21st Sunday after Pentecost Lectionary Reflection
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. Isaiah 53:6
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;” Mark 10:38-39
In Mark’s gospel this week, the disciples continue to try to make sense of all that’s happening around them. Although they have traveled extensively with Jesus as a part of his inside-out, upside-down ministry, they still seem to have trouble wrapping their minds around what might be ahead as they follow their king. They patently reject the notion of suffering and death as an unacceptable and even unrealistic option. After all, kings and rulers reign in glory, are held in honor, and wield great power. They’ve been faithful followers; therefore, shouldn’t they be entitled to bask in some of the glory, too?
Zebedee’s sons James and John definitely want a piece of the messianic action – and some prime real estate on either side of Jesus’ throne in glory. We twenty-first century readers understand that these two disciples have no clue what they’re asking for. Instead of a cup of suffering, they probably had in mind some mighty fine wine. Jesus announces that they will be given what they desire, although it will not turn out to be the glory and honor they expect.
The other disciples are indignant that the Zebedee brothers are vying for the best seats in the kingdom, and tension mounts. Again, Jesus instructs his followers about the real nature of leadership in the reign of God, reminding them that it is the exact opposite of what the world values. According to Ched Myers, “…only women fulfill the vocation of diakonia in Mark” (Binding the Strong Man, 280), so the idea of being a servant leader was a highly subversive and countercultural notion, and certainly not the kind of leadership model befitting the one they imagined would send their oppressors packing.
Along with Mark’s original audience, we may easily make a viable connection between the suffering servant of Second Isaiah and Jesus. It is debatable whether the suffering servant was intended to depict the embodiment of the suffering of Israel, the experience of a prophet, or a key to understanding the suffering role that Jesus would assume — or any combination thereof. It’s clear from both of these lessons that suffering is a part of discipleship, God’s people are not spared the pains of sojourning in a foreign land, in a world not our own. Leadership in Jesus’ way means to follow and serve, and it may even mean to suffer for the sake of the gospel. After all, Jesus suffered and died so that all might live.
We’re not much on suffering these days; our lives are pretty easy in North America. As the prophet says of his own people, we too “like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way.” We can switch our television channels and turn our heads to the pain and suffering of our neighbors. We can send money to support missionaries without risking disease or danger and without ever leaving our homes.
Yet Jesus invites us to join the “suffer” club as part of faithful and radical discipleship, to realize that in following him and in being part of the reign of God here and now, we open our eyes, our minds, and our hearts to the realities of this beautiful yet broken world. No one gets out of life on earth alive, and suffering is a part of the fabric of life.
The thing about being part of the “suffer” club is this: there is beauty, joy, and hope in serving others. And when we suffer, or share the suffering of others, we learn what it means to be fully dependent on Jesus, our righteousness being perfected in each step of the journey. Finally, membership in the “suffer” club puts one in community across time, place, and context with others who bear the name of Christ. It’s a big club, with a vast table and good company, where there’s always room for one more.
Consider using the hymn “Lord, Whose Love in Humble Service” by Albert F. Bayly (1901-1984). If you use visual images in worship, you might put together a montage of “suffering servant” images throughout the ages, considering how to include the marginalized and oppressed. Click here for more information about the hymn, its history, and its various tunes.
If you’re looking for a movie to watch, check out The Last Sin Eater (2007). This teen-appropriate film (PG-13) set in 1850s Appalachia, deals with humankind’s quest for redemption and a Welsh mountain community’s traditional way of providing it–and the suffering the tradition brings with it. It should offer good potential for discussion. Click here to view the trailer.
Leading Though Serving: Gather several pictures of people who “serve” in their vocations. Some ideas include health care professionals, members of the armed services, police officers (“to serve and protect”), missionaries, wait staff, sextons, and sales associates. Talk with the children about what these people do in their jobs and what it means to serve. Remind them that Jesus told his disciples that “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44). Tell the children that all who are Christians are asked to serve others, and help them think of ways they can serve. Challenge them to find someone to serve in the week ahead. Invite them to have their parents take a picture of them serving and bring a copy back to place on a bulletin board at church. Finish with a prayer thanking God for Jesus who was the ultimate model of one who serves in love.