Pentecost 21, Year B

I. Theme –  The call to discipleship means service and sacrifice.

Robert Hord’s Chalice

"Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?" – Mark 10:38

The lectionary readings are here  or individually: 

Old Testament – Isaiah 53:4-12
Psalm – Psalm 91:9-16 Page 720, BCP
Epistle – Hebrews 5:1-10
Gospel – Mark 10:35-45  

Today’s readings confront us with the reality that the call to discipleship means service and sacrifice. In Isaiah, the “suffering servant” of Israel, though innocent, takes on the sin, sorrow, pain and oppression of God’s people. According to Hebrews, Jesus, the full embodiment of the “suffering servant,” identifies with humanity and offers himself as final high priest and ultimate sacrifice.

In the gospel, Jesus reverses our understanding of greatness: those who would lead must serve. One reason we are so disgusted by John and James may be that we recognize a shred of their ambition lurking within ourselves. We have probably all had the experience of launching a project with confident enthusiasm (and utter naivete). Whether it’s a food drive for the hungry, a new family budget or a vow to get shipshape organized, we plunge ahead with dreams of glory.

Like James and John, we gloss over any possible difficulties. Reality hits with a clunk. And then we appreciate the enormous difference between the apostles pre- and post-resurrection. When they rely on themselves, they are a sorry lot: self-seeking, argumentative, downright stupid. Yet Jesus can see beyond all that and can assure them of fellowship with himself. How? Perhaps he sees them as they would become, filled with the Spirit after Pentecost: transformed into courageous witnesses whose dreams of greatness had been replaced by the humble goal of serving the lord they love and others

II. Summary

Old Testament –   Isaiah 53:4-12

In a series of hymns to the new Jerusalem, we encounter the fourth of the Songs of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53:4-12. These are part of the Suffering Servant songs found in Second Isaiah, preparing for the return from exile. The Jews in exile understood these passages as being about Israel, the servant(s) of God who had suffered, but soon would be able to return home. Later Christians, in the generation after Jesus’ death and resurrection, found echoes of Jesus’ story in the songs of the Suffering Servant.

In the passage, the servant’s role as representative is made clear. What was ours (infirmities, diseases, transgressions, iniquities) was made his, though he was righteous. Disaster and affliction was thought to be evidence of God’s judgment on an individual’s wickedness.

Suddenly, however, there is the realization that the sufferings are not the result of the Servant’s life, but rather that we all are the cause. The Servant is wounded for us! The life and death of the servant was in God’s hands, and his experiences were a part of God’s plan. Ultimately the righteousness of the servant will be made clear.

This transference of qualities and consequences becomes a victorious understanding of God’s grace, and moves quickly into a place of grace and righteousness. The Servant stands, in the readings for this day, as a contrast to those disciples who would only have the honor (see the Gospel for today) and not the works of justice.

We need to remember, in light of Job, that not all the people had gone astray, had done something that deserved this kind of punishment—indeed, from the wisdom of God we learn through the prophets that God does not desire punishment and retribution, but rather restorative justice. God desires reconciliation, healing, restoration

Isaiah saw what was happening to the people of God, how they had suffered and had come to life again, so the early Christians saw the story of Jesus as a fulfillment of this greater story of God—that life comes out of death.

Psalm – Psalm 91:9-16 Page 720, BCP

This psalm is a wisdom psalm; that is, a psalm of torah, of instruction. It is a meditation upon God as the protector of the faithful from both human and demonic foes. Psalm 91:9-16 reminds us that through God’s faithfulness we will prevail. It is not a promise of help right when we need it, but a hope that when we remain faithful, God also will remain faithful, and that even our fears cannot overcome us.

Against this fear is set the belief in guardian angels (vv. 11-12), but the emphasis is on abiding in God, dwelling in God’s presence. God is a protective shelter (v. 1), a refreshing shadow (or shade, as from the scorching desert sun), a refuge and fortress from all destructive forces (v. 2), and a secure habitation (vv. 9-10). Those who so abide are securely protected from disaster (vv. 14-16).

Epistle – Hebrews 5:1-10

Hebrews 5:1-10 is a discourse continuing the discussion of Jesus serving as the high priest. The writer of Hebrews uses the traditions and rituals of priesthood that would have been understood by the Jewish listeners of his day to explain Jesus’ role with God. This may sound foreign to us, and it should, because many of us in the mainline traditions have done away with this understanding of the role of priests and ministers.

Priests came from the tribe of Levi in the Old Testament. The high priests were descendants of Aaron, who was appointed by God. On the Day of Atonement, the priest offered the prescribed sacrifices for the sins of the people. These sins were those easily fallen into due to our own ignorance or lack of balance. It was for the quotidian mishaps that these offerings were made.

Then the author makes a clear identification. Christ is such a priest, making offerings for the ordinary. Jesus came from the tribe of Judah, but as the quotation from Psalm 2:7 demonstrates (5:5), he was also chosen by God, not self-appointed. His priesthood transcends the Levitical priesthood because it is modeled on that of Melchizedek (Psalm 110:4), whom the author later demonstrates as being superior to Abraham (7:1-10) and thus to Abraham’s descendant Levi and the Levitical priests.

