Hebrews 5:1-10 ; Mark 10:35-45
We’ve been reading and thinking about the difficult demands Jesus placed on his disciples. He called them away from family and careers; he had them wander around the small villages of Galilee, under the constant threat of danger and violence from nasty King Herod. Jesus asked at least one would-be follower to sell everything and give it to the poor. What do we do with those demands? Probably none of us feels like we are Jesus’ followers in that way. So should we feel guilty, or inadequate, as I have sometimes felt in my early days as a Christian, and still feel that way a little today?
Well, apparently Mark does not want us to develop an inferiority complex from comparing ourselves with the disciples. Because despite leaving everything to follow Jesus, they again and again show themselves to be very flawed. They display the same human flaws that many of us are all too familiar with; this is the humanity that Hebrews calls “ignorant and wayward” and “subject to weakness.” Now Hebrews tells us that Jesus “is able to deal gently with” our flawed humanity, which is just what we see in our story from Mark today.
In today’s reading from Mark, we see the flaws of the brothers Zebedee, James and John. They apparently are fantasizing about sharing the limelight with Jesus, when he comes into his Kingdom. Even though Jesus, right before our reading, for a third time was telling them that his kingdom could only come after he was arrested, mocked, spat on, flogged, and killed. They just keep not getting it. And so James and John, in starry-eyed ignorance, try to entice Jesus into making a big promise: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” First of all, never go up to anyone, let alone the Son of God, and say: “Promise me you’ll give me whatever I ask for!” The answer should always be no.
Jesus’ response to them about drinking the same cup and receiving the same baptism as he will are confusing. Not for James and John: they confidently say, “Oh sure, we can do that. No problem.” What Jesus is probably referring to is the persecution and suffering that will be unleashed on him and potentially on his followers. Discipleship, advancing the Kingdom of God in this corrupt world, inevitably brings persecution and suffering. And Jesus tells them that they indeed will drink this cup and be baptized with this persecution. But still they won’t get to share the winners’ stand and receive the silver and bronze medal. In fact, when Jesus says that the places at his right and left hand are prepared from someone else, he (or Mark) is probably referring to the two criminals crucified with Jesus. They were not Jesus’ over-confident disciples, but two sorry losers who are caught up in and destroyed by the sin of the world. It is they who, by a great mystery, share in Jesus’ glory.
I have frequently mentioned the next verses about how the community of Christians are not to lord authority over one another. Some of my favorite verses. But let’s jump to that mysterious final verse. Maybe there’s a clue here to solve the problem of discipleship and its radical demands: “The Son of Man (that’s Jesus) came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” This for some people, and in many of our old hymns, gets to the core of what Jesus came for, much more so than the calls to discipleship. But for others, this verse makes little sense. Does it mean Jesus had to pay off the devil, who held human beings for ransom? Or is Jesus paying off God, whose wrath demanded a punishment for sin? Did Jesus buy our freedom from God’s punishment with his life? One of my friends in the scholarly world has called that idea “divine child abuse.”
“Give his life as a ransom” must refer to the cross. The idea of a vicarious death on behalf of God’s people was already beautifully and mysteriously sung about in the lectionary from Isaiah 53, which we didn’t have time to look at today. And the whole book of Hebrews, where our first reading is taken from, is a long and sometimes very difficult meditation on this question: how does Jesus’ death save us? We could spend a lot of time in Hebrews. I’m not even going to try to explain what it means that Jesus was “a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.” I know how disappointed you all must be.
Jesus’ atoning death on the cross is the great mystery of Christian faith. By calling it a mystery, I don’t mean that we can’t say anything about it—like, “What happened to Amelia Earhart?” It’s a mystery because all our words are never enough, and never get it right. There’s too much that would need to be said about the cross. It’s the kind of topic I like to spend time on closer to Easter.
But let’s try a quick go at it, remembering that this is no final or complete answer. When you draw near God and receive God into your life, one of the things you experience is the absolute demand of God’s righteousness or justice. God sees all, judges all, and calls the world into perfection. We feel that holiness of God and sometimes draw back like Peter once did, saying “Go away from me Lord. I am a sinful man.” The demands that Jesus puts on his disciples are one situation-specific expression of that absolute demand for a justice and perfection worthy of God.
