July 25, 2007

St. James the Elder sermon: Mark 10.35-45

July 25 is set aside for remembering and honoring St. James the Apostle, called “the Elder” or “Greater.” But the Gospel reading for today doesn’t honor him very much, does it? I imagine he would like us to forget this episode: for James and John, already privileged, are asking for the highest privilege: “Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory.”

Our prayers are often not answered in the way we would like or expect. James and John did not know what they were asking, because they did not understand the kingdom of God or what Jesus’ “glory” really is. Today’s Gospel shows us that the glory of God is in suffering, and the majesty of His kingdom is in sacrifice. Like St. Mary Magdalene’s day on Sunday, we see again when we remember a saint, we are really remembering and honoring Jesus, who worked His grace in and for the saint.

They are nothing if not bold in their prayer: “We want You to do for us whatever we ask.” But true asking, the right kind of asking, does not ask for the self, except for virtues of charity, forgiveness, patience, self-control, and the like. The question Jesus asks is one put to you as well: “What do you want Me to do for you?” The answer to that question reveals the state of our heart. The answer to that question reveals the state of our life before God. “What do you want?” In our own private prayers, when we pour out our souls before God, it is hard to say, “Dear Father, I know what I want, but teach me to know, accept, and even rejoice in what You want. Thy will be done.”

What does James want? “Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory.” Jesus replies, “You do not know what you ask.” Yet even in His rebuke, we see that the LORD is good, for He is patient with them. These men, who would become the Holy Apostles, are squabbling like boys on a playground. None of the disciples were not innocent. Surprised by the audacity of James and John staking a claim for seats as Jesus’ deputies in His kingdom, the other ten saw themselves being edged out in the struggle for power and influence. If people are taking advantage of their position, taking things they haven’t earned, and not showing respect for others, one can become jealous and resentful – and that reaction too shows a misunderstanding of Jesus’ kingdom.

Where will Jesus be enthroned as King? On the cross. There was the title written, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”? And there were also, “With [Jesus] … crucified two robbers, one on His right and the other on His left” [Mk. 15.27]. That is why, when James and John ask to sit, one on Jesus’ right and the other on His left in His glory, Jesus says, “You do not know what you ask.” The positions of right and left in His glory have been allotted to those robbers who would be crucified with Him. The glory and kingdom of God is in suffering, in giving Himself away for the benefit of us poor sinners. Jesus is glorified on the cross. That is His cup and His baptism.

Jesus calls that “death a Baptism because by it He cleansed the world” [Chrysostom]. Jesus doesn’t demand cleansing in others; He does it Himself. Jesus does not demand a ransom and payment from His subjects, but rather offers the ransom Himself. That’s what kind of King He is. “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

Christ Jesus our Lord has already placed us in the position of highest honor. He has made Himself our Brother, and ransomed us from the vice-grip of unending death. So, what do you want?

Our answer should be, “To have and live in that ransom forever, and to become like Jesus.” Our real answer is that we want all kinds of other things – changes in work, family, church, money, time. In all of these things, we have to learn to answer Jesus’ question, “What do you want?” with the answer, “You know what I want, dear Jesus – but what would You have me to want?”

Again, Jesus does this Himself, in our stead, when He prayed to His Father on the night when He was betrayed, “Not as I will, but as You will” [Mt. 26.39].

St. James learned to say that, and was beheaded. Yet what even is death, if it is true that nothing shall be “able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” [Epistle]? Tonight Jesus asks you and me the questions He asked St. James: “What do you want?” and, “Can you drink the cup that I drink?”

“Lord Jesus, what I want is riddled with sin and selfishness; and no, I cannot drink the cup that you drank. But I can drink the cup that you give, the cup of forgiveness and thanksgiving that is Your true blood. In that cup forgive me for the unholy things that I want, and teach me to want what You want.”

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