Scriptures: Matthew 20:20-28; Matthew 18:1-5
I want to start by showing a short scene from a Star Wars movie—The Empire Strikes Back. In this scene Luke Skywalker has traveled to the planet Dagobah to find a Jedi master named Yoda, whom he hopes will train him to be a Jedi. He meets this little wrinkled figure but does not realize he is Yoda until this moment in the movie. Here is a short scene from The Empire Strikes Back: Go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NIgud62CjFI.
When Luke asks to become a Jedi, he has no idea what he is asking, no inkling of what that will mean for his life. And the same is true, I think, for the mother James and John in our scripture reading. She comes to Jesus and asks, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”
She does not know what she is asking. Do you remember who later in the gospel ends up next to Jesus, one at his right hand and one at his left? The thieves on the cross! I doubt that is what Mrs. Zebedee had in mind.
This irony is not lost on Jesus. He turns to James and John and says, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” He is referring, of course, to his coming death on the cross. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prays, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” When Jesus asks James and John, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink,” he means, “Are you ready to go with me to the cross?”
James and John are like Luke Skywalker. They say to Jesus, “We are able. We can do it! We’re not afraid!” At which point I picture Jesus saying, “You will be. You will be.”
And of course they were. When Jesus was arrested, all the disciples fled, including James and John.
There is a pattern in Matthew’s gospel. Every time Jesus talks about his death, the disciples are thinking about triumph and glory. We see this in the scripture I read three weeks ago from Matthew 16.
- Verse 21 says, “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering … and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
- But Peter is thinking of triumph and glory—verse 22: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’”
- So Jesus has to straighten him out—him and all the disciples—verse 24: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
For Jesus the path to the resurrection, the path to Easter, necessarily goes through the valley of service and sacrifice.
Jesus makes this point again in our first scripture reading from Matthew 18.
- Back in Matthew 17:22-23 Jesus says, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.”
- So what happens next? Matthew 18:1—“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “’Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’” In essence they are asking, “Who gets to sit at your right and left hand in your kingdom?” Who gets the top cabinet posts? Once again the disciples are thinking of triumph and glory.
- So Jesus again has to set them straight. He calls a child and says, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
For Jesus the path to Easter necessarily goes through the valley of service and sacrifice.
But the disciples still haven’t learned. So in Matthew 20 Jesus says to them,
- Verses 18-19: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.” Notice that each time Jesus speaks of his death, he gets more detailed and more explicit.
- But the disciples still don’t get it. The mother of James and John says to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”
- And once again Jesus must set them straight. Verses 26-27: “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave.”
The path to Easter necessarily goes through the valley of service and sacrifice. [Slide 5: Blank]
I wish I could say it is different than that. I wish I could promise that following Jesus would make all your problems go away, that following Jesus would fulfill all your hopes for your life, instead of throwing them into disarray. But that is not the story of the Bible. The Bible does promise resurrection. All three times when Jesus predicts his suffering he also promises his resurrection. We are promised that the life God wants for us will ultimately prevail. But this does not bypass the struggles we are likely to encounter along the way.
I mentioned once before in a sermon the book Come Be My Light, a collection of private letters written by Mother Teresa. Early in the book she writes a letter to her archbishop explaining why she wants to leave her convent, to work among the poor in the streets of Calcutta. She writes,
By nature I am sensitive, love beautiful and nice things, comfort and all the comfort can give—to be loved and love—I know that the life of a Missionary of Charity—will be minus all these. The complete poverty, the Indian life, the life of the poorest will mean a hard toil against my great self love. Yet, Your Grace, I am longing with a true, sincere heart to begin to lead this kind of life…. (p. 66).
She reminds me of Luke Skywalker telling Yoda he is not afraid, or of James and John telling Jesus, “Yes, we are able to drink your cup.”
And there is no doubt that Mother Teresa was made of tough stuff spiritually. She went to Calcutta and for decades did a remarkable work among the poor and ill on the streets, a work that spread to other cities across the globe.
But it was not without anguish. The anguish Mother Theresa experienced during her ministry among the poor of Calcutta was not what she had expected. It did not come from living in poverty or dealing every day with terminally ill patients. Instead she suffered a spiritual crisis, a deep and unexpected loss of Jesus’ presence in her life. Her anguish was palpable. Years later she confides to her archbishop,
There is so much contradiction in my soul.—Such deep longing for God—so deep that it is painful—a suffering continual—and yet not wanted by God—repulsed—empty—no faith—no love—no zeal. … Heaven means nothing—to me it looks like an empty place—the thought of it means nothing to me and yet this torturing longing for God.—Pray for me please that I keep smiling at Him in spite of everything (pp. 169-170).
I am confident that at the resurrection Mother Teresa will experience what she longed for: that God will be with her and wipe every tear from her eyes. I am confident that God’s work in our lives will triumph in the end. But, friends, if even Mother Teresa experienced anguish on her journey of following Jesus, I hardly think we should expect ourselves to be exempt.
Toward the end of the book is this letter written by Mother Teresa in 1961:
Yet deep down somewhere in my heart that longing for God keeps breaking through the darkness. When outside in the work [meaning her work of helping the poor] or meeting people [sharing faith in community with others] there is a presence of somebody living very close to me. I don’t know what this is, but very often, even every day, that love in me for God grows more real. (p. 211).
What helped Mother Teresa make it through her dark night of the soul? The fact that she kept going, that she kept serving Jesus in a community of Christians who prayed with her and for her, and that she kept praying herself, despite the times when she wondered if anyone was listening.
Following Jesus is not a promise that life will be easy; it is a promise that you will have help along the way, and that your life, like the life of Mother Teresa, like the lives of James and John, will in the end become a blessing in ways you may not have imagined.