Jesus stands not only in the tradition, but also in the promises of the tradition – the forgiveness of sins freely offered. Jesus sacrifice is superior because he did not have to offer sacrifice for himself as well as for his people. His unique role as the final high priest was made clear through his suffering and his choice of obedience to God’s will. Entering completely into the human condition, Jesus is able to fully represent human need with perfect sympathy.

No longer is there anyone on earth who intercedes for us but it is Jesus who does so. Instead, we understand the role of the clergy as to be those who help equip all people for ministry, for there is nothing separating us from God. And there is no one interceding for us except Jesus—and it’s not because we need someone to protect us from God’s wrath, as has been interpreted in the past—but because God desired to make God’s self like us in the life and humanity of Christ. Rather than bringing us up to God, God brought God’s self down to us through Jesus the Christ.

Gospel – Mark 10:35-45  

The Gospel follows immediately upon Jesus’ third statement of the passion (10:32-34). Three times now, Jesus has told the disciples that he will suffer and die. In the first passion statement, Jesus had spoken to both the crowds and the disciples in the north of Galilee. In the second, he is further south in Galilee and speaking now only to the disciples. In the third, his focus narrows further and he speaks only to the Twelve. As the band moves further south, the instruction become more and more narrowly focused on the leadership core of the Jesus movement.

Today’s gospel reading consists of two parts: the story about who would be greatest in the kingdom and Jesus’ teaching about greatness and power.

The first part continues our passages about the disciples just not getting it. This time, it is James and John that want to be next to Jesus. They don’t desire to be like Christ, but next to Christ. After Jesus tells them that they don’t know what they are asking, and that it isn’t theirs to ask for, the other disciples become angry with James and John.

To be gracious to them we must include the possibility that they have misunderstood Jesus intentions in Matthew 19:28, “Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you that you who have followed me, in the new age, when the Son of Man is seated on his throne of glory, will yourselves sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”

Jesus’ answer to James and John draws upon the Old Testament image—”drinking the cup”—for participating in joy or woe, including the cup of the lord’s wrath (Psalm 75:8; Isaiah 51:17) and the baptism (‘washing, flood’) of calamity (Psalm 42:7; 69:1).

The symbol of the "cup" is mixed in the Old Testament. In some passages (Ps. 74:9, Is 51:17-22, Jer 32:1), "cup" refers to suffering. In others (Ps 22:5; 115:4), "cup" is a symbol of joy. The "cup" of Jesus is both–that is, the way of Jesus is both suffering and joy, but the reference here is primarily about suffering. It finally comes down to this reality – “It is not mine to grant.” The Messiah must suffer and die first.

"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." Jesus’ baptism is about "immersion" into the daunting and overwhelming realities of life. Jesus is already living the baptized life which is shown forth in a mission on behalf of the bereft that will lead to suffering and death.

Jesus uses the occasion to expand on his earlier teaching (9:35), in which he reverses the natural order of hierarchy and power. The Gentiles honored the rulers and “great ones.” Not only do these secular rulers "lord" it over others, they also "exercise excessive authority." Jesus reminds them that this is not the way they are to be, but rather they are to be last of all and servant of all. Looking out for the self first, however, expresses a worldview which contends against the "way" of Jesus.

Jesus doesn’t dispute the idea of greatness, but radically redefines it from heirarchical power to "servant power." Within the Church, however, the most humble slave was to be most highly regarded. Jesus’ own example sanctified the lowly and humble role of discipleship. Jesus, like the Suffering Servant (see the first reading) is the primary example by “giving his life (as) a ransom for many.” . A servant is not above his master! That Jesus ends up humiliated and suffering in the company of society’s dregs is, again paradoxically, the true path that leads to life.

In a series of paradoxes , Mark points out the strategy: great/servant, first/slave – these are the marks of the disciple who follows Jesus. Like him, the truly great person in the kingdom is the one who pours out his or her life in the service of others. In other words, those among you who serve the cause, further the movement, live the way, build the church, are "great.

In our “me first” world it is easy to fight our way to the top, to try to survive, to succeed, but God calls us to a different way. Jesus calls us to a life of serving, a life of meeting the needs of others before our own wants. It is not an easy life, but it is a life that is Christ-like, as Christ gave himself for us, so we ought to give ourselves for others and serve others.

Verse 45 refers explicitly to Isaiah 53:10-12. The “ransom” is literally a payment for the liberation of a slave or hostage. Jesus assumes all of the implications of the figure of the suffering servant in the Old Testament.

Mark does not explicitly reject "glory." Jesus had been seen in "glory" at the Transfiguration in chapter 9 (2-8). "Glory" has also been mentioned in 8:38, when Jesus will come in the eschatological parousia "in the glory of his Father." Mark is not against "glory" per se. He does insist, however, that there is no resurrection without cross, no exultation without suffering, no life without death.

III. Articles for this week in WorkingPreacher:

Old Testament –  Isaiah 53:4-12

Psalm  –  Psalm 91:9-16

Epistle  – Hebrews 5:1-10

Gospel  – Mark 10:35-45

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