Sermon delivered on Sunday, Trinity 20B, October 21, 2012, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
Lectionary texts: Job 38.1-7, 34-41; Psalm 104.1-9, 25, 37b; Hebrews 5.1-10; Mark 10.35-45.
Today’s Gospel Reading from Mark introduces us to two Apostles, men who have been living and working with Jesus, and who we might expect are living extraordinary lives, but in this story we see them in a not so favorable light.
In this passage from Mark we see James, often called James the Greater, and his brother John coming to Jesus and seeking to gain a preferential place in what at this time they believed the coming Messianic Kingdom. The same story also comes to us in the Gospel of Mathew which further elaborates that they came not just by themselves but with their mother, who also begged for a special place for her sons in the Kingdom.
In fairness, they had been among the first of those to follow Jesus, having been formerly disciples of John the Baptiser. They also came from a family of significance. Their Father, Zebedee was not only a fisherman, but appears, to have been the owner of several fishing boats and employed the men who served on them. The brothers, while expected to work on the boats, would have experienced a preferred way of life. They would have had status and it was status that they or perhaps, their mother, expected.
The brothers came from an ambitious family and that ambition is seen in this episode. It was an ambition that we find perhaps a little hard to understand as we recall from last weeks Gospel reading, where Jesus, with his disciples gather around him, had taken a child in his arms and told them that whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter into it.
Jesus addresses the men’s request and makes clear to them that their statement that they are willing to drink the cup – the cup of suffering, will indeed come true, but that the positions of greatest in the Kingdom belong to the Father. Jesus reminds them that whoever wants to be greatest in the Kingdom, must become the servant of all. A lesson he will reinforce at the Last Supper when he washed the disciples feet.
Dare we ask ourselves how ambitious are we? Are we more interested in title and position, than service. To strive to advance is not wrong, but when we step on other people to do so, are we acting like these Apostles who strove to put themselves first? Do we see that in God’s eyes, that the greatest are those that serve others? Often such service can mean sacrifice and in some cases suffering.
These brothers, James and John, were also known for their quick and probably extreme tempers. So much so that they were called by Jesus the Sons of Thunder. This was not meant as a term of affection. It is a term used only once by Jesus and never used again by any of the others. In Luke, the 9th Chapter, we have the story of Jesus heading toward Jerusalem and coming to a Samaritan Town, where they were refused service once the people there knew that they were Jews.
(It is necessary to understand that the division between the Samaritans and the Jews, once a common people, had grown so intense that to called it mutual hatred would not be too strong. It had all the characteristic of racial prejudice and more.)
Back to the brothers, James and John, when they saw the way that the Samarians were treating Jesus, they said ” Lord do you want us to command fire to come down from Heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” They had be comes so upset, so angry and out of control, and they were so prejudiced, that they really wanted to kill these people. Jesus turned and rebuked them. In today’s language, he really chewed them out for their clearly wrong thinking. He told them that the Son of Man came not to destroy lives but to save them.
How well do we control our tempers? When people treat us badly, do we hold them up in prayer or are we tempted to wish that they would go some place warmer? I know when I am driving, and some other driver cuts me off or does something that I consider stupid or reckless, praying for them is not the first thing that comes to my mind. I have found that if I imagine the Jesus is sitting in my passenger seat, that I more quickly let that initial feeling go and take a more loving approach. After all, I really don’t want to be chewed out by Jesus, though in all honestly, sometimes, he still needs to do that to me.
Prejudices – we all have them. The question is do we let them control how we related to others. Are we willing to come into others lives, the lives of people that are different from us, so that those lives may be made fuller by experiencing the Love of Jesus through us? James and John also it would appear did not like the thought that others could have the power that they enjoyed as followers of the Christ. Again in Mark, the 9th Chapter, we recall the story of a man who was casting out Demons in the name of Jesus even though not one of the Twelve. They wanted to stop him. He was encroaching on their territory. Jesus has to again instruct them, telling them that when one does a miracle in the Name of Jesus that person cannot quickly say any thing bad about Jesus. Are we willing to share our power as Children of God – the power to encourage, heal, lead, or share the Gospel? Are we willing to let other Brothers and Sisters in this community of St. Augustine take the lead? Are we willing to work with other Brothers and Sisters of the Lord from other expressions of God’s one, holy and catholic church?
Now up to this point we have been picking on James and John. Understandable given that they were the focus of today’s Gospel, but they are not the only Apostles with shall we say less than perfect characteristics. The Apostle Peter was another example of being a very human Apostle. He was known to speak first and think later. He had the wisdom to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah and the foolishness to deny that Jesus had to suffer and die. He was the Rock and he was the stumbling block. He had the courage to step out of the boat to walk on the water, and the weakness of faith that caused him to begin to sink. He was quick to promise to be forever faithful even unto death, and when the time came to be courageous, he denied our Lord three times.
How many times have we spoken first and thought later? I regret to say that I do it way too often. There have been times that I have committed to do some project or activity and been unable to follow through or have followed through very poorly because I have not counted the cost of living up to what I committed to do. Are we willing to step out of the boat – to respond to God’s call? Maybe its being a Reader or Visiting the Retirement Home or Visiting the Sick. We should not be surprised that when we respond to God’s call to step out that we can get scarred. We can be overwhelmed and feel like we are sinking. It is then that we need to remember that even Peter needed as he was beginning to sink to feel the presence of Our Lord to sustain him. Examining our lives have there been times when we while saying that we are believers in Christ, have not had the courage to share our faith with others?
Then there is my personal favorite of the Apostles. Thomas, often called Thomas the Doubter, after he demanded proof that the Lord was really risen. He needed to know that Jesus was truly alive; he was not just willing to take someone else word for it. There are some who would say that Christians should be strident and so confident in their faith that one should never have a doubt about their faith. I believe that Thomas shows us that even Apostles can have doubts and that Jesus is willing to meet us in those doubts and in doing so Jesus shows us tangibly how much he loves us.
In today’s business world, if Jesus had hired a professional recruiter or human resource firm, it is doubtful that any of the Twelve would have made the cut except perhaps one. After the death of Jesus, all the Apostles and other disciples, cowered in fear, totally immobilized, until they were transformed by the Gift of God’s Holy Spirit. After receiving that Gift, they were able, despite their human weakness and limits, to give birth to what today we call the church.
James the Greater bcame known for his compassion and his willingness to witness to the Gospel – so much so that he was the first of the Apostles to be martyred. John, a “Son of Thunder” became known as John the Beloved. Known for his courage and the care that he gave to Mary, the Mother of Jesus. He blessed the Church with several books of the Bible.
Peter was able to serve as Leader of the early Christian community providing a Rock upon which it could build and grow and was probably the first of the Apostles to take the Good News to the Gentiles. In time, he had the courage to also be a Martyr.
Thomas that Doubter was so strong in his faith that he was able to spread the Gospel all the way to India.
Now when I began this talk, I said the theme was Apostle are human too. It was not Apostles were human too. The term that we use as Apostles means one who is sent out. One sent out to witness to the life and love of Jesus the Son of God and Messiah and the Good News that the divide between humans and God has been overcome. We by the grace of the Holy Spirit are all called to be Apostles. To be ambassadors for Christ.
Like the Twelve, we have our limitations, our weakness, and our failures – some very great, but with the Grace of the Holy Spirit, we like the Apostles of the New Testament, can still be people that are sent out into the World to bring it God’s love and Good News. We can be bridge builders helping others to find hope and fellowship with God. In the end, when we are gone, perhaps they will say of us, we were human, but we were also Apostles. Amen.