Let me start with a question: why do people worship, be it in person or, right now, via a screen?
Maybe people feel connected to that great cloud of witnesses, which transcends time and space, whenever they worship. Maybe these services feed them through the familiar words of song and prayer. And maybe they just long to listen to the Word of God – and hope to get something out of what I say in the sermon as I interpret the Word of God for our times and circumstances.
Now I have another question: how many sermons have you heard over the course of your lifetime? Hundreds maybe? Why do I have to stand here every week and preach to you? What things can I say that you haven’t already heard?
Well, it could be that you want to be reminded – reminded of God’s love for you, of God’s forgiveness, of God’s promises of eternal life to the fullest for all creation. We all get discouraged at times, and just need to be validated. And that’s what a sermon can do and should do.
But of course my hope as a preacher is that maybe I am telling you something that surprises you, something that makes you look at the familiar texts from the Bible in a different way, something that makes you think – no matter, how many sermons you have heard in your life. I have to say God’s Word surprises me again and again – just because circumstances change, my life experience gets broader, and I find things in the Scriptures that I overlooked or that didn’t speak to me in the same way, let’s say, 10 years ago. I find myself constantly learning as I immerse myself in God’s Word – and I hope you do, too. ‘Man lernt niemals aus,’ is a common German saying. One never stops learning. And this applies to God’s Word as well.
I think there is a good reason why Jesus’ first followers were called ‘disciples’ – which is closer to the original Greek word used in the New Testament than the German translation ‘Jünger’. ‘Disciple’ means pupil or student – someone who is dedicated to learning from a master, and follow a discipline as they submit to their teachings. And sometimes, a pupil also needs to be disciplined by the master.
Those first followers of Jesus were students; they learned from Jesus’ teachings and his deeds and tried to emulate him – be like him. And there was a lot to learn – even though Jesus’ teachings were based on Jewish traditions and faith, they revealed something new and radical: a loving and forgiving God, who envisions a realm for all creation where love and life to the fullest rule forevermore. Jesus’ teachings were also quite upsetting. The first will be last, and the last will be first. Whoever wants to be the greatest has to serve and humble themselves. The old has to die so that new life can spring forth.
Basically, the disciples had to un-learn many things and re-learn. And, as you may know, this is much harder than to learn something entirely new. Because you have to let go of things you are used to, you have to let go of notions you are so certain of. Your view of the world may be turned upside down. Why do so many people reject Critical Race Theory? I think it’s hard because then, history has to be re-written, taking a different perspective into account – and history has to be relearned. Maybe that even leads to accountability. That’s tough.
We see over and over again in the gospels how hard it is for the disciples to re-learn – and how they, though they follow Jesus so closely every day of their lives, don’t always get ‘it’ right away, but have to be taught again – and then again.
Today’s gospel story is a prime example for that. Let’s recap: James and John come to Jesus with the request that they want to sit next to him, one to the left and on to the right, in his glory. In other words, they want to be in the places of honor, right next to Jesus. Now in the olden days – and in more modern times as well – those sitting right next to the throne of the ruler of course were easily identifiable as the favorites of the ruler. They had the ruler’s ear, they were the ones influencing him or her. And yes, it was a desirable position to be in – but also quite dangerous, since such people were often the target of jealousy and intrigue.
So James and John want to be seen as the Lord’s favorites and bask in his glory. And don’t they deserve it – after all, they were among the very first ones to drop their nets, give up everything, and follow Jesus? Weren’t they, together with Peter, among Jesus’ closest confidants?
Now it’s important to look at the context of this story here. Jesus and his disciples have almost reached Jerusalem – and the end of their journey together. Just before today’s gospel story, Jesus told his disciples for the third and final time that he would have to suffer and die and rise again – and it’s getting real, for Jesus’ trial and death are just about a week away.
Tensions have been rising among the disciples. It was just a few weeks ago that we heard the story about the disciples quarrelling who among them is the greatest – and that happened just after Jesus told his disciples for the second time that he would have to suffer and die. Back then, Jesus already told them: God’s kingdom is not about greatness the way the world understands it. Those who humble themselves in service to others and don’t make a big deal about it are the greatest in God’s realm.
Did James and John hear what Jesus said back then? Did they get it? Apparently not. They want to sit next to Christ in his glory, they want to be the favorites, they want to be on top. The teaching about being last in order to be great seems too hard to swallow, too hard to fathom. For this is not how the world works.
Now, just as an aside: James and John want to be to the left and to the right of Jesus – ironically, just about a week later, there will be two totally different people to the left and right of Jesus: two men condemned as criminals, hanging next to Jesus on the cross. They share the place of shame, they share the place of glory with Jesus. And I don’t think that this is what James and John envision as they ask to be placed next to Jesus in his glory.
Now in fairness to James and John: the rest of the twelve don’t get the whole idea of humbling themselves for the sake of the gospel, either. For once they hear about James’ and John’s impertinence, they get angry at them. Who do these guys think they are? Don’t we deserve a spot of honor in the presence of Christ just as much, if not more?
All of the 12 probably would deserve an ‘F’ for the failure to understand what Christ is all about – what the kingdom of heaven is all about.
But Jesus teaches them again – and for some reason, I imagine him rolling his eyes and sighing as he does. ‘Guys, listen: Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve – and to give his life a ransom for many.’
It is safe to say that it will take some time for this lesson to truly sink in. The disciples are without orientation and clueless about what to do after Jesus’ death – and even right after his resurrection. It is not until the day of Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit that they start carrying on Christ’s mission in service to others.
But, spoiler alert: even then not everything is egalitarian and coming up roses. If you read the Acts of the Apostles – the some of the epistles – very carefully, you will notice that there are rivalries between some of the former disciples, most prominently between Peter and not the James we hear about in today’s gospel, but the other James, the brother of Jesus. And later of course between Peter and Paul, the new convert. It’s hard to shed old habits. It’s hard to truly follow the teachings of Christ. It’s so hard to humble oneself for the sake of the gospel and the greater good – and vision of God. Don’t we all know it? We still have issues with all that, 2,000 years later. We still got to learn, to un-learn, to re-learn. Christ still challenges us today.
Wir lernen nie aus – we never stop learning. As followers of Christ, we are also disciples, students, constantly engaging with God’s Word. We are, after all, on the way with Christ, moving from one life situation to another, invited to look at the Scriptures from different angles and from the ever-shifting perspectives we gain.
With Christ, we got a ways to go. We got a ways to go – with Christ by our side.
This post is also available in: German