This sermon relies heavily on the exegetical work of David Lose. I am indebted to Marcus Borg for teaching us the questions to ask of ancient authors and their stories. I am also indebted to the critic of my work who took the time to challenge me to “confess that Jesus died for my sins”. While I do not share my critic’s atonement theology, I am grateful for his willingness to engage in conversation.
Some of you may know that our gospel readings follow a three year lectionary. Earlier this week I received an email from one of the followers of my blog who said, “Now the Gospel has you. Now you will have to confess that Jesus died for your sins.” and so here is the part of the reading that prompted the email: “Anyone among you who aspires to greatness must serve the rest; whoever wants to rank first among you must serve the needs of all. The Human One has come not to be served, but to serve—to give one life in ransom for the many.”
The message that I received had, “TO GIVE ONE LIFE IN RANSOM FOR THE MANY” in capital letters and was underlined. My critic believed that as a progressive preacher, the Gospel had captured me and that I would have to confess that Jesus died for my sins.
Well, I’ll make a confession this morning, in the past, I have always read this story about Jesus with nothing but contempt for the sons of Zebedee. I confess that the characters of James and John have always inspired me to feel more than a little bit smug and I have always felt justified, indeed dare I say it, righteous in treating these two ambitious brothers with more than a little disdain. In fact, I had a sermon ready to preach that pointed out the ridiculous arrogance of this pair of wannabes. My sermon was all done and dusted, when I settled in last night for a quiet night. Somewhere around four this morning, I was awakened by an annoying question that caused me to jump out of my bed. Let me assure you that I am not a morning person and I almost never jump out of bed. But this morning, I realized that the sermon I planned to preach, need to be moved to my computer’s trash bin.
You see, my cleverly worked out sermon failed to take into consideration New Testament scholar Marcus Borg’s insistence that we modern readers of scripture need to be less concerned with questions about whether or not the stories are true; of course they are true. The stories in the New Testament may not have happened the way they are written but these stories do reveal truth. Borg insists that the question we ought to concern ourselves with is not a question about truth but about why; why did the author write the story the way the author wrote the story; what truth is the author trying to reveal.
So, at 4:30 this morning, after a few sips of coffee, listening to the wind howl, it came to me; the truth that the anonymous gospel-storyteller revealed in the telling of this story of James and John the sons of Zebedee who wanted to sit to the right and left of Jesus of Nazareth when he came into glory. It is not a pretty truth; indeed, it is a rather ugly truth. Where once I was content to ridicule and mock James and John for their arrogant self-centred demands, now I must see the ugly truth of my own involvement in the anonymous gospel-storyteller’s attempt to reveal my own arrogance and self-centred nature. The only way I could see the story-teller’s revelation was to put away the layers of interpretation that have built up over the centuries since this carefully crafted story was written.
The anonymous gospel-storyteller that we call Mark wove this tale ever so carefully some forty to fifty years after the death of Jesus. Scholars insist that this particular gospel-storyteller, just like the other three gospel-storytellers, was not an eye-witness to the events of Jesus life. Nevertheless, the truth of these stories continues to reveal the nature of our reality.
Writing some two generations after the events, our anonymous gospel-storyteller is well aware of the effects the truths about the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth are having on the lives of people who are living in fear under the oppressive regime of the Roman Empire. The way in which Jesus of Nazareth responded to the injustices perpetrated by the domination system upheld by the powers that be was so unusual that our anonymous gospel-storyteller was compelled to tell the story of Jesus’ way of being; a way of being that rejected violence as a way of achieving justice. Jesus way of non-violent resistance pointed to a realm in which peace was achieved through justice for all. At the very heart of this alternative realm, this empire envisioned by Jesus lay the truth that Jesus lived and died for.
Jesus passionate belief that at the MYSTERY that his people called the great I AM, YAHWEH, the MYSTERY that we and the generations who have gone before us call God, this MYSTERY is LOVE. Jesus lived proclaiming this LOVE as the way, and the powers that be executed Jesus because LOVE is the only thing that really threatens systems of domination, hatred and greed.
So, why then did the anonymous gospel-storyteller tell the story of the sons of Zebedee the way he did? LOVE, the MYSTERY that we call God, this MYSTERY that Jesus of Nazareth knew as YAHWEH, this MYSTERY that Jesus insisted is LOVE; LOVE is why this story is told the way it is told.
Centuries of interpretation may have obscured our view. But if we look closely, we will see that James and John are not just the sons of Zebedee. James and John, are you and me. For in the deepest, darkest, part of you and of me, their lies a fear; the fear that in the end the powers of empire will be too much for us to bear; the fear that only power beyond our abilities will defeat the powers of injustice, hatred, and greed and in the end our overriding fear of death might just make us willing accomplices of the powers that be. This overriding fear wells up inside you and inside of me and so we, you and me, we go to Jesus and we ask, or we demand, and sometimes you and me, we beg Jesus to let us be with him in whatever glory lies beyond this life that ends in death. You and me, we ask of Jesus to see to it that we sit next to him, on at his right and one at his left, when he comes into his glory; whatever this glory may be.
