A sermon for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, October 21, 2018
Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey
Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.
You’ve got to love James and John, these sons of Zebedee. They just keep coming after it. When the disciples talk about who the greatest one is, they start the conversation; when they get Jesus alone, they ask for the places of honor; in one of the gospels, even their mother gets in the act, trying to get the best places for her boys. They even had a great nickname: Boanerges, which means “Sons of Thunder.” Basically we’ve got the Thunder Twins here.
Jesus loved these guys. He put up with all their tricks, even though it was a bit puzzling at times. Why would they even WANT to be at his right and left hand in his glory, when we read in the Gospel of John that Jesus was glorified on the cross? A lot of people don’t realize this, but when Jesus chose his disciples, he didn’t choose them because they were the greatest geniuses. Not even because they had “potential.” It appears that these guys thought a lot of themselves, and perhaps they thought that they were in a movement where it would mean a lot to be the chief lieutenants, maybe Jesus’ designated successors. They clearly didn’t get what Jesus was about.
I’ve sometimes noticed that when Jesus told his disciples that “the first shall be last,” we in the Episcopal Church decided that that meant that we should put the Bishop, or whoever was wearing the fanciest clothes at the back of the procession and make that the place of honor. Jesus just shakes his head. Jesus chose for his disciples pretty much a random sample of goofballs, illustrating that the Kingdom of God is made up of people who receive God’s mercy. They weren’t all the same, but none of them were grand or great. Each in his own way had failings and shortcomings, and Jesus loved each of them.
The Thunder Twins were a couple of guys pretty full of themselves. Insofar as I can tell, their resumes included being assistant fishermen on their father’s boat on an inland lake, until one day, in the middle of the day, they just left everything to go follow some guy. And they got a nickname that probably indicates they were loud talkers. They weren’t great strategists or rhetoricians, neither wealthy nor skilled at obtaining wealth. But they thought very highly of their own prospects. I’ve known a few such guys. Once or twice I met him in the mirror. But Jesus loved these guys, not because they were full of themselves, but because he loved them. They were human and he was their friend.
They may well have known that when Jesus asked them, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” that he was referring to difficult times ahead. They loved him, they were with him, even when they didn’t get it … at least, not completely.
Of course, once the issue of preference and status was raised, the whole crew got into a row. It might not have occurred to some of the others to ask to be at Jesus’ right hand, but now that you mention it, it’s a good thing to be offended about. Jesus stops it. “It is not so among you.” The Kingdom of God is not one of preference and advantage. When God is in charge, each of us receives mercy and love enough, no matter how needy we are. If our need is to lord it over others, then Jesus brings us more mercy and a new way to be God’s children and servants.
Here at Calvary we are beloved by God, each in our own quirkiness, and our own neediness, and in our own goodness. We have the opportunity, in being ourselves, to grow into the generosity and the welcome of God. We have the privilege to give, to help, to serve others, not out a need to have status or rack up achievements, but from the overwhelming mercy and love of God. Perhaps it’s paradoxical, but living humbly as one who is loved and who receives great mercy makes it possible to discover and share greater gifts than we would have in seeking to be first. There is no need to hold on to the things that will increase our own status or power—we have more to give. Here at Calvary there is an abundance of gifts, of people, intelligence, of good lives lived, of youth and possibilities ahead, of prosperity that can be shared. There is no need to be fearful or to seek further reassurance, Jesus is here, he serves us and invites us to serve his world. “Whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
This is said another way in our epistle reading from Hebrews:
He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness;… Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.”
He deals gently with all of us. We see him dealing gently with the Thunder Twins, even when they mistake their faults to be leading virtues. He deals gently with us, even when we are afraid or mistaken. We live together in God’s mercy, and in that we can take joy.
Let us pray:
Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.