If you were to come up with a list of attributes that make someone great in the eyes of the world, what would be on that list? Let’s name a few things. (ask for input) No doubt that list would include a repeatable vocation, maybe power or position, money, status, well known, intellectual, savvy, and a take charge leader. Now let’s come up with a list of attributes that make someone great in the Kingdom of God. (ask for input). Probably at the top of this list of what makes someone great in the Kingdom of God is the attribute of servanthood. Being a person who serves others selflessly.
As we have seen so much of the time, not only in our series A Third Way to Follow Jesus, but especially all throughout the gospels, that the values of the Kingdom of God are radically upside-down, countercultural, and fundamentally different than the values of the Kingdom of God. And our text for this morning shows the radical difference between what is viewed as great in the Kingdom of this world versus what is real greatness as defined by the Kingdom of God and our King, King Jesus.
Our text this morning is found in Mark 10:35-45 and is the story of how James and John were arguing again over who was the greatest. Apparently this is something that not only they, but the entire group of disciples regularly argued about. And I would have to say that if you spend your time arguing over who is greater, than suffice it to say you are definitely not great, especially in the Kingdom of God.
So turning to Mark 10:35-45 let’s see what this story from the gospel of Mark has to say to us today 2,000 years ago about this third way of following Jesus.
Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” “We can,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.” When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
So to truly understand how much the disciples are missing the point, we need to understand the context and the verses that happen before this one. Jesus continually shares with his disciples about his coming suffering. In fact, 3 times in this section of Mark Jesus had shared about his suffering, and his upcoming death at the hands of the Jewish religious leaders as well as the Roman empire. But each time the disciples just never got it. They got his mission all wrong. You see, they believed that they were part of a movement, by following the Messiah, that would overthrow Rome and set up an earthly Kingdom ruling from Jerusalem. James and John wanted to make this march to Jerusalem to Jesus crucifixion into a march of glory, and it was in an upside down way, so they could rule on either side of him as King.
And so in the midst of their arguing over who was the greatest, James and John come to Jesus and ask him a question, or actually have a demand of Jesus. Here is the dialogue between James and John and Jesus, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” “What do you want me to do for you?” . “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” Now talk about boldness. In fact, later on we see the other disciples getting indignant with James and John. Not because they were the ones who demanded it, but because the other disciples wanted those positions for themselves. James and John believed that Jesus was going, as I said, to deliver the people from the hands of the Roman Empire and that he would establish his Kingdom/Government in Jerusalem and they wanted the most prestigious seats in his Kingdom. The place of honor was the seat on the right and the place of second honor was the seat on the left. There was no place in their theology for a suffering, servant Messiah. They thought in terms of self-glorification and not self-sacrificial service.
Jesus responds to their demands by saying, “You don’t know what you are asking, Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” When Jesus refers to the cup and baptism he is referring to his upcoming suffering, violence done to him, and his death. But I wonder what James and John thought that the cup and baptism referred to, if not suffering and death. Perhaps they thought that he cup was the cup of rulership. Perhaps they thought that baptism was a physical baptism, a cleansing ritual in preparation for kingship and rule. But we know that whatever they thought it meant, that they got it wrong, again.
And so whatever they believed that Jesus meant by cup and baptism, they affirm the fact that they could drink the cup that Jesus drank and be baptized with the same baptism that Jesus was baptized with. I am not sure they would have so quickly answered Jesus with the affirmative if they actually truly understood that cup and baptism meant suffering, pain, and possibly even death for them. In fact, Jesus does say that they will, in fact, drink the cup and be baptized into suffering. Tradition has it that James was the first apostle to be martyred and while John never died, he was punished and tradition even says that he escaped an attempted murder by immersion in a vat of boiling oil.
Jesus then responds to them this way, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.” Now so often we think this means that in his glory, and when his Kingdom comes, these seats will be filled. And I believe there is truth to that. But I wonder if Jesus was again referring to his coming crucifixion and that in some upside down Kingdom way this was the coming of His Kingdom and His glory. And that when Jesus “sits” in his glory with one on his right, and one on his left, he is referring to being crucified with a thief on his right and a thief on his left.