Our gospel-storyteller, has Jesus respond to you and me, declaring that we do not know what we are asking. Have we forgotten where Jesus’ way leads him? Have we forgotten that just a few lines before, our story-teller had Jesus own followers, that his way leads to Jerusalem where, among other things, the religious authorities will “mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him.” Some glory.
Have we forgotten that we know what the sons of Zebedee could never know, that two people will indeed be seated at Jesus’ right and left in just a few weeks? Not seated but rather hanged, crucified with Jesus, “one on his right and one on his left.” A way of being that will leave Jesus perched between two thieves who will alongside Jesus–careful what you wish for.
Jesus doesn’t want the cup that he is to drink, but you and me, we continue to express our desires to be with Jesus. Do we really have no idea what it is that we are asking for? Sure, Jesus will share a meal, including a cup of blessing, with his followers for generations. But there is also that other cup, not even Jesus wanted this cup; the cup he is offered while hangs on the instrument of execution, the empire of domination, hatred, and greed’s precious cross. You and me, do we really want to drink from Jesus’ cup?
You and me, do we really share in Jesus baptism? Remember, the stories that have been handed down to us warning us of what it means to share in a baptism like his. Remember, the stories about Jesus being driven by the Spirit of MYSTERY into the wilderness. Dare we follow Jesus into the wilderness of unknowing?
You and me, we may ask to sit elevated in glory at Jesus’ left and right, but have we forgotten that not even his closest friends and followers had what it takes to follow Jesus’ way of being. For in the end, Jesus died alone crying out that even his beloved Abba had forsaken him. And yet, you and me we continue to ask Jesus to let us be with him in glory. Not knowing what this glory is? You and me, we are compelled by our fear, perhaps afraid that we too will die alone and forsaken, even fearing death itself. “Please Jesus see to it that we sit next to you, one at your right and one at your left when you come into your glory.”
The arrogance, the self-centredness does not belong to James and John alone, the arrogance, the self-centredness belongs also to you and to me. So, let us listen to the way in which our gospel-storyteller has Jesus respond, for there is truth in these words. Jesus responds to you and to me the way he responds to the sons of Zebedee: “You know how among the Gentiles those who exercise authority are domineering and arrogant; those ‘great ones’ know how to make their own importance felt. But it cannot be like that with you. Anyone among you who aspires to greatness must serve the rest; whoever wants to rank first among you must serve the needs of all.”
You and me, we must see our arrogance, our self-centredness, and our desire to dominate revealed. Our fears, our lack of trust in all that Jesus lived and died to teach about the MYSTERY that lies at the very core of realty this MYSTERY that Jesus knew as the Great I AM, this YAHWEH, the ONE we call God, is LOVE, our lack of trust in this LOVE, drives our fear and we are held captive to the very powers that we long to escape.
But fear not, for just as surely as we find ourselves in bondage to our fear, unable to free ourselves, our anonymous gospel-storyteller, reveals to us the truth expressed in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. “For the Human One has come not to be served, but to serve—to give one life in ransom for many.”
There’s that word “ransom.” We hear the word “ransom” and our minds go racing forward beyond our story-teller’s revelation to centuries of layer upon layer of interpretation that portrays this ransom in ever increasing perverse ways; ways that defy the truth of the very reality that Jesus lived and died proclaim, the truth that the MYSTERY we long to know is LOVE. Remember, the anonymous gospel-storyteller we call Mark had no idea that Jesus’ life and death would be portrayed by the powers that be as a ransom to be paid to the very MYSTERY that Jesus insisted is LOVE. Christianity’s utterly loveless atonement theories about substitution and payment, arguing down through the centuries about whether this ransom is paid to God or to the devil insult the very memory of the rabbi himself, whose death saves us not from the wrath of God, but rather from ourselves. Jesus lived and died giving his life to ransom us from ourselves, from our fears, so that free from the captivity in which our fear has confined us, we might walk freely away from our own self-centredness. Jesus’ poured out his life in the service of LOVE. As the embodiment of LOVE, LOVE ensures that Jesus never dies. For the LOVE expressed in the life and death of Jesus lives in you and in me. Not even our fear even fear expressed in domination, greed, hatred and violence, not even fear of death, can kill the LOVE that lies at the very heart of all that is, and rises again and again, whenever and wherever, arrogance is ransomed by humility, fear is ransomed by courage, hatred is ransomed by kindness, violence is ransomed by justice, war is ransomed by peace, and self-centredness is ransomed by service to others.
This dear sisters and brothers is what it means for you and me to sit at Jesus side. To be ransomed from very selves, ransomed from the fear that holds us captive. We are ransomed from our fear, ransomed from our arrogance and self-centredness,
set free to trust the MYSTERY that is LOVE so that we to might live the way of LOVE, so that we might be LOVE in the world. Let it be so among us. Let it be so.