September 30, 2012
James and John
Sermon by Jim Russo and Joanna Harader
Joanna: So, we’re still talking about Jesus’ disciples and this week our focus is on James and John. We’ve already talked about them a little–a few weeks ago when we read the story of Jesus calling the first disciples. You might remember that James and John are brothers who are out in their boat fishing with their dad, Zebedee.
In that story, they seem like good disciple material. Jesus says, “Follow me,” and they just leave the boat and go off with Jesus. Trusting. Enthusiastic. They’re off to a good start.
But now. Now it seems they’ve gotten too big for their britches. Really. These two–who apparently think they are better than the other ten apostles, not to mention all the other people following Jesus around, the women who are paying their way–these two say to Jesus, “We want you to do whatever we ask you.” Can you imagine the nerve? The nerve it would take to ask a favor of Jesus in the first place. But this isn’t just any favor. They want to sit at Jesus’ right and left hands in glory!
Jim: Joanna, if you are going to accuse James and John as acting too big for their britches, allow me the opportunity to defend them with another clothing metaphor: If the shoe fits, wear it, or perhaps in their case, if the sandal fits, wear it. James and John understandably believed they were highly esteemed by Jesus, and I think if you and I had been in their sandals, we would have come to the same conclusion.
First, let’s consider their relationship to Jesus, and by relationship, I literally mean how they were related to him. In the Gospel of John, we learn that their mother, Salome, was the sister of Mary, Jesus’s mother; thus, John and James were Jesus’s first cousins, making them more closely related to him than was John the Baptist. Surely, the Bible’s liberal use of the word “begat” in its genealogies indicates that family ties were important.
Second, as yourself noted to me in an earlier conversation, Jesus bestowed nicknames on those closest to him. John’s gospel tells us that upon meeting Simon Peter, Jesus said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter). Similarly, Jesus renamed John and James, calling them “Sons of Boenerges,” or sons of thunder, after witnessing a fiery display of their tempers. As much as it pains me to make the analogy, recall if you will another powerful leader who used nicknames for those in his inner circle, nicknames such as Rummy and Brownie, as in “Heckuva job, Brownie.”
Of course, nicknames and family ties alone wouldn’t have led to John and James asking to sit at Jesus’s right and left hands in glory. Their request didn’t come out of nowhere; instead, I like to think of it as being a request for a promotion. After all, along with Peter, the two apostles were already part of Jesus’s inner circle. For example, Peter, James, and John go with Jesus onto the mountain of transfiguration. And Mark 5:37 tell us that Jesus “did not let anyone follow him except Peter, James and John the brother of James” when he went to heal Jairus’s daughter. Talk about being singled out for special treatment!
Joanna: O.K. So you’re saying that James and John actually were uniquely significant to Jesus. They had every reason to expect the sandal would fit. That they were, in some ways, entitled to a private audience, to special favors maybe.
This makes me think about all of the talk we’ve been hearing about entitlement lately. It’s a hot political issue. Romney got in trouble when he said that the 47% of Americans who don’t pay income tax think they’re entitled to health care and food. In this rhetoric, it’s a bad thing to think you are entitled. That you deserve something you haven’t earned. Everyone seems to think that, right. Even those who criticize Romney’s remarks.
I mean, I haven’t heard anyone say, “You know what, every last scumbag on the planet, no matter how annoying or lazy, is entitled to health care and food.” No. What I’ve heard is, “That 47% includes military families and the elderly and the working poor.” In other words, paying income tax or not is not the measure of whether you deserve food or not. But there is a measure. Some people are deserving and others aren’t.
James: Well, James and John seem to think so. And they do have reason to believe that they are deserving of special attention. They may not have been 1 percenters, but they seem to have been at least better off than many of their peers, including Peter and his brother, the disciple Andrew, who, if the gospel of Mark is to be believed, encountered Jesus while casting their nets from the shore. James and John, in contrast, had boats, and left hired men to help their father with the work. And Matthew tells us that their mother, Salome, had the resources to follow Jesus and help care for his needs. Add it all up, and I’d say they were uniquely deserving of Jesus’s favor.
Joanna: Who doesn’t think they are uniquely deserving? Some politicians defend and privilege the wealthy class–because the wealthy are “wealth producers” who should be taken care of. And then I saw an Obama sign that said, “Middle Class First.” So maybe the middle class is entitled to more consideration than others because the majority of Americans fit into that category. And while the rhetoric goes on and on about which Americans are entitled to what we hardly even question the underlying assumption that the United States is entitled to a privileged position in the world.
