Vive la Difference!

The disciples James & John ask for seats of honor in Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus doesn’t get mad at them for asking. He says, “Be different. Don’t seek power, seek to serve.”

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Mark 10:35-45

Have you ever told someone something really important, something deeply heartfelt, and then held your breath waiting to see how they would respond . . . but their first words are about the weather or what they’re going to have for dinner, something that has absolutely nothing to do with what you just said and makes you wonder if they even heard any of it.

That’s what it seems like in our scripture today in which James and John ask Jesus for a favor.  Jesus has just told the disciples for the third time what’s going to happen when they get to Jerusalem.  They’re on there way there, talking as they walk, with a crowd of people following them.  Jesus is trying to prepare them, and has just given them more details about the challenges he will face – that he will be mocked and spit on, flogged with a whip, and killed, but after three days he will rise (Mark 10:34), information they might really want to know.

But James and John’s response is, “Hey, Jesus, could we have the best seats in the house when we get to heaven?” He’s just told them he’s going to be tortured and killed, and that’s their response?

The other disciples get mad at them for asking this, maybe because they wanted to have those seats of honor[1], or maybe because they didn’t think James and John should be bothering Jesus with this question.

They didn’t have the Apostles Creed yet, but in it we say that we believe in “Jesus Christ [God’s] only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead. . .”

Just like Jesus said would happen in what he told the disciples.  And the next line of the creed says, “he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty . . .”

That’s why Jesus’ response to James and John’s request to have those seats of honor in Jesus’ kingdom is, “There are other arrangement for that.”  In the visions of heaven that we read about in the psalms and epistles, it is God who sits on the throne and Jesus sits on the right hand of God.

[2]

Once there was a little boy who was spending the weekend with his grandmother. On Saturday morning she decided to take him to the park. It had been snowing all night and everything was beautiful. 

His grandmother remarked, “Doesn’t it look like an artist painted this scenery? Did you know God painted this just for you?”

“Yes,” said the little boy. “And God did it left-handed.”

Confused, his grandmother asked him “Why do you say God did this with his left hand?”

“Because,” said the boy, “we learned in Sunday school that Jesus sits on God´s right hand!”[3]

We can’t really blame the little boy or the disciples.  There’s no way they can fully understand what’s going to happen. Maybe this walk to Jerusalem felt ominous and important, but they couldn’t quite understand why Jesus seemed determined and grim.  Shouldn’t Jesus be excited and happy that he’s soon going to be revealed as the Messiah?

The disciples don’t understand what’s going to happen because they’re human, and as hard as we try, we humans are not able to see into the future.  We do our best to make predictions by watching trends, using math and science, and sometimes we do pretty well.

For example, the predictions about the football game between Clemson and Syracuse Friday night said that there was an 86.1% probability that Clemson would win.[4]  The predictions are based on the stats of past games, the players past performance, etc.  Based on all that, it was more likely that Clemson would win.  But none of the stats really mattered when it came down to playing the game.  At the start of the fourth quarter, when the score was Clemson 17, Syracuse 7, it looked like the predictions were right.  But then Syracuse threw a 62-yard pass to wide receiver Trebor Pena who had snuck through the defense and made it into the end zone, and suddenly the score was close. 17 to 14.  With seven minutes left in the game, there was plenty of time for either team to score again, and it looked like Syracuse was going to tie things up with a field goal in the last thirty seconds.  As he kicked, we were holding our breath and saying our prayers . . . and the kick went wide and Clemson won the game. . . which is exactly what the predictions said would happen, but we still held our breath watching Syracuse try to kick that field goal, because we don’t really know for sure whether the predictions are right until their predictions actually happen.

Maybe that’s why James and John didn’t seem to pay any attention to the prediction Jesus made about his death and resurrection. Maybe James and John were thinking, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”  Their question does show that they are thinking about the future, though, and so Jesus does a major redirect.  In Matthew’s gospel, we hear Jesus say, “Don’t worry so much about the future.  Focus on today, for this day has enough troubles of its own.” (Matt. 6:34) Here in Mark, Jesus puts it a little differently.  He says, “Instead of worrying about who will have seats of honor, let’s focus on how to be better people.  Be different.  Don’t lord your power and authority over other people.  Instead, be their servants.” (Krabbe paraphrase)

Jesus’ last line in the passage we read today is one that gets quoted often.  He says, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

One of the commentators in Christian Century this week wrote about our misunderstanding of that statement.  We’ve gotten stuck into thinking of it as a moment in time – Jesus’ resurrection – that only fully impacts us when we die and stand before God.  We expect that our faith in Jesus and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead that conquered sin and death will make it so that all our sins are forgiven, and God will welcome us into heaven with open arms. And it will. But what if Jesus isn’t just talking about what happens on the cross, but also his entire life?[5] 

Everything Jesus has been doing has been to give himself in service to others, traveling around teaching about God, calling people to turn back to God, healing people, and casting out demons.  What happens at the end of Jesus’ life is certainly important.  It’s the game-changing moment of all time.  But we mustn’t forget that there are all the moments that lead up to that moment in which Jesus demonstrates and teaches us how to live out our own moments.  Be different.  Don’t flaunt your authority. Be a servant.

