyone. Even the least among us, the lowest of the low, is held in honor and looked upon by God with love. Is that how we see the world around us? Are we looking in the right place when we imagine who might be seated at Jesus’ right and left? If we are to share in God’s glory, we must share in God’s love, which means that we must love the world the same way that God has loved it—not looking down to those who want our love or looking beside us to those who can love us back but looking up at everyone and beholding the whole world in limitless love. If we are going to live in the radiant light of Christ’s glory, we must pursue that place where, as the servant of everyone, we, too, look up to all people in love.