Sunday, October 21, 2012

Learning to See the King on the Cross


James and John want to be right and left of Jesus in his glory. We do not know what exactly James and John think they are asking of Jesus or how they come to think he can give it to them. Presumably, they are asking for something like to be made top cabinet officials in the new administration. Or maybe not. We aren’t told. The only other mention of right and left in Mark’s gospel will come later, as in: And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. We are probably safe in assuming that James and John are not asking for that. So we are left to wonder what kind of God’s glory is a cross and what it will do to us to return the love of such a God.

“You do not know what you are asking,” Jesus tells them. And this is the understatement of the century, I think. The disciples do not know. Three times now Jesus has named his coming death and resurrection, and one time Peter rebukes him, a second time the disciples argue about which one is the greatest, and this third time we learn that James and John must have won the second time because they are ready to cut the others loose and receive their honorary medals. To drive home the disconnect between what Jesus is saying and what his disciples are hearing, Mark bookends these three prophetic occasions with blind men who are not able to see until Jesus heals them.

“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” he asks James and John, “or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”

Jesus’ question should get our attention because Jesus is asking James and John if they are able to drink and be baptized with a kind of warning in his voice. As if the drinking and the baptism could be dangerous. But some of us have already been baptized, and some of us have made a sometimes thoughtless habit of drinking each week from the cup. I started when I was six years old. Some very good people taught me, but nobody warned me. They warned me at the doctor’s office, especially before shots - “Careful, this will hurt” - but not before I entered the suffering of my Lord. Teaching an adult Sunday School class once, I said that we are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus. A parishioner corrected me: “Jonathan, you mean the resurrection of Jesus. We aren’t baptized into the death.” But I was right. You can look it up. And it’s the tension of this text: James and John sensing the victory of God, still not seeing its cost, not anticipating its course.

The disciples are not able to see, and so are like the blind men in need of Jesus’ healing. That these men who have left everything to follow Jesus are blind keeps us open to the possibility we might also be blind. We may be tempted, because we are a part of God’s Church, to think of ourselves as seeing better than others, but that James and John are our parents in the faith reminds us that we may not be able to see what we cannot see. Even the spiritual - indeed, especially the spiritual - have blind spots. (A friend of mine is fond of saying, “if you could see 'em they wouldn't be blind spots.”)

Which brings us to the heart of the issue: If Jesus could show us our blindness, and heal it, what else could we see?

In The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis wrote, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” This life of faith thing is supposed to restore our vision. Not only does faith help us see God; by faith, we are supposed to see things when we look at the world that we didn’t see before. And so we are right to ask each other hopeful questions, like: “Where or in whom have you given up hope of seeing God’s acting? Would you be open to your being wrong?”

William Temple once said that

"The world, as we live in it, is like a shop window into which some mischievous person has got overnight, and shifted all the price-labels so that the cheap things have the the high price-labels on them and the really precious things are priced low. We let ourselves be taken in. Repentance means getting those price labels back in the right place."

Getting the labels right begins with James and John: learning to see God’s glory on the cross. And daring to get nearer. This reality is so at odds with everything around us and so much of what we believe - if belief is measured in actions - that this is a hard label to swap: that here, on the tree, is our King and so also the standard for all other power, all other kingships; that here at the cross is where we learn what love is and who God is. And what we learn about God and love on the cross is that God has chosen not to be, except to be with us. This is a hard label to swap. It requires that we see in the One who is pierced the Son of the living God. And it requires that we see ourselves in and the world through God’s eyes as wholly precious, beloved of God, a treasure beyond all knowing: even as Christ himself.

When God looks at you, he sees Christ, says Martin Luther. And also your neighbor. This changes everything. So Jesus tells the disciples:

You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. (1)

With these last words - first among you and slave of all - we are asked to be vulnerable for each other and strangers because we are asked to find our share in Jesus. Says St Paul:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
 who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
 but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
  he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross. (2)

James and John want to be right and left of Jesus in his glory. We do not know what exactly James and John think they are asking of Jesus or how they come to think he can give it to them. Presumably, they are asking for something like to be made top cabinet officials in the new administration. Or maybe not. We aren’t told. The only other mention of right and left in Mark’s gospel will come later, as in: And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. We are probably safe in assuming that James and John are not asking for that. So we are left to wonder what kind of God’s glory is a cross and what it will do to us to return the love of such a God.

Amen.


SFH. 10.21.12
___________


(1) Mark 10:42-44
(2) Phil 2:1-8

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