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Little children, love each other

“Little children, love each other.”

Mark 10:35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him 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.’

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.

Reading Mark’s gospel from beginning to end (which is not actually very time consuming as it is really fairly short) is like having the train only slow down as it comes into the station and you have to reach out, grab hold and jump on; this train does not stop for anyone. The pace is fast and at times breathless – Jesus heals and performs miracles and tells people not to tell anyone, heals a few more, has great throngs and crowds following him everywhere, teaches and preaches and feeds five thousand here and four thousand there, heals again, walks on water, calms the seas – in short, he does it all and then some.

In the smack dab middle of all of this are these two brothers, James and John. Two men who will be with Jesus from the moment they are called away from their jobs as fishermen, called away from working beside their prosperous father. They were meant to be inheritors of their father’s vocation and livelihood, not struggling, barely able to put fish on the table kind of fishermen mind you, but the kind that owned a family fishing company and had hired hands or servants. These Zebedee boys were used to being at the head table with their father, one sitting on his right and the other on his left, places of honor, being served by others.

James and John, the son of Zebedee, called the sons of thunder -which translates more or less as the loud ones, the wild ones, the untamed ones. Today we might witness these two in action and describe them as thugs, ready to do damage in the ‘name of right’ kind of guys. In the gospel of Luke they witnessed people in some small town not welcoming Jesus and asked if they could ‘off’ them, “do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” Earlier in Mark’s gospel, brother John sees someone driving out demons in Jesus’ name and proudly announces, “We told him to stop because he was not one of us!” Further in Mark, today’s reading, we can just see them stumbling over each other, excited, to ask Jesus their question and have their request granted, when they boldly and immaturely ask, “ We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you. We want to have the seats of honor, James here on your right and me, John, on your left. OK?”

It is hard to find fault with them really. After all, Jesus has done enough to get his face on the cover of People magazine several times over, he is famed and respected and does do amazing things. They naturally want to be close to him.  Jesus himself called out James and John, don’t forget, they must feel special and chosen. Add to this the fact that they have lived a life of relative privilege and it is not hard to take the next step, the step they do take – “we are special, we have a job to do, the job is about keeping people in line and in their place. It is about helping Jesus separate the good from the not so good, the chosen from the not chosen, the deserving from those who do not deserve.”  They are doing what they believe is their job to do.

Each of us, I suspect, from time to time wants to be treated in special ways. We all want to know that what we do matters to others, and we hope we are held in a good light by those who know us. Don’t we spend a goodly amount of time talking about who is in and who is not in? Deciding what is correct behavior or right thinking?  Who among us does not want to feel special, to believe we are chosen and accepted? Don’t we all hope and pray there will be a place waiting for us at the table? Maybe even a place of honor in God’s heavenly kingdom? We can't fault James and John, for in many ways we would think and act and have the very same desires as they do.

Their problem is our problem however. It is that Jesus is claiming a radically different kind of relationship for us with God, about a completely altered way of looking at life, a fundamentally new way to live life. This view of God’s kingdom will not be about honor or privilege. It will not be about who is in and who is out. There will not be violence done to others to bring them into line and no one will have exclusive rights to the name of Jesus. The revealed truth about God’s kingdom, Jesus patiently tells them, is about discipleship, about stewardship, about servanthood.

“You will drink of the cup I drink. Be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with.” One way to understand this is to see it as the first steps in discipleship, the first brush with what it will mean to become part of the new community Jesus is creating, the body of Christ. Even these first steps may be difficult and confusing. Understanding Jesus will mean leaving behind old ways and old habits, it will mean giving up what used to matter most and embracing what might seem to matter least. Living into this will mean taking stewardship seriously by asking the hard questions: “Do I take care of God’s gifts to me?”  “Do I make my little part of God’s world a bit better by my presence?”  “Can I give more of my time, more of my talent, more of my money….to help, to heal some faceless, nameless one of God’s own other?” 

It will mean becoming the one who serves. Serves by offering a place in the long line at check-out to a weary mother, by speaking a kind word to the teen who believes you do not even see her, by gently motioning the frustrated driver to fall into line ahead of you or letting your spouse speak first. Serving sounds like, “let me do that for you” “how good you are” “I forgive you” “I love you” “I couldn’t have done it so well myself” “here, let me give you mine….”

What happens to these wild-headed brothers? They finally ‘get it’; they let a new light dawn in their hearts.  They leave behind old ways, inherited traditions, familial expectations and step by step chose to live into a new relationship with God.

 James is beheaded; he is martyred for behaving a lot like Jesus. And John writes letters, teaches, establishes churches and eventually he dies, the story goes, in a town called Ephesus. Feeble, carried around on a litter, barely able to speak, the only thing he says over and over is, “Little children, love each other.” Finally someone has to ask him, “Why do you always say this thing?” And this son of thunder and servant of God quietly answers, “It is the Lords command and if this alone be done, it is enough.”