Mark 10. 35-45
It was a lovely sunny afternoon, that day. The disciples and the crowds had been following Jesus all around the countryside, through Galilee and Judea, listening to his teaching, hanging on his every word. Towards sunset, as the crowd started to cast about for places to camp for the night, Jesus motioned to his disciples. Instantly, they stopped laying out their sleeping blankets, and clustered around him. What did the Master want? What did he need from them?
With a nod of his head, Jesus motioned for his closest friends to follow him. They moved off up a slope to a patch of shade under an olive tree. The disciples sat down, teasing Peter as he lowered his slightly arthritic hip onto the dirt. Matthew and Nathaniel leaned against the trunk of the tree. And then all 12 pairs of eyes focused on the Master. What was he going to say to them? This was going to be interesting.
Jesus seemed hesitant. What he was going to tell them was going to upsetting for them to hear. It was going to shatter some of them...they would not understand it. They would protest. Some might even decide that they didn't want to follow him anymore. Jesus took a deep breath, and began.
"We are going up to Jerusalem," he said. Judas and Andrew exchanged glances. Yes, their eyes communicated. We know. We're not stupid. Jesus went on,
"And when we get there, the Son of Man is going to be betrayed to the Chief Priests and the Teachers of the Law."
Simon began to protest. "What?!" he said. "How can that happen? You've got all these crowds...." Jesus held up his hand, and Simon fell silent.
"And..." Jesus went on, "They will condemn him to death"
It was Andrew's turn now. "No, Lord!" he protested. "That's impossible. Look how everyone loves you! Everyone is following you". Jesus shook his head. That sad look the Disciples had been noticing all day clouded his eyes again.
"The Chief Priests and the Teachers of the Law will condemn him to death," Jesus repeated. "And then they will turn him over to the Gentiles - to the Romans - to be mocked and flogged and crucified." The Disciples erupted. Each one tried to out-do the other with protestations. "No, Lord! We won't let that happen! It's impossible! No-one could do that to you".
Jesus stood back and watched. He let them rail their incomprehension at him for a while. And then, he started smiling. A smile crept into his eyes, and then made its way down to his mouth, until it took possession of his whole face. The Disciples' protests dropped to a low murmur, and then to silence. "Why is he smiling? Has he been winding us up?" Jesus fixed the Disciples with his eyes, and finished his speech,
"But on the third day, he will be raised to life!"
There was silence. Judas turned towards Thadeus and mouthed, "He's cracked!. Must be the sun. Go and get him some water". Thadeus, shook his head. This wasn't the first time that Jesus had said this kind of stuff. Though this time, it looked like Jesus really meant it. Besides, Thadeus wasn't Judas' slave. If Judas wanted to get Jesus some water he could do it himself. Thadeus wanted to stay and see what happened next.
But nothing happened. Having said what he wanted to say, Jesus turned away from the Disciples, and made his way down the slope to the rest of the crowd. The Disciples watched him leave...wondering what it all meant.
Simon was the first to speak. "Well, I believe him," he stated boldly. "Everything else he has ever told us has been completely trustworthy, hasn't it.” He turned to James and John, the so called 'Sons of Thunder'. "Guys, do you remember how Jesus met with Moses and Elijah on that mountain the other day? When only the three of us with were him? If he can do that, I can certainly believe that he could rise from the dead."
"Yes," replied James. "But what happens then? Once he's been raised from the dead. What is he going to do after that?"
Matthew, the former civil servant, piped up. "Well, I reckon he'll start a new Government. I reckon he'll sort out the Romans, and then set up a new, holy Kingdom...you know, that 'Kingdom of God' that he's always been talking about. I wonder who he'll ask to be Chancellor?" Matthew suddenly had a far-way look in his eye.
"And who will he make Prime Minister?" said Andrew. "Simon...that's going to be you!" Simon shook his head modestly - but he smiled as well. Everyone knew that Simon was Jesus' right hand man.
The Disciples continued to banter among themselves. Who would be minister in charge of the drains? they laughed. Who would command the army? But James and John, the Sons of Thunder, went silent. They didn't like the way that their friends were talking. They were not at all happy about having posts in the new Kingdom of God being carved up by the other Disciples like this. James decided he'd had enough.
"See you later, guys." he said. "I'm off to bed. Come on John." John got up off the ground, and followed James down the slope towards the crowd. When they were a little way from the others, James stopped John with a hand on his arm. “Listen”, he said. “Why don’t we go and see Jesus and ask him for jobs in the new government ourselves? If he says it, the others won’t be able to stop us getting the best jobs”
“Do you think he won’t mind?” asked John
James pondered for a moment. “Maybe”, he concluded. But if you don’t ask, you don’t get!
