Text: Mark 10 32-45 (greatness in service)
This past Monday afternoon, we read a version of today's Gospel story at church school in Coronach. (In Rockglen, we read a different Gospel story in what was our first church school on Thursday afternoon -- the one about Jesus welcoming children since that seemed like an appropriate choice for a first class. Five children came, including Shelby and Sadie who are here this morning).
This story about two brothers, James and John, who ask to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus when he is in his glory hit a chord with the children. They themselves are often focused on small privileges such as who gets to blow the candle out after opening worship, who gets a second cookie during snack time, who gets to sit beside whom, and so on. And when there are 20 children -- as there have been so far this fall in Coronach -- the noise volume of the requests for such privileges can become quite high!
So I was pleased that this week's Gospel passage was about a childish request made by two of the disciples. The children's attention seemed to shift as we got to the part of the story where James and John ask for pride of place. Perhaps in these two brothers the children finally saw some disciples with whom they could identify!
At this point, Jesus' journey with his disciples from Galilee to Jerusalem is almost over. He has just given his followers a third and final prediction of his passion, death and resurrection. And yet James and John still don't get it. Jesus' glory is one that comes from a baptism of suffering and death, and from drinking a cup that is composed of tears and blood.
Jesus agrees with James and John that they will be baptized in the same baptism as him and will drink the same cup as him. But the privileges that flow from this baptism and this cup -- the two great sacraments of our life in the church -- are the privileges of a servant and not the privileges of a great leader.
Jesus reminds the 12 disciples that he came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. He also says that James and John (and by extension, all of us) will follow him in his great sacrifice -- drinking the bitter cup of suffering and being baptized by the fires of crucifixion. There is new life and glory to be found in this baptism and in this cup, but it is not the glory pursued by the world's rulers. To be baptized with Christ into his death and resurrection is to find joy in the death of one's ego and a new life that is expressed in serving others and not in fulfilling childish desires for individual advancement.
Of course, we do not arrive at a mature place of selfless service without first going through many of life's ups and downs. This is why I love the metaphor of Jesus' journey with his disciples to Jerusalem. It is a journey filled with wonders and marvels; with misunderstandings and bickering; with friends who fight with, and care for, one another; and it is a journey that ends in pain, death, and new life.
We are all disciples on this journey. Even when we stumble or fail to understand, God in Christ leads us forward. We begin the journey with baptism by water -- as did Jesus with his baptism in the Jordan River at the start of his ministry in Galilee and as will happen (or occurred) this morning in Rockglen for three children. We end life's journey with a baptism by fire and the bitter cup of death, which Jesus models for us in his passion, death and resurrection. We cannot escape this second baptism and this bitter cup. They are our greatest fear and also the greatest gift of grace that we will ever receive.
But before this bitter, fearful and glorious end, we have to live our lives . . .
The children who come to church school in Coronach and Rockglen have a lot to teach me, probably because I am not a parent. The ones in kindergarten are willing to do pretty much anything and follow all directions. The ones in later grades are more easily bored and have more challenging questions. All of them -- like James and John -- know what they want and have no difficulty in asking for it.
Being with kids can remind us of our own journey through life -- how passionate we can be in our likes and dislikes; how bitter our disappointments can be; and how delightful our fulfilled wishes can seem.
The children we baptized today in Rockglen have only shown the first glimmers of the people they will become. The children in church school spend all day long trying out new aspects of their egos and figuring out their own capabilities. After our first baptism, life can seem glorious, bright, and full of promise.
We who are older also have learned a lot about the difficulties of living in this broken society. While we remember the promise of childhood, the hard knocks of life point us to our own cross and to the inevitable second baptism of fire that is found in confronting worldly powers and creating families and communities in difficult conditions.
