This is an important turning point in Mark’s gospel. It’s the third time Jesus has revealed that he’ll be rejected and suffer at the hands of his own people. As Jesus begins his final journey to Jerusalem, we have to ask ourselves if we have what it takes to follow him. Like we learned last week, that entails denying ourself, taking up our cross, and doing what Jesus does – no matter the cost.
There are a few questions in this one passage. It would have been nice had Jesus stopped after asking, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they could have given the usual answers, make me see again, help me walk, or heal our friend. Heck, they could have asked him to make more wine for their party, or multiply the chicken nuggets so everyone could have seconds.
But instead the boys asked to sit next to Jesus in Heaven – the seat of power in any kingdom. The others get mad at James and John for their audacity. But not Jesus. He loves them and tolerates them, and entertains their desire with a follow up question…“Are you able to drink from my cup or share my baptism?”
Let’s think about that for a moment. “Are you able?”
To be willing is one thing. But to be able is a whole other level of commitment. I am willing to be a Christian, but am I able to be Christlike in all areas of my life? I’m willing to love people, but am I able to love all people the way Jesus did?
As he moves closer to his passion, Jesus needs to know if his disciples are faithfully committed to continuing his ministry. So he asks, “Are you able?” Three little words that should give us pause.
I admitted last week that of all the 300 plus questions Jesus asks, this is my least favorite because it makes me doubt my commitment to my faith; especially my faith in God’s ability to work through me. If I’m being truthful and honest, I put off asking this particular question because it requires me to be vulnerable and raw. It exposes my weakness and means I have to admit, “I don’t know.” I don’t know if I am able...and that scares me.
When Jesus asked the question the boys answered without giving it a second thought. “We are able.” I wish I could be that quick, or confident, to give a thumbs up to Jesus like James and John did. It makes me wonder if these two disciples even hear what Jesus is saying? Do they understand the risk of what is at stake?
When I look at my own fears and anxieties, and the shame I have for not fully living up to my abilities, my guess is they actually do know what Jesus is asking of them and that’s why they give such a definitive answer.
James and John have been traveling with Jesus for some time now. They’ve heard what he’s said, and seen how people react. They know what Jesus is asking them to do, and what they will face in order to be faithful to his mission. Their request isn’t that unreasonable, given what’s in store for them.
If I were in their shoes, I’d want to sit next to Jesus too. Not because I want power or prestige, but because being close to Christ is the safest place to be when the world around you falls apart. It seems the disciples are finally able to see who Jesus is, and what that means to the world and their mission. If they’re going to do what he does, then they need to be as close to God as possible. And so do we. Jesus is the way to having that close relationship with God.
When Jesus asks the boys, “are you able,” he wasn’t trying to trick them or make them look bad. Instead he was inviting them to participate in the Kingdom of God. The way they are able to participate is by becoming a servant. Whoever wants to be first must be a slave. Christ came to serve people, not to be served by them—to give away his life so others can live. The seat of power isn’t in what you get but what you give.
To participate in God’s kingdom, I don’t think we need to be able...any more than we need to be worthy, or good enough. God knows our hearts. And God is more than able to do things whether we have any abilities or not.
So perhaps it’s not about being able, but being willing to be close to Jesus – to go where he goes and do what he does.
So let me ask you: Are you willing to lend a hand to someone who has gone out of their way to harm you? Are you willing to stay up all night with a friend to reconcile a mistake or a misunderstanding?
Are you willing to stand up for a kid at school who is getting bullied, or befriend someone who’s alone, even if they are not like you?
Are you willing to let your guard down, to be vulnerable, or admit that you’re not always in control of your life, or you don’t always have the right answer?
Are you willing to be the presence of Christ in the world knowing God is willing and able to give you the strength and power you need to overcome whatever the world throws at you?
Are you willing to see and do what Jesus does, so that others can enjoy the benefits of God’s redemptive love and grace as you have received through Christ?
Jesus is asking the boys if they are able, but he’s challenging their willingness to commit. Jesus is challenging us to, to put our faith on the front line and to live countercultural to the ways of the world – to give up our power, to become weak and vulnerable in order to find who we really are... beloved children of God.
If we are willing to open our hearts and follow the way of Christ, then we are able to be the antidote to a world that uses its power to dominate the weak. If we are willing to follow Christ in both good times and tough times, we will be able to be bridge builders where others have made walls.
Again, this church’s vision is to Love God, Love Others, and Serve Both. There are many ways to do this. And we invite you to join us in this mission. You might think you’re not able to do it, but as long as you are willing, God is able to empower you with the same spirit given to Christ. If you are willing God is able to work with you and through you to make possible what the world has said is impossible.
If you are willing to receive God’s love that comes to us through Christ...then you too will be able to give all of who you are, for the sake of seeking justice, loving neighbors and forgiving all debts. You will be able, because God is able to do anything and all things. One needs to look no further than the life, death and resurrection of our Lord, Jesus the Christ to see what God is capable of doing.
We are able. But are we willing to commit? To say “Yes, Lord, I am.”
If you are willing, then you are able to have the faith to do all that you are called to do, in the name of the one who gave his life for the ransom of all.
Let us pray: Lord, you have given us your promise and by your Holy Spirit you have given us you power to do things we never thought we could do. May our eyes and ears always be focused on doing your work, so that your will can be done, for the glory of your name, Amen.
Bartlett, David. L., Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Year B. Vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. p. 189-91.
Some material was taken from a previous sermon first published on October 18, 2015.
has been blogging under the name: Jesus not Jesús: Looking for Christ in the face of strangers. You can read his posts and browse his archives by clicking here.
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