So the disciples go back to arguing about who is greatest and who should sit on his right and left and Jesus basically says, “Look guys you are so worried about sitting in places of honor, position, power and authority. You are oppressed under the thumb of the empire, that you are dreaming about being on top and oppressing others. You think my Kingdom is all about glory, strength, power and position. And you are partly right n that to be great in the Kingdom you need to have a position. The position of a servant.” You want to be great in my Kingdom, that means you are a servant. You want to be be first, then be a slave.
Jesus, the only one who had the right to be served, worshipped, given the place of power, prestige, and position, was the one who, according to Philippians 2, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death- even death on a cross!”
Just as Jesus came to be a servant to all, third way followers of Jesus should also serve one another and others in the name of Jesus. In a Kingdom community status, money, power, and position are not prerequisites for leadership, humble service is the greatest and only prerequisite. You want to be a leader and great in the Kingdom of God, pick up a towel and wash someone’s feet (both literally and figuratively). Humble yourself and put others before you. Serve, not for the good feelings you get from it. Serve, not because it looks good on a resume or college application. Serve, not because it looks good on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Serve, for the benefit of others. Serve, because you want to model your life on the greatest person who ever lived. Serve, because Jesus was a servant. Serve, because you want to be like him. Serve, because that is what it looks like to be truly great in this upside down, radical, countercultural Kingdom that we call the Kingdom of God.
Now this attitude of being a servant, putting others before yourself, of humbling yourself and stooping to wash the feet of another, takes a deep commitment to Jesus, His Kingdom, and being filled and led by the Holy Spirit. It won’t come naturally. The flesh will fight it. The flesh will scream, “Me first.” But the more we submit to our King. The more we engage in the spiritual discipline of service and servanthood, the more it will become part of who we are. One of the things that we need to know and understand regarding service is that it is a spiritual discipline, just like prayer, Scripture Reading and meditation, worship, and fasting. And just like we need a steady diet of prayer, Scripture, meditation, fasting, and worship to become more Christ-like, we need a steady diet of serving the lost, the least, the needy to become more Christ-like. The flesh will never truly go away. But the more we yield to King Jesus in the area of servanthood, the more we will begin looking like our King who wore a towel instead of a crown. Our King who bowed his knees while washing the feet of His disciples. Our King who took on the form and role of the lowest servant. The King who truly defines greatness in the Kingdom.
Let me share with you in closing before our conversation and discussion time a brief story about someone who was great in the Kingdom of God and truly understood what it meant to be a servant and a slave to the least, the lost, the dying and broken. I am of course talking about Mother Teresa. There are many many stories one could tell when it comes to her life of service to not only the needy in India, but more specially to her service in the ways of Jesus.Shane Claiborne, who spent a summer in the slums of Calcutta with Mother Teresa, wrote the following about one of his experiences there: ”People often ask me what Mother Teresa was like. Sometimes it's like they wonder if she glowed in the dark or had a halo. She was short, wrinkled, and precious, maybe even a little ornery—like a beautiful, wise old granny. But there is one thing I will never forget—her feet. Her feet were deformed. Each morning in Mass, I would stare at them. I wondered if she had contracted leprosy. But I wasn't going to ask, of course. "Hey Mother, what's wrong with your feet?” One day a sister said to us, "Have you noticed her feet?" We nodded, curious. She said: "Her feet are deformed because we get just enough donated shoes for everyone, and Mother does not want anyone to get stuck with the worst pair, so she digs through and finds them. And years of doing that have deformed her feet." Years of loving her neighbor as herself deformed her feet.
So let’s take a deeper look into the Scripture together and see what stands out to you. Let’s talk about questions, comments, and insights that you draw from the text. Let’s talk concretely about ways that you can serve this week. And let’s end our time together praying for opportunities to be the hands and feet of Jesus by serving someone this week.