Speaking of Heaven: Stepping Up
October 16, 2021 Rev. Drew Stockstill
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.”
Fear is a completely natural human emotion. We all experience fear. But Jesus invites us into a way of living in the world where we do not let our fears control how we live and how we engage with the world. We face our fears in love. As 1 John teaches, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”
Let us pray. Holy God, help us to receive your word with open hearts and courage. Amen.
James and John were afraid. This whole thing about the seating arrangements in heaven, their concerns about ranking, it’s about control and often control is about fear. The way James and John are trying to get control, it sounds liken the disciples are a high school marching band and they’re competing for first chair of the clarinet section. Their brazen request for Jesus to do for them whatever they ask, that’s not the behavior of healthy, secure, grounded men. This is the behavior of guys acting out of fear. James and John were afraid, and I can see why. They’ve been with Jesus for a long time, but now, they are about to enter Jerusalem and they know, because he’s told them, their time together on earth is quickly coming to an end – and they’re afraid.
James and John were among the very first people Jesus called to follow him. They were fishermen, brothers. They had been working on their father Zebedee’s boat when Jesus met them. I have to wonder what kind of guys these brothers were because they quickly earned a nickname from Jesus. He called them Sons of Thunder. That kind of tells you all you need to know about these guys. Jesus named them Sons of Thunder. I think they must have been real tough guys, working guys, fishermen with thick hands and broad shoulders, and loud voices and big laughs, and salty mouths. Jesus really like these guys. They quickly became part of his inner circle, with Peter, who he called The Rock. Jesus named all these guys like they were WWF wrestlers. Once, Jesus was asked to heal a girl but she died before he got to her house. Jesus told the father of the girl, “Do not fear, only believe,” and then he asked only Peter, James, and John to come with him into the house. And the girl was alive. Not everyone saw Jesus bring a girl back from the dead, most people never see something like that. But Jesus wanted James and John to see. You know there’s something special about a man who can bring people back from the dead.
Another time Jesus invited just The Rock and the Sons of Thunder up on a mountain with him. And they saw Jesus transfigured before their eyes, and saw him talking to Moses and Elisha.
The last time we see James and John in the gospel, Jesus asks them and Peter to come with him to the garden of Gethsemane the night he will be arrested. He asks just them to stay awake with him because, he said, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” Then Jesus threw himself to the ground and prayed, “Abba, remove this cup from me.” When Jesus was in the darkest night of his life, when he faced his own fear, his own death and he need his closest brothers with him, he turned to James and John. Their place as Jesus’ most trusted disciples seems fairly secure. They’ve seen him at his most miraculous, his most transcendent, and they’ve seen him at his loneliest, most grieved. And yet, James and John come to him with a very selfish, self-centered, arrogant request. “When you make it to heaven, we’re all with you, and you’re in your glory, can we be at your right hand and at your left.” Doesn’t it sound like they are concerned about whether they will have the same special place with Jesus that they’ve experience on earth? It’s a question that shows in this moment they do not understand what Jesus has been teaching them, what he’s been preparing them for. Their judgment, their discipleship, their very faith is clouded by their fear.
So, we’ve been talking the last few weeks about Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom of God in our “Speaking of Heaven” series. We’ve heard about the spirit of welcome, and about receiving the kingdom like a child. Today, Jesus teaches that the kingdom of God is a place of courageous love lived out in service to others. It is a place of fearlessness. We heard how heaven is so much more than the place we go when we die. Jesus wants us to live today on earth like our greatest hopes for heaven are really real in this life. James and John, they are so much like us, that even with all Jesus’ talk about their mission on earth their chief concern is their status in heaven after they die. Instead of living on earth with the greatest hope of heaven, they are worried on earth about their greatest fear in heaven.
James and John, the Sons of Thunder, are afraid. They aren’t afraid to die. They say they are ready to drink from the same cup to go through the same baptism as Jesus, which is to say, they are ready to face the physical challenges ahead. They’re tough guys. Jesus knows this and he agrees. He tells them they will drink of the cup he drinks and be baptized with his baptism. But their fear about their special status in glory, well, Jesus says, “that’s not mine to grant.”
James and John have had a front row seat to Jesus and the exhibition of the kingdom of God on earth. They should know by now that the special status they’ve experience with Jesus wasn’t to prepare them for glory, it was to prepare them for leadership on earth, leadership as Jesus demonstrated it. Jesus was discipling, mentoring, these guys, teaching them how to step up into leadership when he passed the mission of the church onto them. His model of leadership, the way he uses his power is grounded in confidence and faith so he does not need to prove his significance and power by lording it over people, building up wealth to show is off. Jesus’ power is demonstrated in humble leadership that come not to be served but to serve.
When Jesus speaks of heaven as the kingdom of God, his kingdom does not function like the kingdoms on earth. Our kingdoms on earth are seen in political leadership, major corporations, celebrities. These are the places our culture has placed its power. Jesus says of the leadership of the world, “those whom they recognize as their leaders lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.” This form of leadership is ultimately fear driven. They are afraid if they don’t prove their worth they will not be trusted. Who would trust the power of a leader that did not have a well-funded military to demonstrate and protect their power? Who would trust the wisdom and leadership ability of a business leader who didn’t have great personal wealth to prove their business acumen? They fear vulnerability will compromise their power, rather than what is more often the case, that the leader who owns their vulnerability and leans into their fear only builds greater trust and admiration of those they lead.
Jesus fed others, touched the unclean, lifted up children, spoke to those who others feared, but he was also the very same speaking to powerful religious leaders, the commander of soldiers, wealthy community members. Jesus’ power came from his faith and confidence in his authority. He knew his authority was given by God, so he had nothing to prove and nothing to fear. So many who claim power in our society are so afraid they will lose it that it compromises their ability to lead and they are among the least trusted individuals in our society.
Those who lead through service are among the most trust. Surveys of Americans show this: the professions built on service of others are the most trusted: nurses, military officers, and teachers are at the top of the list. At the very bottom are politicians, lobbyists, and business executives. They are among our most power, our wealthiest, and least trusted. They have lost their trust because they operate most out of fear of losing their power. They value power and wealth over trust and relationships.
But Jesus tells his disciples, “it is not so among you; whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Jesus is calling for fearless leadership. When he is gone it will be his disciples who must step up, to claim the authority, but demonstrate it through service to the world, just as Jesus did. The kingdom of God does not operate like our kingdoms, our systems. Jesus shows us what the kingdom of God looks like and it is a place where there is no more fear. He teaches us to pray, “thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” Therefore, to live within the kingdom of God on earth is to lean into our fears rather than live in response to them. James and John projected their earthly fears onto eternity when Jesus wants us to take the eternal reality which is without fear and live into that today.
Jesus knew the Sons of Thunder were afraid and their request for some promise of heavenly status was a silly question out of their fear. Rather than try to make them feel better, he called all his disciples who were all equally afraid, to lean into their fear, to be strong and courageous, and he did so without using those words. Instead he shows us what strong and courageous leadership looks like: to serve, to give, to love.
This is what heaven looks like, a place where fear has been cast out by perfect love, and this is what heaven looks like on earth, where fear leads us into service which leads us to love, which casts out our fear. Do not fear, only believe. Amen.
"I met Michael in a Boston subway station. I told him I liked his sign. 'What matters is what it means to you,' he told me. I asked what it meant to him. 'Doing a deed or expressing kindness to another person without expecting anything in return,' Michael said. I love approaching strangers wherever I go. Listening and talking to them teaches you about people and how similar we all are to one another. Just like Michael, we’re all seeking human kindness."
- Photographer, Matt Collamer