I must tip my hat to Steve Pankey, whose posts this week on "We are Able" and "Mark's Key Verse" have completely reshaped my approach to Sunday's sermon. I'm particularly drawn to his recollection that John Yieh, also a mentor of mine, said that "Mark’s gospel message can be summed up in one verse, 'For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve' (Mark 10:45)" (direct quote of Steve not Dr. Yieh). That, and Steve's warning that it is "vitally important for the preacher to study [that verse] carefully," have forced me back into my commentaries. Woe to me if I preach a sermon on Mark 10:35-45 without first allowing the significance of 10:45 to sink in.
The funny thing, though, is that, as I look at commentaries on this passage, I can't find one that doesn't also include Mark 10:32-34 along with Sunday's lesson. Perhaps the lectionary authors didn't want to subject congregations to the third passion prediction of Jesus lest we find it too familiar or, God forbid, even repetitive, but I don't think Mark 10:45 can be read without Mark 10:32-34. Go back and read all of Mark 10 and see for yourself how inseparable the description of the Son of Man's servanthood is from the foretelling of the passion.
But, while we're going back in the text, let's go back even further. Take a minute to consider the first two passion predictions in Mark's gospel account and the reaction of the disciples to each:
- Peter confesses Jesus as the messiah; Jesus responds by predicting his rejection, suffering, death, and resurrection; Peter reacts by rebuking Jesus; Jesus responds with "Get behind me, Satan!"; and Jesus calls the crowd together and teaches them to "deny [themselves] and take up [their] cross and follow [him]." - Mark 8:27-28
- Jesus again predicts his death and resurrection; Mark tells us that the disciples didn't understand but were afraid to ask any questions; the disciples discuss among themselves who is the greatest among them; Jesus calls them out; the disciples remain silent; Jesus tells them that "whoever would be first must be last of all and servant of all; and he puts a child in their midst as an example of how to receive him and the one who sent him. - Mark 9:30-37
The two-part gospel lesson for Sunday (the disciples' rejection & Jesus' rebuke), therefore, is still missing its important antecedent (the passion prediction). James and John's foolish question isn't just an expression of greed or self-centeredness. It is a direct rejection of the path that Jesus is walking and the path to which he calls us. As the disciples approach Jerusalem, the dreams of their master's entrance as Israel's anointed king are right in front of them. Even the thrice-delivered predictions of Jesus' rejection and death cannot dissuade them from their fantasy.
James and John's question is our question. It's there in the story to teach us something. We follow Jesus as Lord. We hail him as King. But the path he leads--even still today--is the way of the cross. Why? Because that is God's way. As R. T. France wrote in his commentary on Mark, "Hitherto Jesus has spoken of [his death's] necessity, but now he offers a new perspective on the concept of messianic suffering which sets what might otherwise have been seen as a meaningless tragedy in the context of the redemptive purpose of God. This is not a setback to Jesus' mission, a victory for his opponents; it is what he came for" (The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, p.409).
If the cross still has meaning and value in the Christian story, it must remain the center of our lives as those who are willing to become servants of all in the name of the one who came to serve and give his life as a ransom for many--Jesus. If we are not willing to serve as Jesus served, the cross becomes a tragedy. It becomes a moment of God's defeat. But God did not merely accept our plan and change it to good. God's way has always been the cross. God's way will always be the cross. It must be so for us as well.