We see this idea of being different in the TV show Ted Lasso.  Maybe you’ve seen it on Apple TV, or heard about it, since it’s won lots of awards. One of our members, Christian Dashiell does a podcast with Marisa and Brett Callan about this show.  (You should check it out!)  Maybe one of the things that caught their attention is that the character Ted Lasso, played by Jason Sudakis, is from Kansas City.  He’s an American football coach who has been hired to coach a British football team, what we call soccer.  He knows practically nothing about soccer.

Why in the world would an American football coach be hired to coach soccer?  Why in the world would Ted Lasso be willing to move halfway around the world to take a job that he’s sure to fail at?  It turns out that Ted is the eternal optimist, and also someone who is willing to admit he doesn’t know everything.  He asks questions, which is what we see the disciples doing in our scripture reading.  Neither the disciples nor Ted fully understand everything, but that doesn’t stop them from trying and learning.

Ted doesn’t know much about the soccer, but his assistant coach, Coach Beard, who came with him from Kansas, spent his time reading about the rules and strategy of British football.  Coach Beard doesn’t say much, but when Ted needs to know something, he knows he can ask Coach Beard for help.  Ted listens to other people’s ideas, which is how the equipment manager ends up helping with the team strategy and becoming one of the assistant coaches.  Ted is also generous, which is why he ends up buying that same equipment manager a suit to wear to a funeral they’re all having to attend.

In one episode, we see Ted’s servant leadership in action at a critical moment.  It’s halftime in an important game for the Richmond Greyhounds.  They’ve got a new strategy they’ve been trying out, but it’s not been working so far.  Ted’s got to decide whether to continue with the new strategy or ditch it for the second half.  He asks the assistant coaches for their opinions, and one of them suggests that they ask the players what they think.  Some coaches might not be humble enough to do that, but Ted is, and so they do.  I won’t spoil it by telling you how it comes out, but one of the refreshing things about this TV series is that it doesn’t matter as much about whether they win or lose.  The focus is more on how they live and learn and grow as people.

None of us has everything figured out.  Even Jesus said he didn’t know everything about the future.  He told the disciples that only God knows when Jesus would return at the end of time (Matthew 24:36).  So we don’t need to worry so much about that.  Even when the way forward looks foggy and unclear, we can trust God to carry us forward, and we can focus instead on doing the good things that God calls us to do (Eph. 2:10). In Isaiah 46:4 God says, “I will be your God throughout your lifetime—until your hair is white with age. I made you, and I will care for you. I will carry you along and save you.”

We can’t control everything, but we try to because we don’t do so well with uncertainty.  We prefer solid ground.  But what if we embrace the chaos and trust God to carry us through it? 

That’s kind of like what William Shatner did this past week when he went flying into space.  He wasn’t on a sound stage in a fake spaceship, like when he was Captain Kirk on Star Trek.  He was in a real live rocket that is entirely controlled by a computer, like in the movie 2001 A Space Odyssey.  Shatner put himself entirely in the hands of others, a tremendous risk, but also one that brought tremendous reward.  He was in tears describing the beauty of those ten minutes on the edge of space, looking out at the blackness of eternity and back at the blue ball we call earth.[6]

Shatner said he hopes he never recovers from what he felt that day.  I hope we never forget that even when it feels like the way forward is foggy and there doesn’t seem to be much solid ground, that God is always holding us in his loving arms.

Being willing to trust God enough to embrace the chaos can actually be the way to get things done.  Trying something new is messy, especially at first.  When we are overwhelmed and afraid, we can get stuck.  But have you ever noticed how some of the most creative people have the messiest desks or offices or houses.  One reason is that they have the ability to ignore the chaos and focus on the one thing they are inspired to do.

Sometimes our forward progress gets stopped because we get distracted into cleaning up and organizing the chaos, and that can make us feel like we’re getting things done, but might actually be getting in the way.[7]

We don’t know what will happen in the future . . . but we do know what Jesus tells us to do on our way there.  Love one another.  Serve one another.  Embrace the chaos that inevitably comes from that.  And trust God to carry us through.

Thanks, God.


[1] This is the theory proposed by David Garland in the NIV Application Commentary, pg. 412.

[2] Photo by Brian Jones on Unsplash

[3] This is an old, often told joke. This version is adapted from the one I found here: https://thirdhour.org/forums/topic/20613-gods-right-hand/

[4] According to ESPN

[5] Timothy Adkins-Jones in the “Sunday’s Coming” email dated October 11, 2021. https://mailchi.mp/christiancentury/sc-free-350975a-352695?e=ad12e8afdd

[6] https://time.com/6107053/william-shatner-space/ https://www.thewrap.com/william-shatner-space-flight-video-reaction/

[7] Inspired by Rounak Bose’s article “Don’t Be Afraid of the Chaos.” https://medium.com/the-31-5-guy/dont-be-afraid-of-chaos-f659fcf660b

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