In the Name....
There was once a cat that died and went to Heaven. At the gates, St. Peter asked if the cat would like anything special. "Why, yes", the cat replied, "I'd like a nice soft cloud to stretch out on." "It's yours", said St. Peter. Later, a mouse died and went to Heaven. St. Peter asked if the mouse would like anything and he said that since all his life he'd scurried around he'd like a set of roller skates. "No problem", St. Peter replied. A few days later as St. Peter was strolling about he found the cat luxuriating on his little cloud and asked him how he was enjoying it. "Oh," the cat replied, "it's all wonderful, and, by the way, thank you for sending the meals on wheels."
Today, our Gospel presents us with two characters named James and John. Who were they? The sons of a fishmonger named Zebedee and the business partners of Peter and Andrew. They were also the first cousins of Jesus. That's right, if we read our Bibles carefully, we can see that the person Matthew calls "the mother of the sons of Zebedee", the person Mark calls "Salome", and the person John calls "Jesus' mother's sister", are one and the same. Mary's sister Salome was married to Zebedee and their sons were James and John.
No wonder James and John are always hanging around Jesus in the gospels - they grew up together! They went to school, played, fell out of trees, were best friends. They were with Jesus in the private room when Jairus' daughter was raised. They were invited to witness the Transfiguration and keep watch in the Garden of Gethsemane. They were very special and very close to Jesus.
It's sometimes hard for us to think of Jesus as a real person. We've been conditioned by Hollywood and Sunday School to see him as an ethereal, almost mythological, figure. It's incidents like the one in today's Gospel that remind us he was part of a human family just as we are and he had relatives with their own agendas.
Here, his cousins ask if he would, in view of the family connection, be so good as to ensure that they have significant leadership positions in his ministry - one at the right and one at the left hand.
It's tough when your family expects things from you. Never hire your relatives. Notice, though, how Jesus handles this awkward situation. He doesn't grant it, but, neither does he refuse it. He says, "You guys really don't know what you're asking."
You see their request is actually quite noble. It shows ambition, yes, but, it's ambition to be near Jesus. It has enthusiasm, but, it's because they believe in the new and better world he preaches. There is really a lot of love for Jesus in this request, but, there's still too much self-love in it. So he gives them an opportunity for a reality check.
You really don't know, he says. You don't understand what my Kingdom is all about. If you're asking for honour or status, you're asking for the wrong things. I'm going to Jerusalem to be betrayed, mocked, scourged, spat upon, and crucified. My earthly kingdom is one of suffering. My earthly crown, of thorns not gold. My earthly sceptre, a broken reed. My earthly throne, a cross. And if this is my earthly glory then to sit at my right and left must mean suffering and sorrow and hardship too. I must be crucified before I am glorified. You are seeking glory before you are crucified. You really don't know what you are asking.
"Oh, yes we do", they say, "We are able".
What an answer. No hesitation, no holding back. They have followed him this far, they'll follow him to the end. "We are able” And Jesus accepts this answer.
He doesn't promise to grant their request, but, he accepts that they've just promised to share in the most difficult part of his mission. They're prepared to undergo suffering in order to attain a glorious future and not just for themselves but, for others. They have promised the Christian duty of self-sacrifice.
Self-sacrifice is something that a lot of people aren't very keen on these days. Actually, that's nothing new, most people never have been. It's something we think is fine for others, but, not ourselves. And we can have funny ideas about it.
Four fanatic football fans were mountain climbing; a Redskins fan, an Eagles fan, a Cowboys fan, and a Ravens fan. They were arguing all the way up the mountain about who among them was the most die-hard. Upon reaching the top, the Ravens fan proclaimed, “This is for the Ravens!” and promptly jumped off the mountain as a sacrifice. Not to be outdone, the Eagles fan shouted, “This is for the Eagles!” and jumped off the mountain as a sacrifice. At this, the Redskins fan yelled “This is for the Redskins!” and he pushed the Cowboys fan off the mountain.
But, the fact is that self-sacrifice, that giving of ourselves for others, is a big part of what the gospel is all about. When we pray "Thy kingdom come", Jesus expects we're going to do something to make those fine words a reality. The kingdom doesn't come by wishing. The whole of the Christian life is based on this principle. Our Baptismal Covenant. Our Confirmation. Our Holy Communion. Every prayer, every good resolution, every work of mercy we perform, all of these are the answer "We are able" in reply to Christ's question, "Are you able to drink the cup that I must drink or be baptized with my baptism?" And if we say we are able then He gives us the strength to carry out whatever it is we're to do.
But, the cup can be bitter. The baptism is of fire. And sometimes, we fail. Look at James and John, both so eager, so confident, and yet when the soldiers came to the Garden of Gethsemane, they remembered an urgent appointment elsewhere. But, they learned from that experience and were able, in the coming years, to provide leadership, example, and inspiration to the fledgling Church. James was the first of the Twelve to be martyred. John wrote his Gospel, three Letters, and the Revelation.
The answer "We are able" is one we have make trustfully. Not casually, underrating the difficulties, nor boastfully, overrating our own powers, but, humbly by putting full and complete trust in God to overcome our weaknesses and best use our strengths.
So, when we're faced with temptation we can say; I have said I can resist, and with God's help, I will. When sorrowful say; I have said I can bear it, and with God's help, I will. And in all things say; I have said I can do it, and with God's help, I will.
Do you want to sit next to Jesus in His Kingdom? Why not? You are able.
In the Name...