holy cross sermon proper 24, year b, october 21, 2012

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Jesus said, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized,” (Mark 10.39).

Jesus spoke these words, as we just heard, to James and John, the sons of Zebedee, after they asked Jesus for the privilege of sitting with him in his glory. What’s going on in this passage? I want to suggest that a good deal is going on, and I want to draw your attention to three interrelated levels on which this passage may be understood.

Firstly there is the historical level. And I have spoken about the historical meaning of this passage before. What James and John do not, as of yet, understand is that Jesus will be glorified on the cross; he will reign as king of Israel from the cross. The events surrounding Jesus’ suffering and death in the Gospels make it clear – at least for those with “eyes to see” and “ears to hear” – that what is happening is the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies regarding the messianic king. He rides into Jerusalem on a colt, as people lay palm fronds on the road and shout “Hosanna to the Son of David!” He cleanses the temple. All of this, and more besides, fulfills what the prophets had foretold about the coming of the righteous Servant of God who would come and rule God’s people with justice and bring the history of Israel to an eschatological crescendo.

And all of this happens when Jesus comes to Jerusalem, and is executed on the cross. The fifteenth chapter of Mark makes the point absolutely explicit – again, for those with “eyes to see” and “ears to hear.” Mark says that the soldiers…

…clothed [Jesus] in a purple cloak, and plaiting a crown of thorns they put it on him. And they began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!”…. And they crucified him… And it was the third hour, when they crucified him. And the inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” (Mark 15.17ff)

Jesus comes into his kingdom and is glorified on the cross. The cross is “the place” the “where,” within history, that God’s glory is on-display, and where the Messiah, the long-foretold “son of David,” rules God’s people.

With that in mind, a new significance is revealed with respect to the request of James and John in today’s Gospel: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” (Mark 10.37). Five chapters later we read: “And it was the third hour, when they crucified him. And the inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews. And with him they crucified two robbers, ONE ON HIS RIGHT AND ONE ON HIS LEFT.”

And now we know why Jesus says to James and John today: “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,” (Mark 10.40). It had been prepared for two robbers. So here we can see the historical outworking of Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel. His glory will be his cross.

But there is also the spiritual level. “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” The “cup” to which Jesus refers is his suffering, as we can see when he prays earnestly in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove THIS CUP from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt,” (Mark 14.36). Spiritually speaking, therefore, we share in Jesus’ cup, and we are baptized with his baptism, when we suffer and die in union with him.

This does not mean that Christianity is masochistic. We do not relish suffering and death. And it is not something that we seek out. Rather, in imitation of Jesus, we love and serve God, offering our whole life – body, soul, spirit, relationships, jobs, finances, EVERYTHING – to him, to be used in his service, to further his agenda (which is always and only love) within the world. But because the world is opposed to the purposes of God – because the world and its rulers are more interested in things like money, sex, and power, than it is in things like life and dignity – that means that when we offer our whole life to God, we are offering it to a Power that is inimical to the world’s powers. And the world’s powers will oppose us, just as they opposed Jesus. So he says to his disciples: “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.”

Our task is to carry this imitation and likeness of our Savior to the very end: to suffer willingly and gladly what we must suffer, and consciously and prayerfully to offer our suffering to the Father, in union with the suffering of his Son, for the salvation of the whole world, praying, as it were, with our Lord, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do,” (Luke 23.34). Countless throngs of the Lord’s disciples have been heroic examples of this kind of suffering down through the centuries. And when we find ourselves in a position to suffer, and even to die, as we all some day must, we can find strength in the prayers and examples of the saints and martyrs (which is one of the reasons that their stories are printed in the leaflet each week – they’re not just for casual interest, but to teach us how to live and how to die).

Again, this is not masochism. In fact, the saints and martyrs have always practiced and taught prudence. Christians do not SEEK suffering and death, and we are commanded to live in peace with everyone, insofar as it is up to us; but when suffering and death is thrust upon us, we are to meet it in the spirit of Christ crucified. St. Polycarp, for example, the old bishop of Smyrna in the second century, hid from the authorities when they were seeking to kill him; but when at last they found him, he did not resist them; and when they tied him to the stake to be burned, the old man glorified God and thanked him for being counted worthy to share in the number of the martyrs and, as Polycarp said, to share in the “cup of… Christ.” And he asked God to receive his death as a “fat and acceptable sacrifice.”

When fidelity to God means being punished by the world, we must welcome the punishment – resolutely refusing anything but constancy in the way of the Gospel, the way of life. Now obviously the police are probably not going to start rounding up Christians to be publicly executed any time soon. But that is not the only way we can find ourselves at odds with the world. There are a myriad of circumstances, in our own time and place, where fidelity to Christ will mean some measure of suffering because of the world’s values and power structures – like refusing to be party to a lawsuit against fellow Christians; or standing up for the dignity and inviolability of human life, from conception to natural death. That last is becoming more and more unpopular in our world – particularly when the human life in question is an unborn child; or when it is poor, or an immigrant, or a Muslim, or even a criminal or a murderer. I am sure Christians will have more and more opportunities, as time goes on, to proclaim the Gospel of life and to suffer deprecation on account of it.

“The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.”

I have been speaking about three levels of on which our understanding must revolve around the Lord’s words here. I have mentioned the historical level – knowing that Jesus is talking about his own suffering and death on the cross. I have mentioned the spiritual level – our need to participate in his suffering and death by imitating it, taking up our cross and following him. And lastly there is the glue that holds the spiritual together with the historical and the material: and that is the sacramental level.

It is not enough just to believe in Jesus, to pray, and read the Bible, and try to be like him. We also must be baptized with water, in the name of the Trinity. Jesus himself made this ritual the gateway into his death and his resurrected life. Through baptism we are mystically (for lack of a better word) incorporated into him, and his Spirit comes into us and begins to empower our action in the world. We are invisibly, though really, united with him, such that his suffering and death and glory become ours, and ours become his.

And we must be Eucharistic. We must “drink his cup” at the mass, Sunday by Sunday, receiving his body and blood, and thereby both effecting and proclaiming our “communion” with Jesus and with one another. This is not optional. It is what it means to be a member of Christ’s body; its what it means to be a Christian. It is not just a nice thing we do once a week to edify ourselves – drinking the cup of Christ at the mass is the means, given to us by Jesus himself, by which our oneness with him, our “at-onement,” is brought about. And that oneness with him is the only thing that makes it possible to do what he commanded us to do, loving and serving him, proclaiming the Gospel of life within our world.

“The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Published by Fr George

Fr George is the priest-in-charge of Holy Cross Dallas

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