I wonder what sort of story you would want recorded about yourself for future generations to read? Some charitable act that shows you at your best, maybe a moment of great bravery or something that revealed just how human and able to get it wrong you were?
Today’s gospel reading hardly gives us a flattering picture of James and John two of Jesus’s closest disciples or in fact of the rest of the group as they fall out over getting the best places in Jesus’ kingdom. Unflattering it might be but I am encouraged that Mark included this story that says to us that even Jesus’ closest followers got it wrong and yet Jesus still counted them as friends.
James and John were part of the inner circle of disciples along with Peter who had seen and heard more than the others. As well as all the miracles and teaching they had been present for they were also among the first Jesus called to follow him and had been especially chosen to be present with Jesus on the mountain as he was transfigured and joined by Moses and Elijah.
They were so close to Jesus and yet we come to this sad account that shows just how much they still had to learn. Jesus had been talking to the disciples about how you needed to be like a child to enter his kingdom and how hard it was for those with a lot of earthly wealth which could distort their priorities. He had talked about the first being last and the last being first and then opened up about what he was going to face as they headed for Jerusalem – his death. It is then against that backdrop that James and John ask him:
‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ (Mark 10 v 35 – 36)
I wonder how Jesus felt at that moment – exasperated, frustrated, despairing, really sad? Would they never get it, time was running out, these were the disciples he would trust his ongoing work too and here they were seeking positions of power and influence something his kingdom was not about.
Then to compound this the rest of the disciples when they hear what James and John have asked Jesus get angry, what was that about? Probably because James and John had got round to it before them and those seats on the left and right of Jesus had gone!
The search for power and prestige is invidious and not attractive, it can lead people to seek out those they think will be successful – maybe in politics – attach themselves to them for as long as it suits. It’s not about loyalty, friendship or integrity so once it goes wrong or they find someone better suited to their aims they quickly drop those leaders and attach themselves to the next one.
This was not what Jesus wanted for his followers then or now. However hard he was tempted by Satan or by his disciples Jesus knew that seeking power and prestige was not his calling from God his Father nor theirs. He instead was headed for the cross, to a painful death not an earthly throne and he wanted those who he had called to understand that. His response to James and John was something they would only really begin to understand after Jesus’ death and as they continued on their journey as his followers, he said to them:
‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptised with the baptism that I am baptised with?’ They replied, ‘We are able’. Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and the baptism with which I am baptised, you will be baptised; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’ (Mark 10 v 38 – 40)
In Acts 12 v 1-2 we are told that James died for his faith at the hands of King Herod at a time of persecution for the church. His brother John lived longer but like so many of Jesus’ followers endured a great deal in standing firm for what he believed. They did indeed ‘drink the cup that Jesus drank’ but did so faithfully even after such a faltering start.
As I said earlier, I am encouraged that this unflattering story from the journey of the disciples is recorded for us to read so many years later. It says to me that making mistakes as Jesus’ followers, even getting it badly wrong doesn’t mean the end of our journey of faith. Jesus doesn’t reject us and turn his back on us. He challenged James and John, he was honest with them, but he kept them with him and they continued to learn and to grow as his followers even through the really difficult times that were to come.
So when you and I get it wrong, when we let Jesus down, which we will, coming back to him seeking his forgiveness and getting on with being his followers his what he longs for us to do. I hope you too are encouraged by the honest recording of the up and down journeys of Jesus’ closest followers who are just like us.
- Think about an occasion when you have experienced Jesus setting you back on the right path. What did you learn?
- How could you encourage someone who feels they have let Jesus down? What might you say to them?