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True Glory: The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, October 17, 2021:
Hebrews 5:1-10
Mark 10:35-45

I started becoming aware, the other day, about how I have come to approach faith (and preaching) in a sort of two-fold way where on one hand we recognize something universal and relatable in our faith, while on the other hand, we also find something strange and unique. And this is nothing novel; some of the early Christian thinkers talked about how there are ethical lessons to take from scripture, but then there’s also deeper spiritual truths.

In the gospel today, for many of us our first response is on that readily applicable, life lesson sort of level: Be nice. Serve others. Don’t let your head get inflated.

All good, important things to remember. Lots there to work on. And as Jesus points out, the world we know is dominated by a few “great ones” who are tyrants.

And already right there we have a lifetime’s worth of work.

But a couple things here subtly draw us deeper. [First:] James and John ask: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” [And second:] Jesus counters: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

We have here a complete reinterpretation of “glory,” because that reference to “right” and “left” take us toward the end of the story, where we read “It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, ‘The King of the Jews.’ And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left.” What is the image of glory for us Christians? The cross. One of the great Anglican thinkers of last century, Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey believed that this redefinition of glory was one of the strange, unique, and novel things that our faith has to offer. He wrote: “the glory of God in all eternity is that ceaseless self-giving love of which Calvary is the measure.” So if we, like James and John want to sit on the right and left hand of Jesus in glory, the image we’re given is the cross; two bandits, one on the right and one on the left.

And if, with James and John, we dare ask the question, Jesus has two more images for us to contemplate: the cup and baptism. So there our minds again go toward the end of Mark’s story, to the cup shared at the last supper, and the words of Jesus as he prayed in the garden: “remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” But also back to the beginning of the story, where Jesus comes on the scene at his baptism in the river. Just as Jesus was consumed with his mission, so too we’re called to enter wholeheartedly into our daily life (our daily struggle to live) as followers of Jesus. This involves, to the surprise of James and John, love and service of others. And some have suggested that the reference of Jesus, of being a servant and slave to all, is not just about washing the guests feet, as would have happened in Roman households of the day. But more than that, it connects with the stories we have in the gospel, of the woman anointing Jesus with oil, and in so doing, preparing his body for burial. So again, this reading turns us toward the cross. And in this remarkable little story, as sombre and stern as it might be — with the subtle references to the crucifixion, to baptism, to eucharist, and to serving others — we’re given a puzzle to unlock, about the Christian life. And note, too, how it’s a story about tension and rupture in the community. James and John don’t get it. Jesus is probably rightly exasperated, and the other ten are angry. Difficulties within the community is part of the journey. So unlocking this puzzle is not something that we can do quickly, but over the whole of our lives.

Many of you will have heard that in a few Sundays we’ll be having a baptism. At the end of the rite the congregation welcomes the newly-baptized, with the words: “We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.” Right there again, a succinct expression of the Christian life; but so much that could be unpacked. The first reading today speaks of the priesthood of Jesus: how he is our bridge to God. But our faith, too, talks about the Church as a whole kingdom of priests — that’s all of us, and it’s another way of talking about the living out our baptismal vows: being a bridge in the world, so that people can get a sense of God being there, with them, in the muck of this world.

So whether one is preparing for baptism, or living as one already baptized, we’re called to build bridges to God in our world. And in a situation of rulers and tyrants, what we can offer is an alternative value system of service and authenticity. And maybe that is how we can build bridges between the people around us and the God in whom we put our hope. But to get there, to really get there, the Christian calling is to be more than nice, because nice only goes so far. Instead, we’re pointed toward the cross. The sacrifice of the cross that we invoke in our eucharist, and the submersion and burial of the cross that we enter into in our baptism. If we are looking for glory, that, Jesus says, is the true glory. Another hard saying, but turning again to the baptismal service, I put my hope in the second half of the baptismal candidate’s response: “I will, WITH GOD’S HELP.”

© 2021 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter