Jesus is still making his way to Jerusalem. Palm Sunday and Holy Week, the Passion, are just around the corner. Jesus has been and is still traveling with his disciples, along with a growing band of followers. For some reason, as Jesus is focusing on what he just told His follower was about to happen, “we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34 they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again,”James and John think this is good opportunity to proposition Jesus with a request. But before they will make their request known, they ask Jesus for a blank check, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
Jesus had just explained everything that was about to happen (condemnation, mocking, spitting and flogging, death, and resurrection) and James and John think that this is the time to set themselves up as the Son of G-d’s right and left hand men. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Jesus is focused on what is about to happen and it seems like James and John are focused on themselves and their own station.
On first glance, when we read this we think, “Come on James and John, how do you still not get it?! What has been so unclear to you over the past three years that you would think now is the right time to make that sort of a request? This request proves that you have not been paying attention.”
When we are presented with a fearful situation, whether you are eight months old or 80 years young, our bodies and minds respond in one of three ways: fluff, freeze, and focus. Fluff is when the hair on the back of your neck stands up, raising goosebumps across your body. This seems like an odd reaction until we look to our ancestors and animals around us today and see that in a fearful situation, fluff makes you look bigger, a more formidable force than you usually would be.
Freeze is just that, something fearful happens and we freeze. A months ago while driving back from visiting family, a tractor trailer decided it wanted to in our lane. It wanted to be in the exact spot on 495 that our car was in. Allison was driving and as I saw the truck moving our way I wanted to shout, “Look Out!” but all I could muster were a few “uh uh’s.” I froze. Focus is a part of both fluff and freeze.
Focus is our bodies attempt to direct all energy and attention to the threat in front of us, so that your body can react, staying safe until the threat passes. In one way or another, we all respond to fear in one of these ways or in a combination of them.
The beauty of the Gospels is that one story is connected to and influences the next. While we could read Mark 10:35-45 in insolation, if we do that we miss that three verses earlier, just before Jesus drops the whole painful death and resurrection thing on the disciples, His disciples were scared. The NRSV says it like this, “They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.”
When we read that the disciples were afraid their odd and self-righteous request to be at Jesus’ right and left hand loses it’s arrogance and ignorance as we see that their request was rooted in fear. Jesus had told them what was going to happen when they arrived in Jerusalem. If Jesus was to be handed over, tortured, and killed, what would become of His followers? Remember, the disciples gave up everything to follow Jesus. They left the safety of their homes, their families, and their jobs to follow a traveling Rabbi who had a knack for answering questions with more questions, and for irritating and undermining the religious and political establishment of the day.
If they, James and John, were following a guy who would be killed, what would happen to them? On the surface their request seems rooted in self-righteousness but when we dive deeper, we see their request was rooted in fear. James and John went from fluff to focus, seeing what was before them.
When Jesus asked if they realized what they were requesting, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with,” their response is what Stanley Hauerwas refers to as “Bravado.” James and John had no idea what they were requesting or if they could bear the cost. All they knew was that there was a threat to them, and that being placed at Jesus right and left might somehow prevent what they thought was inevitable.
Who sat at His right and left was not up to Jesus. As Jesus makes His way to Jerusalem he was following the will of the One who sent him, and according to verse 38 it is received by those whom it was prepared for, “to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” So while James and John will drink for the same cup as Jesus and will be baptized in the same way as Jesus, their request was rejected because the place they requested had not been prepared for them.
The fear of what was to come, experienced by the disciples is not much different from the fear many of us experience today. We see the news and there are wars being waged around the world. Political infighting is no longer isolated to Capitol Hill. When markets react to these things we wonder if the saving all we can we’ve been doing will be enough. So we react. We fluff. We freeze. We focus. We do these things all the while hiding what’s going on and how it is affecting us from our children and those depending on us.
In His response to James and John, Jesus told the disciples and the scriptures tell us today that we are invited to live this same life, facing Jerusalem through the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Communion. In our baptisms we are inited into Christ’s Holy Church, shedding our own selves and donning Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Not our own life, death, and resurrection but rather the life, death, and resurrection of the One who calls us. If that is our initiation, then Communion is an invitation to this and every community of faith to assume childlike reliance on G-d and live the way of the crucified cross. This way of life is what Jesus is talking about when he said, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and 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.”
Servant. Slave. Giving up one’s own life and agenda for the sake of caring for others.
What Jesus said to the disciples shapes our lives as followers of Jesus, individually, and as a community. Discipleship means following Jesus with childlike reliance and living a cross-bearing life that resists the power and prestige we grasp for when our own security is in question.
Jesus lived this cross-bearing life to the point of death so that we can do likewise, faithfully, evening though, like James and John we continue to allow fear to consume and drive our decisions, worrying about the security ourselves and our families, our status, and our station. Christ’s ransom for us frees each of us from slavery to fear-based decision making and invites us to serve one another.