James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
James and John, Sons of Thunder
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Mark 10:35-45
I grew up playing team sports. The competition to make the varsity squad in soccer was intense, and then you had to compete to make the starting roster. Before any quantifiable proof of your worth-goals, assists, or saves-you had to win the opportunity to wear the jersey, to get off the bench. I was a good player, but not great. Right in the middle of the pack. I could start a play, contribute to the game and make the save; but I have one career goal to my name: a penalty score my senior year. I even had to share my varsity jersey with a team mate. We were both number "16."
Never being first did not feel particularly good. Even on a team that worked together to win, we still competed with each other. We fought for game time. We fought to get the goal, the assist, the save, and during practice it was often at the expense of our team mates. During those practices, we would often do drills or run intervals. The coach would push us to be the first over the line, and I spent years struggling to keep up with the faster runners on the team.
Then, my junior year, I ran track in the spring. I was not a great runner, but I benefited from the extra work on speed and endurance. Coming back to soccer that fall, we started practices with running and ended with sprints up and down the field. After the extra conditioning I had that last spring and summer, I found I suddenly had wheels. Over and over again, I was the first to cross the line during sprints. I got to taste what "being first" felt like often enough to begin to like it. Luckily, I was not good enough to get to expect it.
That taste of being first though, I remember what it felt like. To hold that favored spot, to know that through merit and effort I was first...or second, or third....on the team that day, that week, that season, felt GOOD. At least, I thought so. Soon, though, I realized that while I was first over the line, I was still the kid in the middle of the pack. What joy I got from being fast was being lost in the struggle to gain status and approval among team mates who were not very interested in offering either. What good was it to climb a ladder, even a few rungs, if it cost another boy his role, his sense of self? What good was it to win a spot, but lose the team's sense of community? I learned from those competitive days that while competition works on the field, it fails to deliver on building up community, and it usually damages people along the way.
The lesson learned from that journey is the same one that lies at the core of this week's gospel story. James and John love Jesus, and I am sure they also bear great affection for the other members of the community of disciples that had grown up around them. The thing is, they-along with Peter and Andrew-were the first to cast down their lives in order to take up the Way of Jesus' teachings. They had seniority, and I am sure after listening to Jesus longer than the others that they felt closer to him and to his message. They wanted to support their teacher, as well as to hold places near/next to him. They wanted to keep their places near this rising "number one" teacher, who by his grace made second and third place seem like a pretty good gig.
People should refrain from assuming that they were asking for a place of privilege for its own sake. Instead, let's allow that they simply wanted to formalize a fact that they felt was already true: that they were there on Jesus' right and left, having earned their spot on the team.
That is not how God rolls. High school or college soccer teams might run on those rules, but the Kingdom of God in Christ does not do so. Instead, says Jesus, look to the bottom of the roster, to the bench....to the cut list. I tell you, says Jesus, that the heart of the team is not the tip of the proverbial spear. The heart lies in the hands of the vast multitude of people who are NOT the starting line up. In fact, they probably missed try outs all together.
If you want to lead, says Jesus...then serve. If you want to be a true success, then ask not how much can I do to win but what is it that gives life to the team. It's not about me, you learn...it is about the community.
I am still learning that hard and complex lesson. With every moment of advancement in this life and ministry that I have known, the price of pride in success has been dear indeed. When I have been graced with a willingness to embrace a more humble posture, then the innate competitiveness I possess fades just enough for me to not just hope for a glimpse of the Kingdom, but to let it shine through me. When I fail to do so, I can watch brows crease, eyebrows raise and a breeze blows between me and the growing void of relationship between myself and others.
James and John did us all a favor. By asking a question most of us would be afraid to speak out loud, they beg the question of who had more status in the community gathered in Christ's name. They think that the places at Jesus' right and left (a celestial 2nd and 3rd place!) carry with them particular accrual of status. They don't. Instead, they entail us being open to being rejected, humiliated, scorned, scourged and perhaps even slain in Jesus' Name, and for His sake. Our job is to take those words of Jesus to heart as he chides them gently to let go of trying to make the squad.
You already have made it, says Jesus....and now, what are you going to do about it? Are you going to use this position to push others down, or lift them up? To labor in order to add to the health of the community, rather than secure your own comfortable station. Jesus tell James and John that they can share his cup and his bread, but he can't give them those eats. James and John, and we ourselves, must now be open to learning how to set aside the pettiness of harmful competitiveness in favor of a deeper and more powerful connect to the challenge Jesus makes over and over again....if you want to lead my church, then learn how to serve it and the people in it.