Sermon for Sunday, 17 October 2021

Mark 10: 35–45

By Revd Paul Le Sueur

I invite you to think back on your life to recall if there has ever been a time when you have really struggled to master something. For some people, learning to swim or to cycle or to dance comes really easily, but for others, no matter how patient the instructor may be, it takes ages and ages before eventually the penny drops, and finally, triumphantly…

They get it.

For others, it might be an academic matter: learning the pluperfect tense of a foreign language, perhaps, or some obscure theory in physics or chemistry. For me it was in mathematics: long division and logarithms were no problem, but when it came to calculus… for a long time I just didn’t get it. Calculus, as you may possibly remember, or possibly not, is that branch of mathematics concerned with the problems involving rates of variation of change. Eventually I got it and passed an exam. I can’t say I have ever used it or thought about it since. But some lessons or skills learnt after great effort are very, very important. And the Gospel for today has a supremely important lesson for every single Christian, to be learnt and remembered and acted upon every day of our life.

For James and John, what they didn’t get was that the way towards the glorious establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven, the reign of Christ in glory and the participation of all faithful disciples in that wonderful future, was through the sacrificial death of Jesus and his triumph over death by his resurrection. WHY?…. you may ask.

It wasn’t as if Jesus hadn’t been plain enough. Immediately before this Gospel passage, in Mark 10. 32–34 we read,

They were on the road going up to Jerusalem… Jesus took the Twelve aside and began to tell them what was to happen to him ‘We are going to Jerusalem,’ he said; ‘And the Son of Man will be given up to the chief priests and the doctors of the law; they will condemn him to death and hand him over to the foreign power. He will be mocked and spat upon, flogged and killed; and three days afterwards, he will rise again.’

And this was the third time that Jesus has spoken of his forthcoming Passion.

But James and John still didn’t get it. To them everything seemed to be going pretty well. The ordinary people seemed to respond positively to the Master’s teachings; they hugely enjoyed his ‘put downs’ of the pompous Pharisees; they liked the stories he told them, even if some of the parables took a bit of thinking about to get their meaning, and they absolutely loved the miracles of healing that he performed. And now they were going to Jerusalem where they confidently hoped that Jesus would be crowned in glory.

So why didn’t they get it? Did they simply not believe Jesus?

Or was it that they were so concentrating on the good bits: the stories Jesus had spoken of …. of glory and the feasting in the Kingdom of Heaven, that they passed over the death and suffering bits as exaggeration?

In any case they saw an opportunity here to better themselves. I can just see the plan unfolding.

Get Jesus on his own; away from the other disciples, and ask him for a favour when the good times come. And in case that looks a wee bit presumptuous; not terribly humble, St. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that they asked Mum to put the case on their behalf.

The response they hoped for was….. ‘Of course, James and John. You two have served me well over the last two years. When the time comes, you will be well rewarded.’

It didn’t turn out quite that way. ‘You don’t understand.’ says Jesus.

Not a good start. ‘Jesus thinks we are a bit thick,’ mutters James to John.

It gets worse. Jesus starts to question them.

‘Can you drink the cup that I drink, or be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with?’

‘Well! Get the answer right,’ murmurs John to James, ‘And we’ll be back on track. Be positive. Say “Yes”.’

‘Yes, we can,’ say the twins together.

But that doesn’t go down too well either. At first it sounds OK. Jesus says they can drink his cup and they can share his baptism, but the way he says it rather implies that there’s a big catch somewhere, and they are not sure what it is.

AND…then…Worse. NO, they can’t have the seats of honour. Those seats are going to others. Best to slink away quietly. But NO!

Even worse was to follow. The corner where they had got Jesus to themselves for a private word was not quite as soundproof as they had hoped, and the other ten disciples had heard everything, and they were not happy… not happy at all. ‘How dare they! How dare they! Who do they think they are?’ You can just imagine the atmosphere.

And then … complete humiliation. Jesus calls all Twelve together and gives them all a stern lecture on true service and real humility. There are lessons for us all to learn.

Here at Cornerstone we have recently been reminded of the many opportunities for service that are currently available and are very much waiting for our response. We are also reminded of the need to offer our service humbly and without thought for our own aggrandisement.

During the lockdown many people were made redundant, and have taken that opportunity to change their careers; which in many cases has altered their lives in a big way. Perhaps that is your story? It was certainly the case for James and John. One moment they were self-employed as fishermen, owning their own boat and selling their catch to make a living.

Now, after the bombshell of meeting Jesus, and responding, somewhat impetuously to his call, they were without an income and trailing along with an itinerant preacher from place to place and relying on the hospitality of strangers. It is not surprising that they wanted some clarity as to their future prospects. Those words of Jesus were not very encouraging.

‘The Son of Man will be given up to the chief priests and the doctors of the law; they will condemn him to death and hand him over to the foreign power. He will be mocked and spat upon, flogged and killed; and three days afterwards, he will rise again.’

It was only after the Resurrection that the penny dropped. The realisation that the sacrificial death of Jesus was the way in human history that God has acted to call all of us, men and women, boys and girls, and you and me, into a new and abundant way of life – that way of life that we call ‘The Kingdom of God.’ The Cross and understanding its huge significance is absolutely vital to a true understanding of what Christianity is., Our Christian life should be a response to that saving act of Jesus.

The way of the Cross is not an optional extra. Yet so many who consider themselves to be Christians have a Christianity which is little more than a vague feeling of good will towards those in need.

Did you hear of the conversation between a famous astronomer and a Christian theologian? The astronomer said that after deep reflection he thought all Christianity could be summed up in the phrase. ‘Do unto others as you hope others would do to you.’ The theologian replied, ‘On deep reflection he thought all astronomy could all be summed up in the phrase, ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are?’ Touché, I think the French would say. Let us not trivialise the Christian faith.

At the London Marathon there was an interview with two competitors. One was a heart surgeon: the other was a young person whose life he had saved some years ago. She walked and raised money for others in gratitude for what he had done to save her life. I found that deeply moving. Think for a moment about that surgeon. Think of the many years of study he had put in to achieve the skills necessary to heal other people in their hour of need.

What love!

Think of how many other people, as well as that young girl, will look back in gratitude for what he had done for them, which had changed their lives for the better.

Isn’t it amazing that God, the Creator of this vast universe, should have come among us in the person of his son, Jesus Christ: to live among us, to die for us, and to raise us to a new life with him.

What love!

God’s love shown in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus calls each one of us to respond in gratitude.

That was the lesson which James and John learnt. Early on, James gave his life and died a martyr for being a Christian. He was the first martyr; the first of many. John by contrast lived to old age, proclaiming the Gospel of God’s love to the far reaches of the known world.

Whatever our life situation, that is the lesson for us today.