Those radical demands are not false. Why don’t we sell what we have and give to the poor? We could do that. Why don’t we leave our careers and dedicate the rest of our lives to helping people in need, or fighting racism and exploitation? We could be saints like that. We could strive for perfect justice. Why don’t we even succeed in overcoming those selfish or destructive habits that we’ve picked up? It’s not impossible. Those “Why don’t we” questions are the absolute justice of God, calling us out of the compromises we have made with the way the world is, and calling us forward to the perfection of all things in God’s kingdom. If God were a complete stranger to us, if God left us alone, we wouldn’t feel those questions calling us out. We might just say, “Hey, I’m just trying to get by the way I am.” Or “live and let live.”
That absolute justice and perfection of God is what we need to be ransomed from. Once we come to know God, and to see what perfect justice and perfect mercy and goodness is, we can’t help but feel indebted to that perfection. We know we are under an infinite debt, and that we could never do enough to fulfill our obligation to make ourselves and the world better; so we just try to ignore that debt. We compromise with the world as it is, and with ourselves in our flaws. But that’s just a form of bad faith; it’s just running away from this debt we feel to God’s perfection. We need to face that debt and be freed from it.
And Jesus is our ransom. He perfected human obedience to God, not by actually conquering the forces of injustice—that would require violence. Rather, he testified to that perfect justice, which includes perfect forgiveness, and he enacted it around him, mostly with those who were suffering from the injustice of the world. He happened to do this at just the right time and place, what Scripture calls “the fullness of time.” Because of Jesus’ particular time and place, his perfect obedience forced the hand of the violent injustice that had captured and corrupted even God’s holy city of Jerusalem—namely, the Roman Empire in league with corrupt Jewish leaders, and maybe even the fickle crowds and disciples. And so, being executed on the cross, he exposed the total fallenness of the world, right where we should have seen the world at its best, its most perfect. And right on the same cross, he showed forth God’s boundless mercy and forgiveness. As Hebrews put it: “Having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”
We’re just scratching the surface of this great mystery. Frankly, I barely understand what I’m saying. But there’s enough there, I think, to shed a new light on the problem of discipleship. We all have died to ourselves in baptism, and raised in Christ. We have been totally reclaimed by God as God’s own people, called to do God’s will. And there is no inherent reason we should not give up everything, sell everything we have, and leave it all to serve the Lord, maybe even better than the clueless disciples.
But Jesus took our flawed and limited humanity, “ignorant and wayward” and “subject to weakness,” and he, uniquely, was called to offer himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the people. We don’t have to sacrifice everything to be Jesus’ disciples, and to do God’s will. Jesus fulfills that perfection for us, so that we can still see that it is possible, we can see what perfection looks like, and yet know that each of us can only ever fulfill it in a small way, at best. He is our perfect high priest, mediating between God and all the people, the “many” for whom Jesus came to give his life as a ransom.
So no one of us needs to be a disciple in that sense of giving up everything, selling all we have, leaving it all for Jesus. Neither does any of us need to be a total disciple to be included in this salvation of Jesus. We share that sacrifice among us, with each exercising self-giving in accordance with our gifts and our readiness. Each of us may be called at the right time and place to give up much, and all of us give up something for the good of this body. And we all gather each week in worship, giving thanks to and recognizing the one who showed for perfect giving to God and to all, even unto death, and who in the same death on the cross freed us from the terrible burden of giving up our good life as creatures to the infinite demands of justice. That is why we worship this one, the Christ.
That’s all very heavy, and it could use a lot of unpacking. I share it with you now because I hope it can help you understand why worship, this weird thing we are doing right now, is at the heart of this call to discipleship. You have heard the call to Jesus’ disciples to leave everything to follow him out there, to serve the world. All of us will obey that call in lesser or greater ways, depending on whether we are ready and able. Regardless, all of us share in that blessing of being God’s chosen people and holy presence in the world. We share it with each other, and with the whole church in all times and places, and only because Jesus himself first fulfilled the perfection of our humanity, and allowed us to share in it in our weak and flawed way. Let us follow him as we are called and are able, but first of all recognize and glorify him as our high priest and mediator before God.