John looked thoughtfully at James. There was a chance here. Perhaps they might just make it, and become Jesus' right hand men. John nodded at James, and together they looked at over at where Jesus was sitting, on a rock, alone on the edge of the camp. They walked carefully over to him, picking their way between sleeping bodies. They approached the Master.
“Um” said James, “Um…Rabbi? Can we bother you for a minute?”
Jesus looked up from his prayers, with a knowing look in his eyes. “Yes, boys. What is it?”
“Rabbi,” said James, “We want you to do for us whatever you ask. Ok?”
Jesus wasn’t going to make any promises. He was more canny than that – and quite used to people trying to trap him into saying something he might later regret.
“What is it?” he said cautiously.
James got ready to make a well-considered plea , backed up with lots and lots of good reasons as to why they should be important officials in the new Government. But John couldn’t contain himself. He was so nervous, that it all came tumbling out!
“We want you to grant for us to sit on your left and on your right when you come into your kingdom! Um…please….”
Jesus looked disappointed. He had hoped for better from these two. He had hoped that perhaps they had begun to understand that his Kingdom was not like that at all. He shook his head, and said, "You will indeed drink from my cup. But to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father." James and John were a bit puzzled, but they were wise enough to know when to back down. What did Jesus mean? We will drink from his cup, but the places of honour are decided by God? That was typical of Jesus. He always talked in riddles.
Unbeknown to James and John, however, they had been followed. Judas, who had never quite trusted the Sons of Thunder, had trailed them from a distance, and had heard the whole conversation from behind a tree. As James and John turned away from Jesus, Judas slipped back through the darkness to the other Disciples. “You’ll never guess what James and John are up to!” he hissed, when he got back…and then proceeded to tell the whole story.
"That's not right!" "Who do they think they are?" The Disciples were livid! After a quick discussion together, they decided that this would just not do, and they all strutted over to where James and John were settling down dejectedly for the night.
Simon, ever the spokesperson, spoke first. "What's this we hear? Have you been up to Jesus to ask for a place on his right and on his left?"
James looked at the ground, and shuffled his feet nervously. "Well, erm…", he mumbled. "We did just have a chat…".
"That's not good enough" replied Simon. "Who do you think you are? Do you think you are better than the rest of us? Do you think Jesus is going to choose either of you over us?"
Jesus, in the meantime, had been sitting on his rock, looking over the camp. He wasn't surprised. Disappointed, but not surprised. He had smiled to himself as he saw Simon stride across the camp over to James and John with the other nine disciples in his wake. Jesus made a decision. It's time for me to intervene here, he thought.
Jesus climbed down from his rock, and wandered down the slope to where the ten disciples were gathered around the other two. As he approached, one of the Disciples, Philip, looked up from the argument, and saw Jesus approaching. He nudged Bartholomew in the ribs and pointed at the approaching Rabbi. Bartholomew nudged Matthew, Matthew nudged Andrew and in a few seconds, the little group of angry men had ceased shouting, and waited for Jesus to approach.
Jesus walked up to them and stopped. He looked around at them with love, but also a little disappointment in his eyes. Into the anger in the air around him, Jesus spoke gently.
"You know how the Gentiles do things, don't you? You know how their rulers lord it over the rest of the people, and how their high officials dominate everyone else?" A few of the Disciples grunted. They knew what Jesus meant - they had seen how the Romans bossed everyone else around. "Well", Jesus went on, "That is not how it shall be with you. Instead, whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant - not your Prime Minister," he said, looking knowingly at Peter, "and not your Chancellor", he said, smiling at Matthew. "And whoever wants to be first among you must be a slave to everyone else. This should not surprise you. The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve. The Son of Man came to give his life away, not to go lording it up over anyone."
And then, the Disciples noticed that Jesus' eyes seemed to become distant. He seemed to be staring off into the distance, over vast miles, and even through time itself. And then, Jesus' voice was heard in a tiny little church in the heart of Portsmouth, in a little church named out of affection for another follower of Jesus, a man called Mark. There was a congregation gathered that morning. A congregation of ordinary people - people just like the Disciples and the other followers of Jesus. These were ordinary people - but people who had heard the call of Jesus, across the millennia - the call to live in ways that were life-giving; the call to live in love with God, and with each other. These were people who longed to hear Jesus speak to them, and longed to hear from him how life could be richer, deeper, more meaningful. And across time, and through the walls of the church that morning, the people of St Mark heard Jesus speaking to them.
"In my service, there is perfect freedom. By serving me, in your homes, in your jobs, in your schools, in your church, in your community - you will find me. By serving me with your time, and with your talents and with your money, you will know me. When you serve others, you serve me. When you reach out to others, you reach out to me."
And all the people, in that little church in North End, said, "Amen".