Sermon for the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost, October 17, 2021 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Job 38:1-7, 34-41+Psalm 104:1-9, 25, 37+(Hebrews 5:1-10)+Mark 10:35-45

If we ever needed evidence that the people who inhabit our gospels, those who surrounded Jesus, were actual real, flesh and blood humans, we need look no farther than today, when James and John behave in full-bodied, self-promoting human fashion. Hey, Jesus, let us sit on your left and on your right when you win the prize, okay? These two brothers have hitched their wagons to what they believe to be a winner, and they want to make sure he remembers their loyalty when it’s all over with.

Jesus does a lot of rebuking in Mark’s gospel, especially in just the past chapter or so. He rebuked Peter for scolding him after first predicting his own death. He rebuked the disciples who were arguing who among them was the greatest. He rebuked John who wanted to prohibit some outsider from casting out demons. He rebuked all of them for keeping children away from him. But here, after his third and most graphic prediction of his suffering and death, he doesn’t rebuke them. He actually sounds more exhausted than exasperated.

“Y’all don’t know what you’re asking for, and it isn’t mine to give anyway.”

It’s easy for us, sitting on this side of the crucifixion and resurrection, to see how little they understood. They say they can drink the cup and undergo the baptism, but they don’t know – like we do – that it’s a cup of suffering and a baptism by the cross. They can’t recognize that there were two on Jesus’s right and left at the end, the two who were crucified with him. They can’t recognize that Jesus’s definition of winning is not the kind of success they are hoping for.

One of the most tragic parts of this episode with James and John is that they seem to view relationship with Jesus as a competition. They didn’t ask this question in front of everybody. No, they found a moment alone with Jesus, almost as if to say, “We’re the special ones. We’ll be with you to the end.” And of course, they weren’t. None of them were. It’s no wonder, though, that the other ten were angry. It was a betrayal of the community they had built around Jesus. It was to risk a rupture in those relationships just to get ahead.

And this is the truly familiar story. Getting ahead at the expense of someone else. Turning away from a faithful friend for the person who’s going to help you advance or get noticed. Like geraniums turning toward the light, we seek the reflected glory of the successful ones, the rich ones, the powerful ones. We do it at the expense of relationships. We do it at the expense of our own emotional and spiritual health.

Jesus is here to tell you that you’re doing it all wrong. The powerful, he says, are tyrants and are going to turn on you, use you up, spit you out. What we do is put others first. We are servants, διάκονος. No, we are slaves, δοῦλος. And we don’t want to be slaves of anyone. We want to be masters of the universe. But that job is already taken.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” God thunders at Job out of the whirlwind, “when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? (Job 38:4, 7).

Poor Job. For 37 chapters he has suffered the death of his family and the loss of his flocks and home and is covered with oozing sores. He has proclaimed his innocence in the face of his unhelpful friends who tell him to just fess up to his failings and God will make things right. But Job is innocent. And God knows that Job is innocent. Rather than consoling Job or making some defense, God goes off on a stream of consciousness accounting of God’s great works as if to say, “you know nothing about anything, young man.”

This is Jesus’s response to James and John, too. You just don’t understand. And who could? The cup of blessing shared at the Last Supper becomes a cup of suffering that Jesus begs to be taken from him. Baptism with water becomes the torture of the cross. The request to sit on his right and left becomes the plea from one of those crucified with him: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Not, “can I sit at your right or your left” but just “remember me.”

An implement of suffering, the cross, becomes a symbol of triumph. Jesus Christ, the lamb that was slain, is risen and ascended, worthy “to receive glory and honor and power” (Revelation 4:11).

The first will be last and the last first.

The Word who was with God when the foundations of the world were laid took on human flesh, coming not for us to serve him, but to serve us, and to give his life for us. As a ransom, releasing us from captivity. Theologians have turned this word “ransom” into calculated payment in blood to an angry god or to the devil, but as Lutheran pastor David Lose says

But what if Jesus is saving us from ourselves? What if Jesus is ransoming us from the future we think we want, from the baptism and cup James and John believe they need, from the glory they/we misunderstand, from the life we’ve been urged to strive after but ultimately is not abundant life, from viewing companions and competitors and fellow children of God as threats?

Lose continues

The great irony of the human condition is that when God came to us fully and completely as we are, joining God’s abundant love to our mortal life, embodying God’s complete acceptance and grace in human flesh, we completely misunderstood it, fled from it, were threatened from it and, ultimately, put the Word of God and Son of Man to death.[1]

And the real miracle, of course, is that Jesus goes through with it anyway. He knows that Peter and James and John and all the rest are not up to the task, not yet, at least. He knows they don’t get it, that they will run when the going gets tough. And yet still he came and gave himself for us anyway.

My friends, the Good News is that Jesus knows that we lust for privilege and power and worldly success, that we don’t want to be last, and we don’t want to be servants. And still he comes and loves us, all the way to the cross.


ASEPSermon for the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost, October 17, 2021 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas