holy cross sermon for the twenty-first sunday after pentecost, october 18, 2015

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

In today’s readings the central, challenging mystery of the Gospel begins to become clear, a mystery hidden since the foundation of the world, but one that had been becoming clearer and clearer throughout the history of Israel, and by the revelation of the prophets: that God is a god of love; that, as Jesus, says elsewhere, quoting the prophet Hosea, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” (Matt. 9.13, cf. Hosea 6.6). This is the most central theological truth, and the one that makes Christianity totally unique in the catalogue of religions: “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4.16).

The whole edifice of our faith, Christian spiritual practices, as well as what we like to think of as the “moral” or “ethical” code by which we are bound as disciples of Jesus, can be rightly understood only as a marinating in, and a living-out of this truth. To inhabit this mystery is what it means to be saved, what it means to become like God. “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.”

In today’s Gospel lesson, two of the disciples make a reasonable request of the Lord: “And James and John, the sons of Zeb’edee, 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 do 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’” (Mark 10.35-37).

It might perhaps annoy us a little bit when we read this, the presumption of these two disciples and their attempt to cut to the front of the line. But if it annoys us – and it probably should – it does so because the same impulse lies in our own hearts.

It becomes clear that James and John have misunderstood the meaning of the coming of the Kingdom, which Jesus had spent several years proclaiming. And its really no surprise: the whole purpose of his coming might, in a sense, be understood to be to clear up this confusion which is built into the human condition and which colors our conception of ourselves and of the world and of our relationships with one another. It is the self-seeking and violence that lies in our hearts, and on the foundation of which we organize our individual lives, as well as our cultural forms.

It is for this reason that the eyes of James and John were veiled to the truth. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” We ask the Lord for the same thing, and in the same spirit, when we ask him for earthly goods – for temporal fulfillment of whatever sort, when we ask him that he grant us to “win” – to become successful – on the world’s terms – to get rich or famous or influential, to marry the star quarterback or the captain of the cheerleading squad.

“But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking,’” (v. 38). We do not know what we are asking. As Jesus told Pilate, the Kingdom of God is not of this world (cf. John 18.36). And its coming is according to the expectations of neither the world nor the flesh.

“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” The Lord is here indicating the cup of his suffering and the baptism of his death, which are bearing down on him, and he indicates this when he points out that James and John will indeed both drink his cup and share his baptism, though not in the way that they suppose. But the Lord will be crowned, robed, sceptered, and hailed as a king, when he comes to the cross. And on his right hand and on his left there will be two thieves, “those for whom it has been prepared” (v. 40).

The cross is scandalous. And we must confess that the spectacle of Golgotha is not the kingdom of God we have come to expect, because we have internalized the world’s priorities and made them our own. We expect God to triumph through some progressive ascendency, and we expect our participation in his triumph to be by means of some vindication in the world’s eyes, some victory that all can see and recognize. At the level of human society, as I have said before, we expect the Messiah to come riding an army tank or administering a social program – or to come into our personal lives carrying sacks of cash.

We do well to expect the Lord’s vindication to be brought forth as the light, and his just-dealing as the noonday (Ps. 37.6). But we do poorly to assume that our eyes can see it, or our ears can hear it. Nevertheless: there is the Lord’s vindication and justice, reigning from the tree. And the perception of an open heart, a broken and contrite heart (which is the only thing God wants from us), looks on this spectacle, sees the truth, and weeps tears of repentance, realizing that this is what it takes to set us free from the mess we have made.


Jesus came precisely to set us free from these our delusions about what the Kingdom, the power, and the glory mean; from the lies we tell ourselves about the genesis of our desire; from the government of envy and violence, and from the despair and the death to which our delusions give rise.

But – thanks be to God! – “we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4.15-16).

Jesus not only diagnoses the problem, but he gives us the means of overcoming it: by drinking his cup, and being baptized with his baptism. Or, as he says succinctly elsewhere, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8.34). Envy and pride, the roots of our problem, are overcome by humility and self-emptying. In the value- system within which we live, humility and self-emptying are almost inevitably met with violent opposition, because they shed light on the deception by which this world’s Kingdom of violence and death holds sway.

The solution is, as ever, to come to Jesus and allow him to make us like him, by the gift of the Holy Spirit. We see this in the Gospel reading today: “And Jesus CALLED THEM TO HIM… and said to them, ‘You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’” (Mark 10.42ff).

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

Published by Fr George

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

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