James: Sure. I guess we all, to a certain extent, assume that we are entitled to things. Maybe we are. Isn’t everyone “entitled” to food and shelter and health care?
Joanna: I would say so. But you hit on the key word. “Everyone.” I think the problem is when we assume special status–we assume entitlements that are not offered to others. Like James and John pulling Jesus aside, trying to get the best spots in the Kingdom behind the backs of all the other disciples.
James: It seems the other ten disciples were not too happy when they heard what James and John had been up to. Perhaps their anger was lessened when Jesus implicitly scorned John and James’s status-seeking and sense of entitlement when he told his disciples that it is through serving others we become truly great.
Joanna: It’s a nice biblical soundbite: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.” But what does it really mean for us? What would it even look like to let go of a sense of entitlement?
Jim: Well, as an example of what it might look like, consider Ghandi, who insisted that everyone, including himself and his wife, no matter how great or small, would take turns cleaning the toilets at the ashram. It didn’t matter if you had something more “important” to do–if it was your turn, you cleaned the toilet.
Joanna: That makes me think of a study I read about recently. I mean, it’s not exactly about servanthood, but in a lot of ways it is.
I’m reading a book called Sabbath in the Suburbs, by MaryAnn McKibben Dana. She writes about a study done at Princeton Theological Seminary. They took a group of seminary students and gave them personality tests. Then they told the students they were going to another building on campus to give a talk; half were told they were going to talk about the story of the Good Samaritan and the other half that they were going to talk about their future career as pastors. Then they divided the students into three groups. One group was told they were already late for the talk. Another group was told they had just enough time to make it. And the third group was told to go ahead and head over to the other building, but they had plenty of time.
Maybe you know where this is going? There was a man stationed in an alley between the two buildings coughing and groaning. Some students stopped to help. Some didn’t. And when they analyzed the data, there was only one thing that seemed to make the difference between who stopped and who didn’t. It wasn’t the personality of the student. It wasn’t weather the student was preparing to talk about the story of the Good Samaritan. It was weather or not they were in a hurry. The students who thought they were late or almost late didn’t stop.
I guess that shows that we tend to privilege our own agenda over the most dire needs of others. Which surely has something to do with being a servant. Right?
Jim: Even when we do focus on being a servant, it is much easier to give priority to our needs, such as needing to arrive at a commitment in time instead of helping a stranger. Few of us are prepared to be 24-hour/7-day-a-week servants; instead, we are more likely to undertake well-defined, limited commitment opportunities to help others at a time of our choosing, rather than serving others in the moment, when the opportunity arises.
Serve jello salad at the church picnic? Sure. Clean the outhouse because there was something wrong with the potato salad? Sorry, I think they need me to serve jello salad now.
Joanna: You are right. It is really hard to be available to others in the moment. To be aware of the needs of those around us. James and John, even for all of their dedication to Jesus, kind of blow it in the end. The last time they are mentioned by name in Mark’s gospel is when Jesus takes them and Peter with him to pray in the garden. Jesus says, “I am deeply grieved, even to death. Stay here and stay awake.” That’s it. The only service Jesus asks for in his time of distress. Stay awake. And they don’t do it. They just can’t keep their eyes open. They let Jesus down.
James: Although they failed in the moment of Jesus’s need, James and John did transform themselves over their lifetimes. They went from being Sons of Thunder, ready to burn up a town with their anger, to leaders of the church, spreading God’s message of love and forgiveness. And just as Jesus told them “You will indeed drink the cup that I drink,” they suffered for their servanthood. Church tradition tells us that John was exiled to the island of Patmos, and James was apparently the first of the apostles to be martyred, when he was put to death by Herod. So these two brothers, who were born comparatively well-off and may have felt entitled to a special place beside Jesus, became servants to achieve the greatness we ascribe to them today.
Joanna: So this takes us back to what we talked about with Peter last week. That Jesus accepts us as we are and uses us as we are. Yet we are still called to a deeper transformation. A transformation away from a sense of self-importance and entitlement; a transformation toward a heart for servanthood. Maybe a transformation from asking for the best seats for ourselves to saving the best for others. A transformation from worrying about what we deserve to noticing what others need.
The path of Jesus is a path of ever deeper servanthood. May we walk that path faithfully. And may we walk it together with joy.