This morning is the last of Trinity for us.
Next week we remember St Simon and St Jude, this church’s patronal festival.
Then we move into All Saints, Remembrance, and then we are into ‘before advent’.
We are at the end of our long ‘Ordinary Time’, and, as the supermarket shelves remind us, we are well on the way to Christmas.
However, this morning Mark wants to make sure that we are never far from Easter.
Immediately before the Gospel passage we have read, Jesus has, for the third time, explained to the disciples what he is moving towards.
Mark wants his first readers and us to be aware of the journey Jesus is on. He wants us to be clear about what it means.
Indeed, he has been building this understanding throughout the gospel, so that, when Jesus’ journey reaches its climax,
on a cross outside Jerusalem, we will have a chance of piecing the meaning together.
The disciples struggle to understand what Jesus is talking about when the climax of this journey comes up.
It is so far from their understanding that they have no framework to hang it on.
It just doesn’t fit.
However, it is not taking Jesus by surprise. Since his baptism, with echoes of Isaiah’s prophecy 700 years before hand, Jesus has understood that he is the one, the messiah, the servant who will suffer and die for the sake of Israel and the whole world.
It is this figure from Isaiah that Jesus brings back to our minds at the end of this passage – ‘the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’
It is as if he is saying; I just want to check, did you hear that? Are you prepared for what this is going to look like?
However, James and John do not want to entertain this climax. They are still holding out for a march to glory, which ends with Jesus as King, and them at either side of him. They may have heard the words, but they have clearly put their own interpretation on them; it’s going to have its rocky patches, but we’ll get over those and get to the happy ending.
Can we blame them?
Who has not put their own interpretation on information they didn’t want to hear?
As is so often the case, Jesus asks James and John some questions. ‘Can you drink the cup and receive the baptism I am going to?’ These questions are dense and obscure. They are full of references to not all together comfortable passages in the Old Testament about separation from God, and challenging notions that have come out of the life of Christ so far, and will be raised by what is to come.
It seems Jesus is saying to them; you have no idea what you are asking, and if you did, you absolutely wouldn’t be asking.
When Jesus ‘sits in his glory’, the one on his right and the one on his left will be bandits. The throne will be a cross.
James and John have a long way to go before they understand.
Indeed, we have the benefit of hind sight, yet often feel we have a long way to go before we understand. Jesus knows that the journey to Jerusalem culminates with him on a cross, and yet he goes anyway.
He understands who he is, and what he is called to do.
The faith Jesus brings has very little to do with private piety. It has nothing to do with status and glory. It is all about engaging with the struggles of those around us, and the world, and challenging the circumstances and structures that perpetuate those things.
In referring back to Isaiah, Jesus is emphasizing the point that the Kingdom of God turns the world’s ideas of power and glory on their head. The cross will challenge and subvert all the human systems that claim to put the world to rights, but in fact only succeed in bringing a different set of humans out on top. In this journey Jesus is the ultimate example of a life lived in that way.
In all of his self-conscious movement toward a terrible climax, Jesus was radical in his service. He defined putting others before self. And this is the journey we are invited on as followers of Jesus.
We are called to put others before ourselves, to live lives of service, not seeking our own glory.
If we set out, self consciously, to follow in Christ’s footsteps, I believe we too can make a difference in the world. It is unlikely to look like we expect, and it is likely to be personally costly, but it is, ultimately, the road to life in all its fullness.
On my shelves I have a book titled, ‘adventures in missing the point’.
It seems to me that individual Christians as well as churches and church institutions, are adept in adventures in missing the point.
We can so easily fall into the trap of making it a competition of one-upmanship. What you are doing falls short of God’s standards, therefore I am better than you. What we believe is nearer to the truth than you, therefore we are a better church than you. Or even, if we let you in, you may taint us, therefore we are going to exclude you to protect our holiness.
And this is not something that those people out there do. By kidding ourselves of that, we fall into the same trap.
None of us are immune.
The life that Jesus lives, and invites us to share, is so radical, so counter cultural, that making it easier, making it about right and wrong, in and out, is a much simpler proposition.
But Jesus doesn’t offer that option.
Jesus demonstrates that his way is one of service, of radical inclusion, of putting others before ourselves, and of changing the world.