Church people argue about lots of things. They debate the virgin birth, bodily resurrection, what miracles are, whether there’s an actual hell, and on and on. One of the smaller arguments church people have (when they should probably be doing something more productive) is the question whether Jesus had siblings. Some say no: his mother was always a virgin, they say. Others say yes: the Gospels mention brothers of Jesus, and in his teachings Jesus uses childbirth as a metaphor, suggesting that he probably helped his parents with home births, which gave him sermon material to work with.
I’m not very interested in this particular argument because I feel certain that of course Jesus had siblings. It seems obvious to me. Consider today’s Good News: James and John come to him with the kind of behavior you’ll see almost daily in a large family, and Jesus responds in a way that makes him sound like he’s utterly unsurprised by this behavior… even weary of it. He sounds (in my ears at least) a little like the oldest child in a big family. James and John want to ride shotgun in the Jesus Movement. They want the best view on the triumphant ride into the city. They want choice seats at the Messianic banquet table. They want to be secretaries of state and defense in the new administration. Jesus gets it. Or at the very least, he’s used to it.
I have a bunch of siblings, but unlike Jesus, I don’t feel weary when I hear James and John. I don’t feel worn out or at the end of my rope, like he seems to be feeling. I feel anxious. I recognize the anxiety behind their request, and I resonate with it. If you have a lot of siblings, you’re well acquainted with scarcity anxiety. There are never enough of the best cookies, the biggest slices of pie, the better seats in the car, the minutes of love and attention from the parents. As someone with four older siblings, I have never known a day of life without peers gaining access to all the good things before I do. As someone with two younger siblings, I’ve had lots of opportunities to practice not kicking them down so I can stay ahead. (My record here is mixed.)
One of my professors at VTS says that competing with each other and worrying about status is a “demon we need to cast out,” and she’s right, but I’ll bet that for many of us--and not just those of us in grad school, or those of us from big families--that demon isn’t really about winning or being the best. It’s at once more sad and more anxious than that. It’s the belief that if I don’t win the competition, I won’t be loved. I won’t even be lovable. It’s easier to empathize with James and John, and resist following their path, if we get that they really just wanted to be loved. That goes for the other disciples, too, who were pretty mad when they overheard this conversation. (I wonder if they got mad simply because they didn’t think of asking this first, or they did think of it but chickened out.)
Jesus hears his squabbling friends and responds to them, and while he is not harsh or unkind, he has a hard truth to tell them. Following Jesus may spark inside us the normal human anxieties about status, and the normal human sadness about a world where love feels scarce (that little sad feeling that if others have somebody’s love, then I’m at risk of having less), but following Jesus isn’t about any of those things at all. Here is the hard truth: James and John won’t get the front seats in the conquering army, because there are no seats; there is no army. Jesus does not conquer his political enemies--or ours. He gives his whole life away for others, so that life can flourish. And we are supposed to do the same, somehow.
And that’s not always easy, or fun. We catch up with Jesus and his followers today toward the end of their long journey to Jerusalem, and only Jesus truly understands how scary it is that the city is getting closer and closer each day. In his life and ministry he had already given everything of himself to others in love, offering free healing, lifting up the downtrodden, teaching and eating and praying with people from all walks of life, even and especially the people on the margins, the people who are thought of as less than, the rejects and convicts and disreputables of his day. And now he is preparing to give it all, to give up his whole life to others in love. That’s the hard, foreboding truth lurking behind his calm little response, “You do not know what you are asking.”
That’s what is brewing in the cup he is drinking.
I really empathize with James and John, especially in that absurd moment when he asks them a rhetorical question and they foolishly embarrass themselves by answering it. Jesus asks them, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” In this moment James and John should really just quiet down and listen. But they blurt out, “We are able!” without even understanding what they are saying.
But it turns out that they were right: much later, after Jesus had died and been resurrected, all of his first followers became apostles who followed his path. All but one of them were killed for the faith, and we have legends of a couple of them asking for crucifixion upside down or on an X-shaped cross, because they didn’t feel worthy to die in the exact same way as Jesus.
And now it’s our turn. Are we able to drink the cup that Jesus drinks, or be baptized with the baptism that he is baptized with? Note the present tense. Jesus is already drinking the cup before he has actually suffered and died, and he speaks of baptism not as a one-off event earlier in his life, but as a way of life. Are we able to drink this cup, to be baptized in this way?
Few if any of us are ready to literally follow Jesus to a literal cross. But that’s not really what this is about, for us. We are able to follow him, though. We can get what he’s trying to teach us, and respond in the way he calls us to respond.
Here’s the ten-dollar Greek word that opens this up for us, and of course you must have expected that in my first seminarian sermon here, I would have to do a little Greek-dropping. The Greek word that saves us is diakoneo, which in English we say means “servant.” Diakoneo is the spirit of servanthood, the stance or the role of a servant. It is the root of our word “deacon,” too, and in Holy Baptism we are all called to be deacons for Christ, servants for the Gospel. Diakoneo is how Jesus behaved when he was with us, and even now, when we gather around this Table, we encounter Jesus as both servant and food. A hymn I love says it this way: “We strain to glimpse your mercy seat, and find you kneeling at our feet.”
Following Jesus is as simple, and as complicated, as being a servant in all your walks of life. You hold open a door for someone, and by doing so you are saying two things: I am not more important than them, and they are important. You see a newcomer struggling with our hymnals and prayer books, and you help them find the right page. You rise in the morning and say a short prayer, something like, “Lord, help me to be of good use today.” You quietly pray for the person two cubicles down from you in the office, because you know she’s caring for her ailing mother and you know she’s feeling stressed and lonely. Maybe you send her a little note, saying you’re thinking about her. You compost your food waste and read up on how to walk more gently on this green earth. You read a Facebook post by someone who voted for the other candidate, the candidate you can’t stand, and you look for the truth or wisdom in what they’re saying. You stand up for someone who doesn’t have a voice. You walk or march with people who seek justice. You build your whole career as one of service to others. You honor our beloved dead on All Saints Sunday (which is not far away now), and tell your grandchildren about the saints in your life who have gone before. You come to this Table and look into the eyes of someone else in the circle, and remember that at this Table, it’s never only about one person. It’s always about all of us.
Following Jesus is not easy. But even in their foolishness his disciples were not alone. They had each other, and on the hard road of servanthood and discipleship, on that hard, long road, they met Jesus. They became servants like he is, and they learned that this Way of servanthood leads to the flourishing of life. When you gather at this Table and notice your neighbor, greet your neighbor in peace, and break bread with your neighbor, life flourishes. From your small seed of servanthood, God grows up a mighty oak. From your small sack lunch of self-giving love, God feeds a multitude.
Friend, come to the Table of the Lord. It’s not easy. It’s actually harder than you think. But everyone is here, and the feast won’t be a feast without you.
Preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill (Episcopal), Alexandria, Virginia, October 21, 2018.