As we’ve commented, this fall is a time when our lectionary readings reveal Jesus showing himself at his most challenging. Just to remind you where we’ve come from, before we talk about where we are:
Last week Jesus left his disciples “exceedingly astonished” by teaching that not even a moral pillar of society, a man who had it all economically, socially, and spiritually, had the slightest chance at entering the life of God without giving up reliance on his skills and achievements and relying on Jesus instead. When the man walked out on that offer, the disciples were not happy. (I mean, he could have been a potential big donor. An important supporter of the ministry. And Jesus won’t compromise the message to keep him happy.)
You’ll remember that Jesus commented to the disciples, “It’s so hard for people like that to enter the Kingdom.” And at this point they can’t contain themselves: “If not him, Jesus, who?” And Jesus, true to form, cheerfully replies, “Nobody. Nobody can enter the Kingdom. It’s impossible. Except with God.” What can you say? He is so confident in his Father that he just has no fear.
So as we come in today, the disciples have been trying to process this event. And their conversation eventually morphs into a hypothesis. It’s the kind of hypothesis you come up with when you try to fit Jesus and his message into your preconceptions about religion.
So here’s their hypothesis: all this security that makes Jesus so completely confident, all these resources he acts like he has, and that he seems to think so outweigh money and achievement that you could drop those in a second if you only understood -- maybe all those riches and power and security are going to show up. Maybe Jesus is going to be crowned King, and reign in glory, and they’ll be the Cabinet. Maybe that’s what’s going to happen.
And so two members of his inner circle, James and John, want to call the best seats. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Now there is going to be glory. There are going to be infinite resources revealed. But it’s not going to happen in a way that fits their preconceptions about religion. The Son of Man is going to be glorified, all right, but glorified by being lifted up on a Cross, by showing the lengths to which God will go to give himself to us. Glorified not by collecting glory, but by giving it away, liquidating his assets and pouring them out over us in love.
Not exactly what James and John were thinking of. But you can’t blame them; we all think like that without God’s help. As Jesus says it’s impossible to enter the Kingdom for us. We have to let God bring us in. Without God, we all turn everything back to how it affects us, what we think we and others deserve, how we will benefit. We think that’s normal, because we think sin is normal. But as I said a couple weeks ago, Jesus knows what’s actually normal, what God originally intended.
Jesus’ reply to the disciples’ request is gentle, but also comical in its level of understatement: “You do not know what you are asking.” They don’t know that the way they interpret Jesus, according to their preconceptions about improving yourself and managing your own resources – all of that comes from being trapped within the worldly system that Jesus came to save us from. And so Jesus tries to tell them. He tries to help them imagine how it is, in God’s system, God’s kingdom, which, remember, he has already launched and is already available.
Jesus tries to explain, as he does over and over, that the way God does things isn’t the way this fallen world does things. “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve. He came to give his life away, a ransom for many.” With God, the primal movement is not inward, it’s outward. It’s not about what comes to me, but about what I let go. It’s not about who respects me, but about giving honor and opportunity to others. It’s not about safeguarding our blessings, but about being a blessing to others.
This principle is all through the Bible, and it baffles me how often churches act as if it weren’t. In so many churches you would swear someone just cut all those pages out of the book. In so many churches the attitude is like, yes, that’s what’s in the Prayer Book and the Hymnal and the Bible, but once we walk out of Mass into the parish hall – never mind walking out of the parish hall into the parking lot – once we leave the service we are going to act as if God were very limited in his abilities and very narrow in his priorities, and we need to ration our resources and make sure we don’t get too involved, because apparently the Holy Spirit has been kidnapped and tied up in a closet somewhere.
But all those pages are in the Bible, and God knows what he’s doing with this infinite blessing stuff, and the most heartstoppingly beautiful example of that is Jesus. The way he emptied himself on the Cross for us is so beautiful that when we really see it, when it really connects, it opens up the opportunity to feel all those other things that have taken over our priorities being drained of the power we mistakenly thought they had. We thought we needed them, but that was just the way the world did things. The way God does things is different. Acclaim is just acclaim. Time is just time. Money is just money. In Christ, we can have them, or let them go. He is enough for us.
You don’t have to believe that, of course. Christianity is hard to believe. And the Episcopal church is, thank God, a safe place for people who aren’t yet ready to believe it, a safe place to ask questions and dip your toes in the water of Christian life. But it’s not meant to be a place that encourages you to stay in the shallows forever and never go past your toes, either. It’s meant to help you learn to swim. God the Holy Trinity is an infinite ocean of joy and creativity and love and the sooner you strike out into the depths the better your life will be. And the better the lives of others will be, because as you become secure in God’s blessing he will be able to use you to bless others.
God is always seeking to give more and more out of his infinite resources -- even to us Episcopalians, who so often hold back, lingering right on the shoreline in case some better option comes along. Who so often can’t be bothered to realize how much God is offering us because we’re far more motivated by trying to hold on to what we’ve got.
But when we do open our hands, when we do even start to look at Jesus and let go of trying to deserve and control and plan, when we swim instead of backing away from the beautiful big waves, we’re filled with blessing. And the same blessing spills out from us, and we say “Is that how Christianity works? Why did I miss this for so long?”
You don’t have to believe that. But I want to tell you, it’s worth a try.