18 October 2015

The story of Saint John the Evangelist
and drinking from the poisoned chalice

‘Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ (Mark 10: 38) … Saint John with the poisoned chalice, a statue on the Great Gate of Saint John’s College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 18 October 2015, the 20th Sunday after Trinity,

Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin,

9 a.m., The Said Eucharist.

Job 38: 1-7; Psalm 104: 1-10, 26, 37c; Hebrews 5: 1-10; Mark 10: 35-45.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

I know it is not traditional to have a sermon at this quiet, reflective celebration of the Eucharist on Sunday mornings here in Saint Bartholomew’s Church.

But I thought I would share one short story that has been going around my mind while I was reflecting on this morning’s Gospel story (Mark 10: 35-45) and working on my sermon for the Solemn Eucharist later this morning at 11 a.m.

For many years now I have taken a study break each year, staying in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. It is only three or four minutes’ walking distance from Saint John’s College and its Great Gate, which was completed almost 500 years ago in 1516.

The tower was built by William Swayne, the master mason who was also employed at King's College Chapel.

High above the heavy wooden gates and the carving of the coat of arms of the Foundress, Lady Margaret Beaufort, is a statue of Saint John the Evangelist, who gives his name to the college.

At Saint John’s feet is an eagle, the traditional symbol of Saint John. In his hands, he holds a poisoned chalice, with a snake emerging from it.

Tradition says that during the reign of the Emperor Domitian Saint John was once given a cup of poisoned wine. But he blessed the cup and the poison rose out of the cup in the form of a serpent. Saint John then drank the wine with no ill effect.

In our Gospel reading this morning (Mark 10: 35-45), the brothers James and John, the sons of Zebedee, ask to be seated at Christ’s right hand and his left hand.

But in reply, Christ challenges them: ‘Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ (Mark 10: 38-39).

What is that cup? What is that baptism?

We get a clear glimpse of the answer in our New Testament reading (Hebrews 5: 10).

Christ seeks not to be identified with the mighty and powerful, but with the powerless and the suffering. He cries with those who cry out loud with tears, and suffers with those who are suffering.

Saint James and Saint John are reminded this morning of the commitment that discipleship demands … to weep with those who weep, to serve those on the margins, to suffer with the suffering.

Who are these for you today, this day, this morning?

The story of Saint John and the poisoned chalice, illustrated on that Great Gate in Cambridge, may be pious myth, but it seeks to tell us that Saint John takes up the challenge to drink the cup that Christ drinks.

For there is another poison that can damage the Church today – we can fail to cry those who are suffering, we can fail to serve those who need to be served … and we can fail to love.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit.


Almighty God,
whose Holy Spirit equips your Church with a rich variety of gifts:
Grant us so to use them that, living the gospel of Christ
and eager to do your will,
we may share with the whole creation in the joys of eternal life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer

God our Father,
whose Son, the light unfailing,
has come from heaven to deliver the world
from the darkness of ignorance:
Let these holy mysteries open the eyes of our understanding
that we may know the way of life, and walk in it without stumbling;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This reflection was preached at the Said Eucharist in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin, on 18 October 2015.

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