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Qualified for Promotion
(From the Gospel, St. Matthew xx. 20ff, St. James the Apostle)

It should be noted from the Gospel today that James and John wanted positions of authority without having to exercise any qualifications for them. They were looking, perhaps, for prestige, notoriety, respect, power -- begging for an appointment in advance, if you will, in the Lord's Kingdom, whenever it actually might visibly come to pass.

Observe as well that it was their mother who had initiated the request (at least, in this Gospel account), which gives the whole story a certain quizzicalness: a mother zealous to have her two sons be given the chief seats. No doubt, she envisioned some personal benefit from this arrangement for herself.

What other motivations might we infer from this awkward, almost embarrassing scene: maybe pride; ambition; presumption; conceit. Yes, the all too familiar province of us all. This mother and her sons were looking for the prize without paying the price. Understandable. We all do it. We can easily put ourselves in their place. Would we not be tempted to do the same?

But Jesus' reply to her is full of meaning. Observe that He does not scorn her, nor put her down, nor criticize her apparent impertinence. Perhaps on a certain level He even admires her and her sons for their zeal and determination. After all, to yearn to lead in Christ's Kingdom seems an admirable notion. But instead He says, "Ye know not what ye ask", i.e., “You do not realize what is involved in attaining to such a place. You haven't considered the necessary qualifications, nor the means required to obtain them.”

Perhaps the two disciples made the same mistake any of the other ten might have made: assuming that somehow simple association with Jesus should allow them in some measure to share in what they rightly believed would one day be His position as enthroned sovereign over all the earth. Perhaps they had forgotten that their proximity to Him was the product of His choice and appointment. So far as they knew, there were no distinguishing factors that had somehow led to Christ's selection of them (though, like us all, they might have been tempted to think otherwise). In fact, He seemed to have passed over what even by today's standards would seem to be be factors that might recommend someone to have been included among the coterie of a very important person: great intelligence, wit, high blood, advanced education, good looks, personal wealth, etc. No, they possessed nothing inherently that would allow them to boast of their election by the Lord to apostleship. But in today's account, Jesus immediately insists that these two would-be vice presidents count the cost of the promotion they hoped for, should they be granted it:

"Are ye able to drink the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?"

Think of the speed and assurance of their reply: "We are able."

Do these words ring true from a certain familiar Christian hymn? Let me read it: Are Ye Able, Said the Master? The same question, Are ye able?, might well be posed to anyone whatsoever poised on the brink of making a spiritual commitment. Elsewhere in the Gospels Jesus discusses the “cost of discipleship”, also the title of a fine booked penned by a German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who in living out what he felt to be the dictates of his faith met death at the hands of a Nazi firing squad. How often is this cost clearly spelled out to those who are contemplating what we so easily call “a commitment to Christ”? Rather, we tend to minimize its mention, in case likely prospects should prove disinterested and back away.

But returning to our Gospel, it seems odd to find this apparent instinct for power and position being expressed by James and John, men who had already tasted in large measure some of the cost of being Christ's disciples. They were beginning to sense the rising tide of unpopularity, rejection, and persecution that their Master's ministry seemed destined to provoke, in spite of the strangely paralleling acclaim that had greeted his miracles
and signs, an acclaim which in the very next chapter of St. Matthew would express itself in the remarkable scene of the Triumphal Entry.

On some level, underlying all of their confusion and uncertainty about Jesus, they understood that this Man with whom they had thrown in their lot was indeed ultimately going to emerge from this battle of contradictions they were witnessing, as King and Lord.

And somehow they would share in His glory. But how?

We understand that the “baptism” and His “cup” He referred to are one and the same: they speak of His coming suffering and death. Soon His disciples are to witness this most incongruous and tragic apparent end to their Lord's earthly life. Only hindsight and the ministry of the Holy Spirit will provide them the understanding that this very experience of humiliation and seeming defeat were the doorway to His resurrection and glorification.

Jesus made it very clear that within the economy of the Kingdom of God there is no other path to greatness other than that which winds its slow, tortuous, painful way through the deepest valleys in this life. In predicting their own experience of this same baptism, Jesus was only foretelling that they also must await, with Him, the full consummation of this period of probationary testing we call life on this earth, in order to receive the inheritance that is promised to follow.

Subsequent portions of Scripture and the accounts of history, of course, detail the fulfillment of Jesus' words in the lives of each of His apostles. Our Epistle for today, in fact, spells out James' own death at the hands of the tyrant Herod. James gains preeminence, alright: he is the first among his eleven peers to follow his Savior in suffering and death! How ironic, and how very significant!

But notice the reaction of the other disciples when they find out about this clever little ploy on the part of their two cohorts and their mother. They were "moved with indignation against them": “much grieved”, “greatly afflicted”, as other translations render it. Why, we wonder? Did they all on some level share the same desire? Were they afraid that their fellows might have succeeded in achieving it by subterfuge? Although we might hope that their indignation was “righteous”, we might be inclined to think otherwise.

We can infer this in part by the nature of Jesus' admonition to all of them that followed. Notice that to the entire body of disciples He no longer discusses qualifications for leadership in terms of the baptism and cup, but in terms of service displayed in mutual submission.

Oh, how painful! Instead of being allowed to wring the necks of James and John, the disciples must submit in loving service to them and to one another, a duty which the Lord was about to palpably and unforgettably demonstrate to them all in His washing of their feet. Phenomenal irony, once more: this very unique event, the foot washing, is recorded alone by that very same John, James' brother, in his own Gospel.

Yes, the road to ascendancy in the Kingdom of God is through descent, both through suffering and persecution, and through willingness to don once and for all the apparel of a servant on behalf of one another.

What, then, are the implications for us? We live two thousand years distant from the people and the times, and several thousand miles from the location.

What are we to do?

What can we learn?

I think we have to assume that the same cost to them must apply to us, if we also are striving for proximity with the One who has called us to Himself. There is another choice many make: let's call it religion on one's own terms. We can bask, for instance, in a certain sense of privilege and sanctity associated with our profession as believers. We might use our religious associations to improve our personal portfolio, if you will: to mark ourselves, in a sense, a few cuts above the unreligious, unchurched rabble that surrounds us. We might even imagine that our status as traditional Anglicans lends us a certain very real and distinguishing air. And perhaps it does. But the Lord makes it very clear that self-consciousness of privileged position is not the key to exaltation within the peculiar and very special dynamics of the Kingdom of God. Rather, any giftedness we may claim, any particular intimacy with the Savior we may be granted to enjoy, any religious advancement the Lord may have in kindness granted us to possess ..., all of these are to express themselves in exactly the opposite direction, so to speak: in suffering, in humiliation and persecution --in other words, in that which puts us firmly in the very lowest place in the scheme of things in this world.

For it is in that very same place that Christ Himself dwells. It is in such company that He yet walks. It is in such darkness and obscurity that His light shines most brilliantly. Being assiduous to follow His directions in these things, we will some day be privileged indeed to fully share in the great day of His reign and rule.

In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Holy Trinity Church, Waterville ME
Ed Kalish, Deacon

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