[Mark 10:35-40] And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” 39 And they said to him, “We are able.” And 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, 40 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.”
The Cup and Baptism of the Lord
“The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” What is that cup and that baptism?
James and John did not understand the question they had asked Jesus, and they didn’t understand the implications of their own answer: “We are able.” Jesus says that they will, but He doesn’t say they are able – not on their own.
The cup and the baptism – they will share in that. To sit at Christ’s right and left in His glory, that has been reserved for two others.
Today, on the Church’s calendar, is the feast of St. James, the Apostle, the brother of the Apostle John. In the Lutheran church, we embrace these feast days as a chance to remember and learn from the example of biblical saints. Through them, we learn of faithfulness to Christ, yes, but most of all we learn of Christ’s faithfulness to His people. And we learn by example what we should expect the Christian life to be.
James and John, fisherman, partners with Peter and Andrew, in fact, in the fishing trade, sons of a man named Zebedee, were called to follow Christ and to be fishers of men. James and John were among the twelve – the twelve disciples designated as Apostles – men sent (‘apostle’ means ‘sent’) to proclaim the Gospel and lay the foundation of Christ for all generations to come.
Of the twelve, James, John, and Peter were the inner-three. Clearly, in the gospels, these three are leaders and form a bit of an inner circle. These three are present, invited exclusively, for some of Christ’s greatest miracles. These three alone were brought up upon the mount of Transfiguration and saw Christ shine in glory.
Naturally, then, arguments arise among the disciples about who is the greatest and who will be the greatest when Christ’s kingdom is finally ushered in. And none of them understand.
And, in today’s Gospel, James and John, these two brothers – and, in fact, their mother was involved [Matthew 20:20] – seek to seize an opportunity to secure their positions, on the right and on the left hand of the King, as the two second only to Him, in His coming kingdom. They don’t understand.
Jesus had shone in transfiguration glory in the presence of James and John – clearly they had this in mind when they say “Grant us to sit on your right and left in your glory” – but Christ’s kingdom will now come in the shape of a cross. This is what James and John don’t yet understand.
Christ’s kingdom comes - His greatest glory is shown to the world - when His arms are stretched out, His hands nailed and pierced, His skin whipped and bloodied, His beard pulled and His face spit upon, for the sins of the world.
What is Christ’s kingdom? “My kingdom is not of this world”, Christ says [John 18:36]. What is Christ’s glory?
Christ’s greatest glory is His display of God’s love, displayed upon the cross. Yet even this display – of Christ upon the cross – is often misunderstood as a display of what is merely worldly and human glory.
Christ on the cross is often displayed as, first and foremost, an example of great human fortitude – to sacrifice for a cause. Or Christ’s cross is displayed as an example of the resilience of the downtrodden in their cause against political oppression.
Or Jesus’ cross is displayed as, first and foremost, the great human moral example – that if I love as Jesus loved, if I give myself as Jesus gave Himself, then I too will be saved. An example of how to save myself or achieve spiritual glory.
Or we commandeer Jesus as the symbol of our own earthly nation, our earthly victory and might, our worldly triumph, the symbol of our own political party.
We don’t understand. These are all ways of saying, with James and John, “let us sit on Your right and Your left.” Jesus says, “You don’t understand yet. I did not come for your own human success. My kingdom and glory is to save sinners. To save and deliver the lost, to bring to life the dead-in-sin.”
Jesus’ glory – the glory of His kingdom – is to display God’s love. And here is the love of God, according to Scripture: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” [Romans 5:6-8].
The ones who sat at Jesus’ right hand and left hand in the coming of this Kingdom and glory were the two thieves, crucified on either side of Jesus, as He was “numbered with the transgressors” [Isaiah 53:12].
Jesus, in this glory of His cross, was made a curse to save you from the curse of the Law against your sin [Galatians 3:13]. Jesus, who had no sin, was made your sin on the cross, that in Him, you, a sinner, might become the righteousness of God [2 Corinthians 5:21]. Your sin was condemned in His flesh so that His righteousness is fulfilled in you [Romans 8:3-4]. Jesus loved you as Himself and laid down His life for yours.
The cross for you is the cup He drank. The streaming blood of His sacrifice is the baptism in which He was baptized to be the Savior of the world. He has done this for you. He has done this for James and John. And Jesus tells you and James and John that you too will drink this cup and be baptized in this baptism – that you too will be laying down your life for others - that you too will share in the cross for the sake of the Gospel so that others too may hear and believe the truth proclaimed.
The Apostle James died, not for himself, and not to save himself – not to be another redeemer – but James’ life was laid down for the sake of proclaiming the message of Christ.
The Apostles went about proclaiming the death and resurrection of Jesus for salvation. In their proclamation, they upheld both the truth of God’s Law and the truth of God’s Gospel. Not to fix their nation. And not to exalt themselves or impose their will. But they upheld the truth because they love Jesus who sent them to proclaim, and because they love their neighbor who needs to hear.
Jesus loved those who did not love Him, He proclaimed the truth to those who would crucify Him for it, so that some of them could be saved. He gave His life. Jesus has called us – we who have been saved by the Gospel – to also proclaim the whole truth of God’s Word even to those who will hate us for it, so that some of them might be saved.
James died at the hand of king Herod. To the world, his death is failure. Yet James died for teaching the truth of God’s Word. And because of what he taught with his lips, others heard and believed and so were saved eternally.
You are partakers, receivers, of all Jesus has done for you. All of the saving work of Jesus is laid upon you in the water of baptism which has covered you. The salvation of His cross is continually fed to you in the hearing of His Word and in the food and drink, the cup, of His Supper. As you benefit from Baptism and Cup, so you also now share in Baptism and Cup.
What you so freely receive, you are duty bound by love for Christ and love for neighbor to share with others, so that some may be saved. If ever need be, we even uphold the truth of God’s Word at the cost our life, just as the life of the Apostle James was laid down for the sake of proclaiming the same.
Just as many have lived and died for their earthly nation, Jesus calls us to sacrifice, to live, to lay down our life and life-interests, for the sake of His heavenly Kingdom – for the saving of those who will hear and believe. James and many others are an example of such sacrifice for us to follow today. Amen.