We know that the cup we are forced to drink in this life will sometimes taste as bitter as the one Jesus drinks in Gethsemane on the night of his arrest. We know that glory awaits us. But it is not the same glory we chased as children or young adults. It is a glory that comes from leaving behind our childish egos -- as essential as they are -- for a more mature life in Christ. This new life is about community and service and not about individual privilege . . .
Besides church school, one other theme came into my mind when preparing this worship service. It comes from the passion here in Saskatchewan for our one professional sports team, the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
While I was in Alberta last week, I taped the documentary, "The 13th Man" on TSN. It is about the history of the Roughriders and its fans. It focuses on the unbelievable heartbreak of Grey Cup 2009. In that game, Montreal squeaked out a victory over Saskatchewan with no time on the clock because of a penalty caused by too many Roughriders on the field.
Does anyone here remember that? (Just joking!) In November 2009, I was a student minister in Didsbury Alberta and I watched the game in astonishment. As a non-Saskatchewan resident, I had only a vague sense of the pain of that moment. But living here for 16 months and watching the TSN documentary have now given me a better sense of what that defeat must have felt like for so many here.
One of the many things that struck me in the story of that defeat in 2009 was the refusal of either the players or the fans to name the 13th man who was most directly responsible for the penalty that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory for the Roughriders at the very last second. Some fans who had always prided themselves on collectively being called the 13th man -- the roaring partisans in the stands whose vocal love for our team always provides the Roughriders with an extraordinary home team advantage -- came forward to also identify themselves as the 13th man who caused the Grey Cup defeat in 2009.
This gracious movement reminded me of two things. The first is the 1960 historical movie Spartacus, which tells about a slave revolt in ancient Rome. At the end of the movie when the slave army of Spartacus has been defeated, the victorious Roman soldiers need to identify the slave leader identify himself so they can crucify him. A Roman general demands that Spartacus step forward from the other slaves whom he has led so well. He does so and proudly says "I am Spartacus." But then another slave steps forward and repeats the line "I am Spartacus," then another, then another, until all the men have stepped forward to receive the glory and the agony of identifying with their leader.
Is it not the same with baptized Christians? In our baptism, we are baptized into the life, death and resurrection of Christ. We are marked by the sign of the cross. We gain a new identity, not as individuals, but as part of the Body of Christ. As St. Paul says in Romans, "All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life."
Who is the 13th man? All of us in Saskatchewan are the 13th man. Who is Spartacus? All the slaves who battled for their freedom from the Romans are Spartacus. Who is Christ? All of us who have been baptized into his death and resurrection are Christ.
The Roughriders were defeated in 2009, but all who make up the 13th man found continuing self-respect by standing in solidarity with the team. The Roman slaves were defeated, but they lived a life of love and solidarity by fighting for freedom. Christ was defeated, but he and his disciples were raised to new life in God after fighting and dying for the values of love, compassion, and truth that shaped the journey of their lives . . .
Now to be frank, there is a lot about professional sports that reminds me more of James and John on the road to Jerusalem and less about Christ raised to new life after his passion and death. For instance, much of the love for a team like the Roughriders is tied to worldly glory.
But there is a lot about the 13th man that seems to move beyond this and to point to the path that we hope our children will follow during their lives. The 13th man is more about the journey than the destination. It is more about being part of a huge province-wide family than it is about being an individual. It is about a passion that yearns for success on the field but one that also thrives in the face of defeat, even that most bitter defeat of November 2009.
On the journey of our lives, there will be many highs and lows. With the grace of God, we can learn from both. In life's baptisms by fire we may even rise to new life within God's eternity this side of the grave.
We also face with confidence the final baptism of death. It will not lead us to the childish dreams of individual glory modelled for us by James and John. But we are sure that it leads us to the glory of new life in Christ; a new life beyond all the passionate desires and bitter disappointments of our egos; and a new life that is awake to all of humanity, all of life, the eternal now, and the glorious love of God that flows from sacrifice, service, and the Way of the Cross.
For the Twelve Disciples so long ago, the 13th man was Jesus. So may it be for us today.